Preparing the Way
For those following the Revised Common Lectionary for worship or Bible studies, this week, the Gospel reading from Matthew focuses on the story of John the Baptist’s ministry. I have always found John the Baptist a compelling Biblical character. Although told in different ways, every Gospel features his story. However, Matthew’s narrative of how John the Baptist’s message and ministry “prepares the way” for the coming of Jesus is why John shows up in the lectionary and our liturgies for this second Sunday of Advent.
Reflecting on his wilderness ministry, it occurred to me, for the first time, that the context of wilderness ministry is in the wide-open spaces after liberation. Consider the wilderness experience of the Israelites. The Israelites’ wilderness wanderings come AFTER their freedom from oppression in Egypt. When I was younger, I found it odd that shortly after the parting of the Red Sea in which people escape a life of enslavement, they quickly turn to complain about their present reality in the wide-open space of liberation. The songs of deliverance, visions of what could be, and expressions of gratitude for God’s provision and providence disappear. The bright flames of joy turn into smoldering embers of sorrow and regret.
When their minds and hearts were set on liberation, their imaginations, conversations, and spirits were focused on the future. Yet, when their minds and hearts focused on the uncertainty of not knowing what would come AFTER their freedom, their imaginations, conversations, and spirits were turned back to the past. I call this the “not yet” space. In this “not yet” place, the people complained about how they were “better off” before because at least they knew things such as where their next meal would come from, completely dismissing the fact that each day in this new wide-open space, God was providing daily manna.
Yet are we so different? Our celebrations are often followed by wilderness whining. Think about what often occurs after exciting life events. After the wedding ceremony, a couple often complains that married life is difficult. After getting a new job or a promotion, a person often complains that the work is unfulfilling. After the birth of a child, parents often complain that parenthood is exhausting. After purchasing a new car or home, people often complain that the upkeep is costly.
In the church, we see it all the time. After a new pastor is called and installed, a congregation often complains that the pastor does not live up to their expectations. After a new pastor takes a new call, the pastor often complains that the ministry is not what they imagined.
Right now, in the church, after years of pandemic disruption, we are in the wide-open space of freedom to discover what God will do next; we are like the Israelites, often stuck in the wilderness whining about how we were better off before.
We are experiencing a great “not yet” moment in the Church. In many ways, the pandemic has torn apart many things that will never be again. And there is some freedom in this if we can receive and accept it. Out of necessity, we become resourceful and creative, with our hearts and minds set on a time when we would not have to live in fear for the health and safety of our worshiping communities. But after we experienced the freedom to gather again, we complained that our gathered life did not look and feel like we thought it should.
Amid our angst, on this second Sunday of Advent, the voice of the one who knows about wilderness experience cries out to us, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And John the Baptist makes it clear that he has no time, and God has no time for our wilderness whining.
For the people of God have work to do. If we want to see how the power of God can transform our lives and our world, we must be about the work of clearing the way for Christ to come. How? We must repent. We must be willing to confess what is getting in the way of living in complete alignment with Jesus Christ. Is it our fear? Lack of imagination? Unwillingness to give up control? Or simple impatience?
In Advent, we are called to remember that in the “not yet” moments, when we cannot yet see how the future will unfold, when we must be willing to acknowledge our fears, lack of imagination, need for control, and impatience, we must trust and believe that God is not finished with us yet. We must respond to the call to “prepare the way of the Lord” by looking ahead, not backward, and committing ourselves to the work, message, and ministry of Jesus Christ every step of the way.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister