Preparing the Way

Today is the first Sunday of advent, the beginning of the four-week period leading up to Christmas when we anticipate and prepare for light and love to be born into our world once again. Noticed or unnoticed, we—as living beings–live our lives in touch with light. We feel it, and grumble, when the days grow shorter; we enjoy it and celebrate when the days grow longer. Many cultures around the world have rituals that celebrate the return of the light; some practiced daily and others on special days at special times. I remember reading years ago about a daily ritual I particularly loved (I haven’t been able to find it since): as the sunlight spreads over the landscape, the people open their hands and face their palms to the sun, giving thanks to the light for sharing itself across yet another day.

It reminds me of a beautiful saying from the Persian poet Hafiz: “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”

Our advent reading this morning talked about the Light—how those living through a time of darkness long for the light to return. And we can relate: We know what a time of darkness can feel like in our lives—maybe a season of illness, a broken family relationship, unexpected grief, or uncomfortable changes that weren’t our choice. Any time we struggle, we yearn for peace and comfort, a sense that life will be okay again, that the darkness, whatever it is, will eventually give way to Light. And the good news—which is what the word “Gospel” actually means—is that the Light does come to each of us, faithfully, personally, comforting our hearts, speaking to our condition, and urging us forward.

Our Old Testament reading today, taken from Isaiah, was written about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Here the prophet Isaiah is sharing a hopeful message in a desperate time. The people had all but forgotten God; they’d strayed from the laws and commandments and lost the sense of their divine relationship. Corrupt kings had made unholy alliances with foreign nations, which impoverished the people and left those in need starving and unprotected. Into that time of darkness—when it must have seemed that no one and nothing could help them—Isaiah offers these words of hope:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 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; and 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.”

It is a promise of the coming of the light. Better days are ahead, Isaiah tells them. God’s justice, God’s glory is on its way, and all people shall see it together. This message not only cheered and encouraged the people of Isaiah’s time but was it understood and repeated by all four Gospels writers as the promise and hope of the coming Christ. The way was being prepared.

The setting for where this picks up in the New Testament is also a time of difficulty and despair. In the opening verses of Luke’s gospel, things sound dark and dangerous. Herod is king of Judea and he is a brutal ruler, greedy, aggressive, preoccupied with his own wealth and power at the expense of all else. He has no loyalties beyond his own ambition and in fact at one point had his own two sons—and then his wife and her mother and brother—killed when he suspected them of disloyalty. As you can imagine, peoples’ lives—especially the lives of common folk—didn’t matter much to Herod, and those outside his corrupt power circles must have felt insecure, vulnerable, and at risk. How could goodness and justice find a foothold in such a world? The people despaired.

But God has promised that the Light is coming, and we learn that God is continuing to prepare the way. Against this ominous backdrop, Luke introduces us to two hopeful characters: Zechariah, a good man and priest who has served faithfully in the temple, and his wife Elizabeth, a direct descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses and the first in the priestly tradition of the Jewish people. These two upright and faithful servants, Luke tells us, are “living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” But their one heartache is that after many years of marriage, Zechariah and Elizabeth have been unable to have a child.

And so on one ordinary day, Zechariah is chosen by lot, according to the custom of the time, to offer incense in the sanctuary. While he is in there, alone, the angel Gabriel appears to him and then gives Zechariah some earth-shaking news: His prayers have been heard and now will be answered. He and Elizabeth will have a son, who will be filled with the Holy Spirit and have the power of Elijah to turn hearts and prepare the way of the Lord.

Zechariah is understandably dumbfounded. Terrified, actually, for a moment. Then his first thought—the first thing he articulates–is how impossible this sounds. “How will I know that this is so?” he asks the angel. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Gabriel sounds a bit annoyed in response. He makes it clear that human limits don’t apply to him. “I am Gabriel,” he says. “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” He goes on to say that because Zechariah didn’t believe him, Zechariah will be unable to speak until the day that John is born. And just like that, Zechariah is mute, unable to tell anyone what he’s seen, what he knows, what is coming.

