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"Prepare the Way" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 16, 2018

posted Dec 24, 2018, 9:03 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Those of you connected with me on social media have seen a lot of pictures this fall of my baking.  I’ve always baked a lot, but this fall I started using Instagram to share photos and then post them on Facebook.  Just this week: an eggnog cake with white chocolate ganache and a hot red high heel shoe made from vanilla flavored candy and filled with a peppermint buttercream.

This fall, someone I didn’t know started to follow me on Instagram.  Flattered by the attention, I looked at his Instagram account: hoping for a fellow cook, maybe a chef even; no luck, a dentist.  So basically, he saw all these posts of surgery desserts and thought, “potential customer.”

Even worse, a company called “King Size” started sending me their catalogue of clothes, sizes up to 9XL.  I know I’m not petite, but King Size? I prefer to think of myself as Queen Size.

It doesn’t take much to set off a sense of self-judgment; and this can be particularly true in December, when it can feel like obligations press in and that everyone else lives a better version of life, and with the year drawing to a close, delayed goals turn resolutions into recriminations.

To make this sense of self-judgment worse, we hear in Advent John the Baptist’s cry, a doomsday voice warning, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  What a curmudgeon; people went out to see him in the desert and he just greeted them with “who warned you, you brood of vipers.” With John the embodiment of Advent, you’ll understand why no one says, “Merry Advent.”

And yet, I realize I need more of John’s message in my life.  Not because his is the new fad diet - forget Paleo, it’s honey and locust in the New Year.  But because the real message of John is one I need in my life: repentance.

In religious circles, we often get caught up in judgment and, because of that, John can sound like too many a pious person, judgmental.  But at heart, John didn’t judge. Instead, he called for repentance, for change. And that’s what I need in Advent - less judgment, more repentance.

We first heard John’s voice echoing the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

  make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

  and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

John looked back to a particular moment in the history of God’s people and saw the similarity to his own day.  Isaiah spoke to a people demoralized by war, to a nation defeated, and a people forced into exile. He heard God promise an end to the devastation.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah foretold the return of the exiles, the end of the oppression, the succor of the vulnerable.

The power of this prophetic metaphor may escape us in our age of superhighways and city streets laid out in simple grids and Google maps to guide us lest we get lost.  But Isaiah and John both lived in a time when travel took people through rough country without clear paths. The way back from Babylon to Jerusalem wasn’t clear: so Isaiah called for a path to be prepared.

John didn’t experience a physical exile; instead he felt like a refugee in his own country.  Luke emphasized this sense of estrangement by listing all the rulers of the land: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas.  These men, tyrants each in their own way, made John feel like a person out of place in his own country. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John said; because he wanted some way to come home from his existential exile.

And so, he called for a scouting expedition: find the way, make the road, clear the path, for the refugees in their own country.  This call still resonates today. What keeps us from coming home? What circuitous routes do we face? What tall mountains stand in our way?  Into what valleys might we stumble?

These are Advent questions; not of judgment but of change.  What keeps us from coming home? And how can we prepare the way so others can come home too?

John then turned to the practical work required to prepare the way.  When the crowds asked him what to do, he said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  For all John’s fiery language, his actual demands were shockingly modest, “share.” John cared most about how we treated other people.

He underscored this with the questions of the tax collectors and the soldiers.  “And we, what shall we do?” The “and we” comes across as imploringly tentative because tax collectors and soldiers colluded with the oppressive regime.  John could have denounced the tax collectors as mountains of corruption that must be brought low; he could have called the soldiers valleys of villainy to be paved over.  But John didn’t turn people into problems.  Instead, he called them to repent of their behavior.  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  In a broken world, in a society that made him a refugee in his own land, John sought to heal the relationships between people, to make right what was done wrong between people.

In Christianity, we’ve long focused on sin as a problem between a person and God, a spiritual crisis.  But John reflected a different kind of wisdom, an understanding of repentance more common among our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Rabbi David Blumenthal wrote about this distinction between Christians and Jews.  He noted that Jews don’t have a concept of confession to a religious authority - no priest who prescribes penances and pronounces absolutions.

