Sunday, 10 December 2006

Preparing the Way of the LORD: a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

In the year 2006, in the 53rd year of the reign of Elizabeth II—when Stephen was Prime Minister of Canada, Steady Eddie was the Premier of Alberta and Garth was Major of Medicine Hat—during the episcopacy of Derek Hoskin, the word of the Lord came to the people of St Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, in the desert.

What might that word be for us? Would it be anything like the word for John, son of Zechariah? Are we, too, intended to be God’s advance-party, the messengers to which Malachi refers, sent to prepare the way before God Almighty, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Are we, too, called to go before the Lord to prepare his way, as we heard in the Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus of Morning Prayer days), to give his people knowledge of salvation? Are we, too, to be a voice (or a congregation of voices) calling in the spiritual desert of our society, “Prepare the way for the Lord! Make straight paths for him! Every obstacle shall be removed! Every crooked and rough way made straight and smooth. And everyone we have anything to do with will see God’s salvation.”

If we are so called, how might we do that?

First, we must be sure of whose way we’re preparing. We are pathfinders for Jesus. It’s all for Jesus—not for me, your priest, or Derek, our Bishop, or for this congregation, or this building—it’s all for Jesus, our Lord, King and Saviour. We’re here to open paths into our own hearts—to open them to Jesus this Advent, to throw out the trash and the anything that may have crept in pushing him into the corner during the past year—so he can come and take up residence there.

How? Bible studies, small groups, personal devotional life, entering into the seasons of the church year, such as Advent. There are other ways. Ask the Lord to reveal them this Advent.

Then, having the path into our own hearts made straight and smooth, we’re here to open smooth, straight paths into our congregation, too, both for the Lord, in our worship, and for others so they can find knowledge of salvation in Jesus here.

We’re here, too, to open paths out of our church—it ought not to be a cul de sac—into the community around us, so that the treasure we have in Jesus, the spiritual energy for good and blessing and to do good and to bless others in Jesus’ name can flow out of here so that through us and the work and witness of this parish in the tender compassion of our God, Jesus, the dawn from on high shall break upon our neighbours to shine on those who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death that is life without Jesus.

How? The Alpha course, volunteering in the community, sending and supporting missionaries and folk on short-term missions, filling Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes, contributing to the Christmas hampers. There are other ways. Ask the Lord to reveal them this Advent.

Second, we must be clear on the situation and our particular role in it. For some years now I’ve been pondering what my philosophy of ministry is—Harold Percy and the Acts 29 church-planting folk both recommend such a thing so I can discover and focus on what my task is as God’s messenger.

Here’s my latest draft—a work in progress:
Life is like a journey down a highway. We’re born and we set out for our final destination—the home God intends for us (heaven). The trouble is, sin has destroyed the bridge (for now) which was to deliver us there safe and sound. Where the bridge was, there is now a great yawning chasm at the bottom of which is destruction (hell). People come upon the chasm, expecting the bridge to be there, but find that it’s too late to stop, so they plunge off the highway of life into the chasm and they die.

I know the bridge is out. It’s just around the bend. People can’t see it from where I meet them. They have to take my word for it.
I don’t want them to drive into the chasm and die. I want to warn them about the bridge being out and to tell them about the way (Jesus) which will lead them to safety. This is what God has put me here for.

Everything else pales beside that fact. If I feed people, baptize their children, marry them, visit them in hospital and deliver pastoral care but neglect to warn them about the bridge being out, I’m failing them. Well fed, happily married people with baptized children can still plunge into the chasm where they expect the bridge to be. My job is warn them and help them to the way of safety.

We can have the best music ministry in the world, the best ACW, the best Altar Guild, the best Bible studies and Small Groups there ever were, but unless they’re all connected to Jesus and helping people to find the way to safety and home that He represents, we’re missing the point.

I know I am not responsible for the decisions people make…they may choose to ignore my warning. I am, however, responsible for finding ways to get their attention and telling them the bridge is out as convincingly and clearly as possible, using language they can understand. In order to do that I must live my life and present myself in a way that makes me credible—to maximize the possibility that they will stop, or at least slow down, so they can hear what I have to say.
We all share that task to some extent. We all have a part to play in helping people to salvation—eternal safety—by preparing ourselves so we can prepare the Lord’s way into people’s lives. Which is, of course, what Advent is all about—preparing the way for Jesus into our lives, our families, the lives of our friends and neighbours, the lives of strangers, into our Christmases.

And so we pray the prayer that the Prayer Book instructs us to pray every day through Advent:
Almighty God,
give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness
and put upon us the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which thy Son Jesus Christ
came to visit us in great humility,
that in the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty
to judge both the quick and the dead,
we (and all those into whose hearts you are calling us to prepare your way) may rise to the life immortal;
through Jesus who liveth and reigneth
with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.