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The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr. The Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr.
The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., is rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, TX.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

St. Martin's Episcopal Church - Houston, TX


Making Straight the Way

Mark 1:1-8

2nd Sunday in Advent - Year B

December 04, 2011

Many years ago, when my sister was a youngster, my grandmother came to tuck her into bed one night.  Before bed, it was the custom of my grandmother, to invite all nearby children to their knees for an extended and exhaustive time of prayer.  And so, on this particular night, my grandmother, asked sister to pray with her, but my sis said, "You go first."

She did.  She prayed for family, friends, the world situation, the day gone by, the night ahead, the day ahead...and the prayers went on and on for a while.  When she finished, she looked down and said, "Your turn."  My sister, with her head bowed and hands clasped in great sincerity said, "That goes for me too God.  Amen!" 

Today, as we step into this second Sunday of Advent, we are invited even more to prepare our hearts and minds for yet another Christ-mas, another coming of the Christ-child.  And I have rarely met anyone who does not in some way want to be in on the expectant, hopeful feeling of this season.  All around us, in the coming weeks, and certainly when Christians gather to worship and pray, people will be given the opportunity to say, "That goes for me too God, Amen."  This is the business of preparation, or as our Gospel lesson puts it, it is a time of "Making Straight the Way."   A time of great preparation.

We are a nation of "preparers."  We spend years in school, perhaps college and even some of us, graduate school, preparing for our future.  We court months before proposals and then after proposals, months of preparation before the wedding.  As we step into our adult lives, whether we are single or building a family, we scrimp and save for our vacation, our dream homes, and our future college educations.

Today's Gospel lesson reveals the work of the ultimate preparer. John the Baptist, whose ministry, some scholars tell us, lasted only about three months.  Comes to us and tells us to repent. But for thirty years, John's life had been leading up to this short period of ninety days during which he would build a path for the Messiah.

The Scripture tells us that the chief way John did this was to call on his hearers to "repent."  He modeled that in his own life by saying he was not even worthy to carry the sandals of the One Who was to come.[1]  John knew, despite some rather incredible popularity in his own right, that for God to work in his life and to continue His work on earth, the Baptizer had to step aside and allow Christ to begin for another preparation, the preparation for His kingdom.

If we are really to be part of the Advent season, I think we have to turn to John as a model. How do we "make straight the way" for the return of our Lord?  Certainly there are many things, but let me briefly point to two.

The first is that we must utterly and wholeheartedly offer our lives to God in Christ.  John the Baptist said that he must decrease so that Christ might increase.  We are to do the same.  We are consciously to offer ourselves to a deepening commitment and relationship to Jesus if we are to truly be children of the Light named Christ.

Phillip Keller, a writer and shepherd, who compares life's drama to the life of a sheep, says that some of us really find it hard to follow the Shepherd named Jesus. He writes, "We don't want to be led in the paths of righteousness.  Somehow, it goes against our grain.  We actually prefer to turn our own way even though it may take us straight into trouble."  John's call to repent echoes down through the ages to us today.

Now, the call to repent is simply the invitation to change the directions of our lives that may run contrary to the path to Christ.  It is making straight the way through confession and contrition, so that we can be closer to God.  It doesn't always mean a 180 degree turn, it may be a small re-direction onto the right path.  At the same time it may indeed call us to radically change the entire direction of our lives.  What repentance does mean, is that we are willing to admit our mistakes, offer them over to God, accept the consequences of our actions and leave behind those persons or things destructive to our relationship with God. 

True repentance, our lesson seems to say, is about throwing our spiritual caution to the wind, and putting all of ourselves in God's hands.  The late Corrie Ten Boom, that great evangelist from the Netherlands who spent years in the Ravensbruk Concentration Camp under Hitler's reign, once wrote a simple line that pushes us into the place God calls us to be. She wrote, "Put yourself, your ability, your money at God's disposal.  He can do much more with it that you can."

So this, the turning from self to God, repenting from sin to goodness, this is the first task of making straight the way.  It is an internal, personal decision.  But the second task is more external, it turns from self to those around us.

As John set his life on a path of making straight the way for others, we are called to do the same.  Jesus tells us time and time again, that the greatest of all commandments...of all laws, is the law of love  - the law of concern for those around us.  We, you and I, have an obligation to all those around us to take the skills and resources we have and make straight the path for others to reach the Kingdom, by pointing the way - as did John - to Jesus.

