Listen to the sermon from Sunday, December 4, 2016 titled “Clear the Way” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Ever find your life a bit too cluttered? This messy picture is not my office, by the way. But not far from it. I’ll admit I’m something of a hoarder. I don’t like throwing anything away. I have an internal order but my external world is more of a mess. So sometimes my internal world looks like this, too. How about you?
Eleanor Brownn notes, “Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships, and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” Internal or external, you can’t hide your mess. Everybody can see it. Internal or external, the time comes to clean up the clutter. Spiritually speaking, Advent is that time.
That’s why we return to John the Baptist today to hear his call to “prepare the way of the Lord.” To be sure, JB was one strange ranger. When his camel died, he made it into a coat and belt, so he’s the patron saint of tailors. He ate honey-dipped locusts three squares a day so he ought to be the patron saint of beekeepers and exterminators, too, don’t you think? But we don’t visit Johnnie B during Advent for diet advice or fashion tips. It’s his message that matters.
Matthew tells us crowds flocked to John at he Jordan from Jerusalem and Judea. Pharisees and Sadducees, soldiers and tax collectors, all kinds of people. What attracted them to this wild weirdo?
They must have been missing something the Temple and the tradition lacked, a connection with the Ultimate forever promised but no longer found in their historic institutions. Their spiritual hunger for something more, something better drove them to make a dangerous trek way out through the wilderness to the place where John was preaching. But notice this: their spiritual journey was no picnic. And it wasn’t just some head trip.
Later, they identified John with the mysterious “voice” in Isaiah 40 announcing a new exodus for God’s people:
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Isa 40:3-5).
Odd John was the forerunner sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah.
We do a lot to prepare for the celebration of Christmas this time of year. We decorate our homes and towns and malls and churches. We prepare feasts and parties and special events. We make plans to travel or prepare to receive company for Christmas. But all this extra effort has a way of adding to the clutter in our lives, not to mention the stress, anxiety, depression, and dysfunction in relationships attendant to the season. So even Christmas has a way of obscuring the spiritual clarity to which John calls us.
Think of John as Dicken’s “ghost of Christmas past” who cuts through the clutter to remind you what matters most. Don’t let the chronic busyness and manifold distractions keep you from clearing the way to get grounded in God. What does odd John advise?
He was nicknamed “the baptizer” because he adapted a ritual used by the Essenes to symbolize starting over with a clean slate. He immersed seekers in the River Jordan to mark a fresh start. Baptism is the beginning point of our journey with Christ. It is a symbolic death and resurrection: death to a dead end way we were walking before, resurrection to a new life centered in Christ’s way.
There is no better way to prepare for Christmas than letting Christ be born in your life through baptism. But it is also a time to remember your baptism, the promises you received, the promises you made. Think of it as clearing the clutter by remembering who and whose you are, re-centering your life in that primary identity to reset your priorities. Advent is a time to get back to the basics in simple faith.
We have a way of complicating life after our baptism with multiple loyalties and misplaced idolatries. Clearing the way for Christ means letting go of those things that block you from good spiritual practice. The Bible calls those “sin,” which is not just wrong moral choice, but that inner clutter of grudges, judgments, bitterness, and bad habits that get in the way of your connection with God.
Sometimes you just need to pause and tweak your routine, remove a few small obstacles to make sure you maintain the right course. But now and then, the obstacles are too great; you need to change course entirely and start over.
That’s why John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, one of the Hebrew prophets’ favorite words which means “to turn” as in turn around, turn in a new direction, return to the right path. I think of step 4 in AA’s famous 12 step formula: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” God knows, our moral inventories are rarely searching or fearless, but far more likely to consist of easy excuses and convoluted self-justifications.
We have a hard time working honestly on our own stuff. We are hard on others and easy on ourselves, but true repentance takes the ego strength to be honest and the courage to change. Richard Rohr says, “Most people don’t see things as they are because they see things as they are,” meaning we have trouble getting past our self-centeredness to see the truth, even about ourselves. Clearing the spiritual clutter takes intentional work on yourself, with God’s help.
And the help of others. While clearing the clutter to prepare Christ’s way is intensely personal, it is not merely personal. A popular country song says:
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.
Well, that perfectly expresses American narcissistic spirituality. It’s a lot more “Me” than “Jesus,” but it’s not the gospel. In the Bible, spirituality is always about relationship and community. Our spiritual habits are always affected by and affecting the people closest to us. Think of them as your “transition team.” Think of them as your church.
John called the people to a new kind of community. It’s not about “Me and Jesus,” but about Jesus and us creating a place where the grace of God welcomes all, where, as the book of Hebrews puts it “(we) consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25).
The community we create to prepare the way of the Lord is not just a spiritual self-help program, but a place to complete Christ’s mission helping others towards spiritual healing and calling the nation to God’s inclusive justice. But we can’t be a safe place of God’s grace to those oppressed of late by hate until we clear the clutter of enmity within and among ourselves. As the song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with…” – who? (“Me!”) Who? (“Me!”) Who? (“Me!”) That’s right!
Clearing the way for Christ, then, is about letting go of those things that hold you back from loving connection with God and others. It’s about letting go of what you greedily grasp so you can receive what God wants to give you. It’s about opening your heart to give yourself to others in love. It’s about removing the obstacles that prevent peace between you and anybody else. What is it time for you to let go of? What is it time for you to take hold of? The rest is just clutter. Get rid of it! That’s the soul work of Advent.
When you clear the clutter and clear the way for Christ in your life, you find the inner peace Christ promises, “the peace that passes understanding,” and you make peace in your relationships, making way for God’s peace in the world.
Beloved, the crazy-busy season is upon us. Don’t let the distractions overwhelm an already cluttered life. Go to the heart of your relationship with God and get that right. The rest will take its place. You will meet God sooner than you think. The day of the Lord is near for all of us who are hungry for God’s peace. So let’s get ready. Let’s clear the way for Christ. Amen? May we pray?
Dona nobis pacem. God, give us peace. In this holy season, lead us in our soul work, each alone and all together. Free us from the busy clutter to find you in our center and then lead us to find peace in you and make peace with one another, in the name of the Prince of Peace who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.