A Sermon Presented to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
In late October, right before Halloween, I took Annie, my two-year old, to a home improvement store to look for pumpkins. There were just a few outside, so we wandered inside in search for a few more from which to pick our perfect pumpkin. As soon as we walked in, Annie let out a shriek—“Santa!” I inwardly, well, maybe outwardly groaned, “Santa, already? We’re looking for pumpkins and Santa is already stocked on the shelves?”
I continued an internal dialogue of statements about the merchandising of Christmas and how we miss the spirit of Christmas because of our focus on material goods. You probably know the dialogue of which I’m speaking; you’ve probably had the same conversation.
It’s hard to get into the Christmas spirit when you’ve got pumpkins, ghosts, and witches on the brain. It’s hard to think about chestnuts roasting on an open fire when you haven’t even tasted Thanksgiving turkey yet.
As we strolled through the aisles at the store, she kept identifying, in loud excitement, all of the Santas and Frosty-s and reindeer that enthusiastically smiled down at her from their places on the shelves. It became harder and harder to keep a smile from appearing on my face. The glee that was bubbling inside her was causing her little body to bounce up and down in the shopping cart.
We turned down another aisle of larger-than-life inflatables. There were so many that one might wonder if the Thanksgiving Day Parade were coming to a neighborhood close to home. As we turned the corner, Annie reached high with her pointer finger and squealed: “Santa! Elmo! Baby Jesus!” My eyes looked up. Sure enough, between a Santa who wore swimming trunks and held a surf board, and Elmo, who was donning a red and green Christmas scarf, was a nativity scene, well-lit, of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.
It was an odd moment for me. I was happy that Annie recognized baby Jesus, along with Santa and Elmo. But too, I felt a pang of disappointment that baby Jesus was considered to be of the same caliber of lawn art as any other tacky seasonal representation.
This morning, we’ve read several verses from Scripture that talk about preparing. The verses from Malachi and the first chapter of Luke talk about the Son of God preparing creation for the Lord, but in Luke’s third chapter, John the Baptist tells creation to prepare for the coming of the Son of God. It is in this season of preparation that our faith takes on a little bit of a different feel—it is tuned from “faith of things that are” to “faith of things to come.”
Let’s read a few of the verses again, from Luke chapter 3, beginning in verse 2:
…the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
When I’ve read these verses in Luke in the past, I’ve always pictured a scene where a forest sits next to an open valley—there is a clear line defining the two from each other—and John is sitting in the woods amidst the trees, calling out to people in the open valley, telling them to make their paths straight.
But now that I’m older and wiser, I’m not so sure that there is an open valley. The verse, directly from Isaiah, gives some insight: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” The image is now this: we are all in the wilderness together, with John, just like the Hebrew people and Moses after their escape from Egypt. We are in the midst of a wilderness where there are no paths and no sight of open valleys.
The verses tell us to prepare for the Messiah. On this Sunday, however, we are not told how to prepare. We are told to make paths straight for the Lord, but we are not told how to make those paths straight.
This week, we are in the wilderness, without directions on how to get out or directions on how to prepare. We are alone, with only our faith as sustenance.
We hear the leaves on the trees rustling in the wind and feel a cool breeze on our faces. We hear soft songs from birds, both near and far away. We smell the earth—the compost of dirt and water. We see the shadows of all of the creation, and glimpses of light where the sun has broken through.
Is our faith enough? Are we sure that the Messiah will come?
Perhaps we fill up the space in the trees, where the sunlight shines through, with beautiful ribbons, extraordinary candles, and less-brilliant inflatable lawn art because we are not sure that peace will happen. They become signs of comfort for us, tangible representations that give some assurance that we are not alone.
By placing familiar, pretty objects around us, we give the impression that we are at least preparing, but for what are we preparing? Do we believe that we will be given direction, a way out of the wilderness? Do we believe that we are truly alone? Have we lost all sense of hope and all faith in God, that we leave no space for peace, should it appear? If we do not give peace a space—if we do not give peace a chance—then we cannot be disappointed if it doesn’t come.
And if we create a false sense of peace, just in order to feel better about the wilderness around us, will we ever get the chance to truly be led into a bright, open valley? If we try and out-shine the living creation that already is, will we miss the Messiah, the living creation that is to come?
But that is not our faith, is it? We have not lost our faith, have we? We remember that our God, Jehovah Jireh, “God who will provide,” has given us manna before, don’t we? Our decorations are symbols that we are honoring the occasion, right?
This week, we are still in the wilderness, we are without direction, but we must remember that we have faith of things to come. We must see the beauty that the wilderness can offer–wandering isn’t always a bad thing to do. We must listen to the voice, calling to us from behind the trees, and we must allow ourselves to get excited and to listen for more direction. Joy can be found. Love is already here. Peace has come before and peace will come again.
Jesus has come before, in between sheep and goats, in between Wise Men and shepherds, swaddled, in a manger. Surely, Jesus will bring us peace again, even if it is in the space between surfer Santa and Elmo, or between wealth and hardship, or between anger and sadness. Prepare the space; prepare for peace.
Read more from Stephanie Little Coyne at her blog.