Instead, Judaism embraces a number of actions an individual takes in the process of repentance; Teshuvah is the word in Hebrew.  Teshuvah: it literally means, “returning.” Rabbi Blumenthal names five “steps” for returning:

  • Recognition of what was done wrong

  • Remorse

  • Desisting from the action

  • Restitution if possible

  • and then, Confession directly to God.

Rabbis long before Blumenthal saw this journey of repentance as a continuous spiral, a continual process of recognition, remorse, change, restitution, and confession.  But the rabbis also made clear the central role of stopping the troublesome action. John knew this too: the rich must stop hoarding and start sharing; the tax collectors stop overcharging and act with equity; the soldiers stop exploiting and start protecting.

What would John call you to stop doing in your relationships?  What to start? How could you help people return home to each other?

Sometimes people do amazing work to prepare the way of the Lord; and no recent story amazed me more than the efforts of Daryl Davis to help heal people of the brokenness of racism.  Davis, an African-American musician, spent the last thirty years befriending people in the Ku Klux Klan; and through his friendship he brought 200 people out from under the sway of racist ideology; he cleared a path out from the wilderness of white supremacy.

It began with a chance meeting in a bar, after one of his sets.  A white man liked Davis’ style; and as they talked, the white man at first confessed to never having shared a beer with a black man; and then he confessed to belonging to the Klan.  This led them to a series of conversations over time until friendship with Davis led the man to leave behind the Klan.

And it started Davis on a journey of meeting Klansmen around the country.  I’ll quote him at length as he described what it meant to sit down at meals with white men who professed hatred of him.  He said:

“[Conversation] began to chip away at their ideology because when two enemies are talking, they're not fighting. It's when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn't have to be about race, it could be about anything...you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you're forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you're forming a friendship. That's what would happen. I didn't convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.

Davis did John the Baptist work, working for equity in a wilderness; the Advent work of preparing the way for repentance.  Davis made it possible for white people estranged by their racism to finally come home on a highway paved by friendship.

It may be hard for us to imagine doing work like Davis; but there are other ways to make a way.  A group of three musicians in Israel became concerned with the partisan and ethnic divides in their country.  They decided to try bringing people together to sing, at an event they call Koolulam. The name comes from a conjunction of the English word “cool” and the Hebrew word for all, “kulam.”

Thousands of strangers gather together at Koolulam events, where the organizers divide people into three groups: baritones, altos, and sopranos.  (I’m not sure what happens to the tenors.) Each group learns their part in a popular English or Hebrew song - just a 45 minute rehearsal - and then the mass choir sings it together.  Videographers and drones capture the singing; afterwards they post a music video of the concert.

People across the spectrum come out to participate - secular Israelis and the ultra-orthodox, even Christians and Muslims.  A recent concert brought together leaders of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities; people who didn’t know how to speak together learned to sing together.  On the last day of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, an interfaith crowd came together to learn and sing together Bob Marley’s “One Love.”

One love, one heart

Let's get together and feel all right

As it was in the beginning (one love)

So shall it be in the end (one heart)

That’s not a reality in Israel-Palestine right now, but singing helps prepare the way.

As one of Koolulam’s founders explained, “this event is a type of social prayer - we want people to pray for each other and with each other...the music is not the issue, but rather it’s the tool to bring inspiration to those who come into Koolulam as strangers and go out as a group with a new creation - a song.”

Davis and the founders of Koolulam each saw the brokenness in their society; they found a way out of no way, a path to clear between people, allowing people to return home to each other.  John the Baptist and this Season of Advent call us to this work of repentance: facing our divides and finding a way to clear a path. May you do this work in your life until

Every valley of despair shall be filled

And every mountain of pride and hill of fear be made low,

And those with crooked thoughts brought into line,

And our rough relationships be made smooth.

Alleluia and Amen.