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Homily: "Prepare the Way of the Lord"

Homily preached at Christ Church, La Plata & Wayside (in Newburg, MD) on December 10, 2017
Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark1:1-8

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mark begins his gospel in an artless, matter-of-fact sort of way. It’s as if he has something to get off his chest and he doesn’t have time for pleasantries. No long-winded genealogies. No pregnant virgins. No babies born in barns. Nothing. Just “boom!” we’re in the middle of an on-going story.

Right out of the gate jumps John the Baptist. Part wild man, part TV preacher. Don’t get too close -- he can smell your fear.

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” he roars. His camel-hair shirt battered by the wind and his beard dusty from a lifetime spent spitting out sand in the desert. He speaks with an authority that isn’t his own. His breath is aflame with words that burn. “Repent! For the kingdom of God has come near!”

People had to travel far to hear these words. They had to walk for days through the desert just to get to him. The Jordan River wasn’t exactly on a main street with good traffic flow. I guess John missed the book on how to amass a crowd: near a McDonalds, on a corner, with a stop sign in front.

Not that John needed a plan. The people kept coming. Their ears were hungry for a true word from God. Not the faith of the temple that came filtered through the official Roman creed of loyalty to Caesar first and only.

No, they were looking for meat on those bones; something with substance. People put up with the blisters and they stubbed their feet on the rocks because they craved God’s presence in their lives - to give them the freedom they dreamt of each night. And John – he didn’t disappoint.

The Baptizer even looked the part. His clothes were ragged, and his voice was hoarse. He ate only what he could find out there in the desert and a not drop of wine ever touched his lips. Only water for this prophet.

His words were so sharp and so true that they cut deep wounds in people’s self-delusions. He spoke truth to power.

John had no loyalty to anyone other than God and had no trade other than proclaiming God’s message. John lived the freedom that people craved.

And the people came. Crowds flocked to hear this strange man shouting hard words of repentance. People who had been kicked out of the temple for failing. Failing at religion. Failing in their work. Failing at life.

A lot of these folks weren’t part of what you would call the comfortable middle-class. And to be honest, if you saw one of them walking toward you downtown, you’d probably cross the street and walk on the other side.

But even if you tried to avoid this odd man, you couldn’t escape his voice. Even when you’re in the city doing nothing but minding your own business, you might hear his echoing voice booming from the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the Lord’s path straight.”

“Where have I heard that before?” you might ask yourself. Then you remember your bible study, “O yeah, John’s quoting the prophet Isaiah. Must be some crazy bible-thumper.”

But something catches your attention. Like a car wreck, you can’t turn your eyes away from him. You want to know what is it about this guy that, so many people traveled so far to hear him.

It’s when you push your way through the crowds that you know why so many have beaten you here: this guy knows us. I mean he REALLY knows us. He hasn’t met us before and doesn’t know our name, but he has us all figured out.

He knows what hides in the secret chambers of our hearts. He knows what we do when nobody’s looking.

He knows our shame and he knows our pain. He knows all that stuff we’d rather keep quiet and hidden. He can see it in our eyes. He can see in the way we keep staring at the ground while he’s preaching. He can see it in the way we walk. With our phony self-assured strut or with our hunched back, stooped from being beaten down by the world. John knows the secrets that we each harbor.

He knows our failings. He knows our broken places. He knows those moments of weakness that, if they ever came to light, our life would end.

He knows about our diseases. Our trouble with money. The feeling that life is passing us by.

He knows about the grief that tearing our hearts into rags.

He knows how our parents struggled with alcohol, and the verbal and physical abuse that came from it, and now we’re afraid that we could do the same to our kids.

John knows how we just can’t let go of a lifetime of resentment.
He knows that some days we feel so lost and purposeless that we wonder if life is worth living at all.

Yes. The Baptizer knows ALL of this. That’s why he’s so loved and so feared. But when he looks at us and excavates the buried hurts that lie in deepest alcoves of our souls, his eyes soften, and he pleads with us, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.”

But, instead of scolding us for our moral failings, or telling us to stop blaming others for our troubles, he leads us to the shore of the Jordan River and reminds us that when the people of God were liberated from their slavery in Egypt, they crossed the Jordan which led to the Promised Land.

Then, looking so deeply into our eyes that we’re afraid we’ll melt, he opens his arms and says, “Enter the water of freedom. Be cleansed. Your God is giving you a fresh start. It’s time for you to start over. It’s time for you to begin again.”

The Baptist was giving out second chances. That’s the gift we are given every day when we remember the gift of our own baptism. The gift of starting over. The gift of a new beginning. As we prepare the way of the Lord.
May this be so among us.