s093^96 Somerton Park + Advent 2 Year B 8/12/96
"Prepare the way of the Lord ..." Mark 1.3
"Prepare" is the great theme of Advent, as it is the essence of nearly everyone's preoccupation at this time. Everyone is preparing for Christmass. Getting the cards ready, buying the presents, making sure that the larder is full. "Preparation" is something we all understand. We used to have a poster in our kitchen which said "Preparation is half the fun of cooking". "Being Prepared" is the motto of the whole scouting movement.
The Advent preparation we are given is in terms of a road. We pick up in the gospel reading that the path is to be made straight. Had the Old Testament quotation carried on, the picture is extended to include that the valleys were to be filled in, the hills laid low, and even uneven ground become level and the rough places a plain. In the journey, one doesn't have to have one's eyes fixed on the ground, lest one stubs one's toe - one can look ahead confidently at the direction on is taking.
God is the great earth mover and all this is His/Her work.
What are these valleys, what are these hills that need fixing?
If one reads any Christian literature with any regularity, one soon finds the most used word is "challenge". So and so gave a "challenging" address. Indeed I myself was just this last week accused of doing precisely this. We often rise to challenges. People climb mountains only because they are there. The challenges posed by computer games have enormous fascination for young people. Computer hackers spend inordinate amounts of time, in reality not to deceive but to conquer. Musicians practice, responding to the challenge of a particular piece of music. Those who play sport respond to the challenge of playing against a supposedly superior side. All this is good, and of course the things we value are the things where we have contributed to the success of the thing. While we might often yearn to win a major prize in a lottery, in the end, the things we value are the things where we have had to work at to achieve.
But our relationship with God is on quite a different scale. There is no challenge to find it. Certainly, as with any other relationship, our relationship with God needs attention. Communication like prayer and communion like sexual expression - ought to come naturally. There is no obstacle to overcome. We don't have to pass a course to be accepted. We don't have to become gullible enough. God loves us as we are. So throwing around challenges for others to believe before acceptance into some sort of fellowship is no part of the gospel proclamation. In the technical jargon of the evangelist, it is called pre-evangelism.
One can, of course, quote passages of scripture to justify "challenging" others. The classic text is the words of Jesus to the rich young man: "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and ... come follow me". Mark 10.21 I find it interesting that various commentators in the Church have identified the other (?) young man that Mark alone mentions - the one who fled away naked when Jesus was arrested - as Mark himself. (e.g. A M Hunter Torch Bible Commentary p 135) Yet to my knowledge no one has expressed the possibility that the rich young man could have also been Mark - for it is he alone that notices that Jesus - "looking on him, loved him". The Church has I suspect been comfortable to challenge without that look of love and to be content to console herself that others are still not able to rise to the challenge of what God wants. Even, we suppose, Jesus found that. But if it was indeed Mark, who "went away sorrowful" clearly he came back, and was the first to write a gospel account of Jesus life. Perhaps he realised Jesus wanted him for who he was as a person, and not for all the money he could contribute to Jesus' cause. If it was Mark, then we as the Church need to reassess our challenging of others.
If we are in fact saying that God has demands which people must meet before they are acceptable, it makes a nonsense of justification by faith alone, and makes Jesus sitting down and eating with sinners totally inexplicable.
There is also the ever present plethora of courses of an educational nature available. These range from Cursillo, bible studies, to full-blown almost full time courses for lay people. All this is fine and dandy for those who have the time and the inclination. But one leaves those courses simply the child of God one was when one started the course.
I have already hinted at one of the possible valleys that God fills in. This is the god of the gullible. This is the opposite of the challenge, and here we suspend our intellect because we think God prefers children to adults. But more serious is the personality altering exercises of some sects, where a persons personality is gradually replaced by the personality of the leader or a corporate personality of the group. Subtle and not so subtle brainwashing goes on today, and has no part in the legitimate proclamation of the gospel.
In fact, of course, the Advent proclamation of "being prepared" is the whole of the Churches task of being the prepared ground, broken up, cleared of stones and weeds, ready for the people God sends to us.
So not only are the valleys to be filled in and the hills made level, but the path is made straight and cleared of stones.
One of the great evangelical themes of the reformation was that every man stood before God without the need for any mediator other than Christ. Priests were seen as getting in the way of the ordinary man and woman coming to God. In this view, Christ was the archetypal antiestablishment figure. Perhaps God's task of getting rid of the clergy has not yet been completed. Again the classic incident which might be drawn to justify this is the (so called) cleansing of the Temple. Now while it is certain that the sellers of pigeons and the money changers had the approval of the Temple authorities, the persons themselves were certainly not priests. Lay people, just as much as clergy can get in other people's way of coming to God, and often they try to inveigle the authority of the priest, the Bible or tradition to justify their actions.
In the gospel reading we hear that: "people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to" John the Baptist. There is no shortage of people responding to the good news of God's love. Indeed Jesus, in that strangest of sayings, says: "the violent take it by force" (Matthew 11.12)
Being Prepared is in fact good news. It is the same message that the parable of the five wise and the five foolish maidens. We don't have to be great evangelists, great pastors, or great expounders of the bible. We simply have to get out of the way of others on their pathway to God. Others do not have to climb the same mountains as us, nor do they have to be clones of our own way of thinking. We are called to nurture the souls that God brings into the fellowship of the church, by letting them be and allowing them to grow into the unique person God has made them in the beginning.
Advent is the birthday of the Church so the message of Advent is the message for the Church. The Advent message tells us what we as the church don't need to do. We don't need to make great rules and regulations about who may or who may not be part of our communion and fellowship. Rules that seem like hills to climb, or emptying themselves like a valley to be filled in with acceptable beliefs, morals or points of view.
The Advent message and the Churches message is that God is in fact still working. It is God who feeds "his flock like a shepherd" - God who gathers "the lambs in his arms", God who carries "them in his bosom", and God who gently leads "the mother sheep".
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