Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40:1-11; Prepare the Way! Delivered December 10, 2017

If you were here last week, you heard me reel off a litany of awfulness perpetrated by human beings in the last year. Hard to believe, but it is true.  There is a lot of sin going on—not petty sin, either.  We’re talking wars, cruelty to people who are economically disadvantaged, or who have dark skin, or foreign accents, or are born in the “wrong” country.  We’re talking sins perpetrated against animals and even children and infants.  Then I followed that by sharing with you this truism —Just as you can’t change bad behavior until you acknowledge, it, you can’t acknowledge God’s redemption until you acknowledge what is fallen. Our culture, our society is fallen. Harder to admit, but equally true: each one of us is fallen.  Especially in Advent we wait for God and God’s redemption of the world, and along with that, our own personal redemption.

It is coming—like molten, red hot volcanic rock, it is slowly creeping toward our cities and towns, yes, our houses, your school. The earth is quaking, we feel the lava’s heat—it’s just a matter of time till it is upon us in full force.  

You will remember that last week I shared with you some signs of God’s coming kingdom—ways in which we are acting and behaving as God would have us—from the small kindnesses we practice day-to-day-- like feeding stray cats; to the news-worthy kindnesses--Pope Francis’ visit to and blessing on those Rohingya Muslims.

The message last week, then, was stay awake.  Keep those peepers propped open with toothpicks if you have to—The kingdom is at hand, and if we aren’t awake we could miss the signs of God’s Kingdom, which even now is unfolding in our world.   

That’s one of the messages of Advent, certainly.  Keep awake.  Be vigilant. But there is another Advent message.  You heard it last Advent, and every Advent you have been in a church.  It is this:  Prepare!  Don’t stomp your foot impatiently, looking at your watch for God to do his or her new thing. Don’t stand at your wall calendar blithely crossing off the days till you arrive at December 25th.   No time for that!

Isaiah says we need to prepare God’s way by smoothing hilly roads and by making them less curvy.  Isaiah is using metaphor.  He imagines that God is coming on foot, or in a horse drawn chariot.  Today we might imagine God coming to us in a helicopter or maybe on a high-powered jet. Prepare the landing field! Make sure it Is cleared of debris! Is it well-lit?  Is the airport’s control tower well-staffed?  That, too, is metaphor, my personal contemporary metaphor, which is infinitely less poetic than Isaiah’s.

 What Isaiah is really talking about, of course, is preparing our hearts. John the Baptizer picks up that theme of heart-preparation some 500 years after Isaiah wrote 40:1-11.  Note, I say John the Baptizer, because that is the term Mark uses.  Mark was the first of the gospels to be written.  When the gospel writer Mark, wrote what he wrote,  John did not yet have the title, “John the Baptist.” Mark identified him from all those other Johns in first century Judah, by what this particular John did—He was a Baptizer. He washed people of their sin—figuratively at least, if not literally.  John the Baptizer knew that the people of his day, and in his part of the world must be purified inside and out, if they were to be ready to receive God—this God who was about to do a new thing. His purpose was to get people thinking about how to improve their souls—not their lives, which were miserable, but improve their souls. And that’s our task, too.    

“I could be more generous.  I need to be more grateful for acts of kindness done to me.” That’s some of the internal dialogue that we Christians engage in at Advent.  

This past week for instance, someone was telling me that last year this time, she visited New York City.  She tried so hard to avoid panhandlers there.   They are an aggravation, right? You see too much poverty, and it begins to weigh on you.    

But there she was—a poor person—not the first my friend had seen on her trip to the city, maybe, but definitely the most pathetic.  She was sitting on a step, next to a sidewalk, a bowl in her hand to collect money from passersby.  Could be she was mentally ill, or a drug addict, or an alcoholic. That’s what we tell ourselves, right, when we see misery like that? As if that really matters.

Maybe you already know how cold New York can be in winter.  It was cold.  My friend said, “The woman was wrapped in a shawl that’s it—no gloves, no hat, no sweater under.” My friend could see bare arms, underneath that shawl. The woman on the step was shivering so that even her collection bowl shook.

My friend did an amazing thing. She unzipped HER NEW COAT—yes, it was brand new, bought expressly for her trip to the Big Apple. She draped it around the woman’s shoulders. The woman looked up, acknowledged the gift, with her eyes—she didn’t speak—and my friend moved on.  Could I, would I do that?  Could you, would YOU do that?  Why not? 