That is why it is crucial that each of us give of ourselves beyond the simply Church attendance week after week.  Not just by our actions, for that is merely humanism.  Not just by our prayers and words, for that can dwindle into hypocrisy.  We are called to - in all things - word and deed, prayer and action, by what we say and do, share the Christ story and thereby draw others into our journey to the end of the path.

The Anglican Scholar, John Stott, who died just this past July, wrote, "The Christian life is a family affair in which the children enjoy fellowship with each other, but let it not for one moment be thought that it exhausts the Christian's responsibilities...The Christian Church has a noble record of philanthropic work for the poor and hungry, the sick, the victims of oppression and discrimination, slaves, prisoners, orphans, refugees, and drop-outs. 

"...We must also evangelize which means literally to spread the good news of Jesus Christ...Although every Christian is not called to be a minister or a missionary," (Stott writes) "God does intend every Christian to be a witness to Jesus Christ.  In his home, among his friends, in his college or his place of business, it is his solemn responsibility to live a consistent, loving, humble, honest, Christ-like life, and to seek to win other people for Christ."[2]

John the Baptist calls us to be beside one another - building paths for each other and all the while, allowing Christ to increase.  Our repentance, our prayer, our study of the Scriptures, our participation in the sacraments, the use of our gifts in our service and evangelism - all of these are vital to the preparation of the coming of God's kingdom.

C.D. Meigs writes this little poem to prick us to a life of self-sacrifice;

            Lord, help me to live from day to day

            In such a self-forgetful way

            That even when I kneel to pray

            May prayers shall be for others

 

            Others, Lord; yes others

            Let this my motto be

            Let me live for others

            That I may live like Thee.

 

So, here we have it.  At least one way of preparing for Christmas is this two-fold call of John - first to repent and turn to the Lord Christ with all that we are, and second, to begin a life of living that reflects our love for others.  In the end, the call seems to say our lives were not created to be our own.  They were created as a glorious celebration to be shared with our parents, children, intimate friends, spouses, and our Lord.  John the Baptist spent his entire life preparing for the coming of Another, and we are called to do the same.

One afternoon, the writer William Boggs and his family learned a valuable lesson about life.  He was driving on a hot Carolina afternoon when he passed an orchard of "U-Pick" peaches.  He writes, "I doubt any bargain would be sufficiently attractive enough to lure me out of my air-conditioned car into a steamy afternoon to pick fruit, but we pulled over, paid our money and selected a bushel basket to fill with fresh, ripe South Carolina peaches."

"As we set off into the orchard," he writes, "an old fellow, as wrinkled as a peach pit who was tending the place said, 'If you want the best fruit, go deeper into the orchard; the peaces on the fringes are picked over, but deeper in, you'll find the best fruit.'  So, we walked a way and figured we had gone far enough. We set the basket down, but the old man hollered, 'Go deeper.'

"So, we picked up the basket and went a little farther and then when we started to pick, the man said again, 'No, go even deeper...the best fruit's farther in.' Once more, Boggs and his family picked up their basket and walked a little further, thinking they were surely deep enough and as they finally felt like they had gone as far as they could, the old man hollered once more, 'Go on.  Go deeper.'"  And then he writes, "And so we did, right into the midst of the orchard, and we found the old man was right -- the finest, plumpest peaches were untouched and waiting for us."[3]

You know, Advent invites us to look at our lives and ask "Have I gone deep enough?  Or Am I only skimming the surface?" John the Baptist is whispering to us from the pages of Holy Scripture...."Go on!  Go deeper!"  Don't settle for second best, if you want "in on" the Christmas story, go deeper, deeper still. 

C. S. Lewis points us toward that straight path with these words, "If we let God, for we can prevent Him if we choose - [but if we let Him], He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly His own boundless power and delight and goodness.  The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.  He meant what He said."[4]

As Advent continues, I invite you to go deeper.  Let us join John the Baptist in preparing for our Lord's coming.  Let us turn from those things, those paths that are not of God, open our hearts and our souls and say with all that we are, "That goes for me too God," and let us give our lives to gently loving others so that they may do the same. 

Let us pray:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 


[1] V. 11.

[2] John Stott, Basic Christianity, p. 140.

[3] William Boggs, Sin Boldly:  But Trust God more Boldly Still (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1990), 101-102.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 206.

 


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