I’ve always felt sorry for Zechariah at this point because he is, after all, a good and faithful man and who among us wouldn’t have felt a bit flummoxed and likely to have said the wrong thing in that high-stakes moment? But I also wonder whether God had another reason for silencing Zechariah just then. Perhaps it was important that only good seeds—words of hope and promise, statements of belief and trust—be planted in this tender early stage.

If Zechariah’s speech hadn’t been muted, he might have gone home and shared his experience with Elizabeth, talking about how impossible it all was, wondering whether he was suffering from early stages of dementia, doubting the kind of parent he’d be. Was he too old? Had he inhaled too much incense? Perhaps his questioning would have had an influence on Elizabeth, who had been yearning for a child all her life. She might have begun worrying about what it would mean to have a child at her age. Would he be healthy? How would they care for him if not?

We each know where all these doubts can go—they can take on a life of their own. And depending on how far we follow them, they may result in two very different experiences for us: We’ll feel one way  when we remember God and view things in their best, most hopeful light; we’ll feel much different when we get flooded by fear and upset as we imagine the worst possible outcome to our predicament.

So I’m thinking it was probably a grace that Gabriel put Zechariah on mute as part of preparing the way for the light. John the Baptist needed to be born in just such a way, to these two, kind, devout people. John was an important part of this unfolding story, a Spirit-filled man, a wise prophet, a witness and a way maker for the Light of Christ, which was—wonder of wonders!—coming into the world.

The herald and promise of the arrival of the Light is something we Friends know intimately; the presence of the Light with us—Emmanuel–is a belief at the heart of our Quaker tradition. We often tell the story that the Religious Society of Friends was born when 23-year-old George Fox, dejected and hopeless and struggling through a time of great personal darkness gave up his efforts to find a wise person who could ease his distress. Fox wrote about it in his journal:

“And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

For the next several years after this life-changing experience, Fox traveled from town to town, preaching when he could at the close of Puritan services and sharing messages outdoors to increasingly large crowds. Fox’s messages urged those present to listen for the voice of Christ within, to be truthful in their dealings—with themselves, with others, and in business. He called for compassion and respect and humane treatment for all people, and he refused to set one person above or below another due to social class, education, or appointment. All ways of making God’s loving Light visible in daily life.

As Fox’s message took root, tens of thousands of people were moved by this sense of the living spirit of Christ with them, teaching them, leading them himself. This concept of the living Christ is connected to our idea of the Inner Light, the belief that in every human soul there is that of God, guiding, lifting, transforming, loving. We draw our concept of the Inner Light from the gospel of John, which interestingly takes us back to the story of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Christ.

In John 1, verses 5-9, we read:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

And that is what advent is all about. We are amazingly invited to be a part of God’s effort in preparing the way of the Lord, participants in God’s never-ending love story. It’s a universal work of grace bringing light wherever it’s needed, one heart, one life at a time.

And in that vein, I’d like to close with a hopeful story of something I experienced on Thanksgiving morning. I stopped at the grocery to pick up the last few things I needed for dinner, and while I was there, three different people spoke kindly to me. The first was a young bearded man in his 30s. When I said, “Excuse me” and reached in front of him to take something off the shelf, he looked at me, smiled, and asked, “Are you doing okay?” Another, younger man, as I walked past him in the aisle smiled and nodded and said, “Hey, happy Thanksgiving!” And a woman with a full cart apologized for blocking the aisle and tried to move out of the way. “Oh, I’m in no hurry,” I told her. “That’s the nice thing about holidays.” She smiled and said, “That’s right—it is what it is.”

I was touched by these interactions because to look at us, we were four very different people. We each were different ages; we had different skin tones, different experiences in life. Our ancestors probably all traveled here from different continents long ago, but on that morning, in that place, we all were drawn together in a holy moment of interaction.  And in those simple interactions, our common bond was the light of love, showing up as kindness, hospitality, and care. It’s like lifting our palms to the sun, grateful for another day, or recognizing “that of God” in the person next to you. In this time when we hear so much about division and fear and distrust, these four strangers in a store on a holiday morning chose peace and connection. That’s what it looks like to prepare the way, Friends.

We can take heart from that and add it as a gratitude in our daily prayers, knowing the Light is alive and well—and on the move this Christmas.

Amen.

 

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