These are questions that plague me and maybe you too, as we prepare our hearts for God’s coming. Just how miserly, how uncaring am I? But preparing our own hearts only gets us part way there. The entire WORLD is fallen. That fact can defeat us before we even begin in our personal preparations.  Is there hope for the world?

 I was on vacation three weeks ago.  besides visiting the Dupont Underground, I read a biography of William Wilberforce.  It’s by Eric Metaxas.  If you want to read a good book, this is it!  It’s titled Amazing Grace.  It was made into a movie some years ago, but believe me the book is better. 

Wilberforce was a Christian, a Methodist Christian, but we will forgive him that!  He lived in England in the late 1700’s to the 1830’s.  As a young man in his early 20’s, he was elected to serve in Parliament—a post he would hold for over 40 years.  Wilberforce, then, was a politician.  However, he was not a smarmy politician as was so often the case then, as today.  He was a good Christian politician.  Because of his faith, he could appreciate the gross immorality of his times, which hard to believe, was even worse than our own—we’re talking childhood prostitution; alcoholism so bad that poor mothers sold their children for gin; cruelty to animals, like bearbaiting —I will spare you the details—debtors’ prisons, public hangings, and worst of all, to Wilberforce’s mind, the capture and transporting of African people for sale as slaves to the British colonies.  The British economy depended on the slave trade. Men, women and children were herded onto ships.  Chained to the floor boards in a lying down position. That is where they lived, just barely, lying skin against skin, for months on the middle passage.  One quarter of those would-be-slaves died on board.  The rest arrived sick and traumatized.  They were sold to plantation owners, here, but also in the West Indies.  Most of them literally worked until they dropped.  

Like John the Baptizer, Wilberforce felt called by God to Prepare the way by ending the slave trade.  His first step, he decided, was to change peoples’ hearts.

At that time, most Brits were only nominally Christian.  Sad to say, even Britain’s priests and bishops were only nominally Christian.  So, before tackling such a huge sin as the slave trade, Wilberforce initiated Proclamation Societies-- for—get ready for this—“ the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.”  Isn’t that a mouthful? “Proclamation Societies for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” 

Now right away, you probably have an image in your head- A circle of women in long skirts and high-necked, ruffly blouses, sporting white, powder-dusted wigs, sitting round a smallish snacking table.  On that table are a carefully placed china teapot, matching teacups—and a plate filled with cucumber sandwiches.  

That would be WRONG!  Wilberforce sold his idea of Proclamation Societies to no less than the Bishop of Canterbury, AND King George III.  Before long, it became a professional necessity for even the smarmiest of politicians and the most skeptical of church professionals to join a, you got it, a Proclamation Society.

Slowly, very slowly, society changed.  It didn’t happen overnight.  Nothing that has lasting significance happens over night (I said that last week, but it’s still true.)

British society became, dare we say it, more moral. So for example, organizations popped up with a focus on aiding the poor among them, children’s work hours were decreased by parliamentary law, and a new organization was established, titled The Royal Society for the Prevention and Cruelty for Animals.  I could go on. Someone has counted seventy different social causes with direct links to Wilberforce and his Proclamation Societies.

 

Over the course of several decades, Wilberforce, kept at it. Bringing forth one bill after another to end the slave trade.  Finally, finally, Brits’ hearts had changed enough.  Whereas before, members of Parliament had asked themselves, how can the country’s economy survive without the slave trade?  Now some of those same politicians, now infinitely more ethical, asked themselves, “How can we who are good, moral English people engage in something as evil as the slave trade?”  By a near majority vote, Parliament ended the slave trade in 1807.  Way to go, William Wilberforce! 

But actually it was God working through William Wilberforce and through those Proclamation Societies who made it happen.  Wilberforce merely prepared the way for God’s coming into the world—and if he were alive and here today, and maybe his spirit is here, at least;  I have no doubt he would tell you that himself.

So friends, the task is before us.  Yes, we live in ugly, violent times; We live among people right here in our country who have lost their ethical moorings.   Our responsibility as Christians is not to stand idly by and wish that God had done something, or WILL do something.  Our responsibility as Christians is to prepare the way for Christ’s coming, We clean up our act—in our speech, in our day-to-day social interactions, giving to others less fortunate, demonstrating compassion.  AND we hold our leaders accountable to do likewise. We don’t need to start a proclamation society—although we certainly could.  We have us—we have this church.  Small yes.  But remember,  Wlberforce was ONE person.  We are thirty strong.   This is an excellent community for practicing and growing our own and civic morality according to God’s purposes.  

 And of course, as we do that, we hold on to our faith and hope—We know that when we do what we can, God will do what we can’t.  Prepare the way!   Amen