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Pointing Toward Peace – Mark 1:1-8
What’s your favorite Christmas musical?
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord. The song that begins the musical Godspell. Maybe you don’t think of Godspell as a Christmas musical. Years ago, at our church in California, on the Sunday on which we were reading today’s scripture, someone would sing this at the beginning of Advent worship, usually from the back of the church. And then the choir would begin their processional and we would sing our opening hymn.
Advent is a time of preparation. John the Baptist is the one who came to prepare the way for Jesus. Both our readings tell us that John is the messenger in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus.
During this season, we are typically busy with preparation for Christmas. Decorating. Shopping. Baking. Are you preparing? How is it going?
What are we preparing for, exactly?
I always thought this was a dumb question to be asking during Advent. Of course, we’re preparing for Christmas. Those Advent calendars with the little doors are counting down the days until Christmas.
When I was a kid, this meant I had to clean my room. To make room for new toys. As I was putting things away, I had to choose some things to give away, to take to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Then when I grew up and had kids of my own, they had to do that, too. Clean up and make room.
Does your preparation include cleaning?
The verse from Isaiah that Mark quotes says, “Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. Clear the road for him.” (v3)
Clear the way.
One of the ways we used to know when our kids needed to clean their rooms was that they would spend less and less time in their rooms. The more messy the room got, the less they wanted to be in it, and the less space there was to be in it. We do this as adults, too. Mostly with the dining room table. Things tend to pile up there until there’s no longer room to use the table at all. But eventually we have to face the mess and deal with it.
That’s one of the ways we prepare. And it’s also one of the meanings of the Hebrew word that Isaiah uses. Panah, the word for prepare here in Isaiah, means to turn toward. To face.
We can ignore the piles on the dining room table, but when the holidays are coming, we’re going to need to face the mess and get rid of those piles so we can use the table for eating instead of collecting things.
This is what John the Baptist is telling people to do. Not to clear off the dining room table, but to turn and face the mess. He called them to repent. To repent also means to turn. Preparing the way for Jesus, making room for him to work in our lives, means we have to address the mess.
Are there things we’ve been ignoring that need to get cleaned up?
Is there stuff piling up in our lives making it too crowded for Jesus?
This year we have a unique opportunity to let go of some of the stuff that usually fills up our lives during this season. Because of the pandemic, we can’t do all the things we’re used to doing, or we’re having to find new ways to do them. This is an opportunity to take a deeper look at these things and see whether they’re actually serving their purposes. Are these things we enjoy or have they become more like chores? Do these things point us toward Jesus or draw us away from Jesus? If we’re not careful, our traditions can become more mess than Messiah, and we can find ourselves worshiping the tradition more than the one to whom the tradition is supposed to point.
Mark tells us that John the Baptist was preaching out in the middle of nowhere and people were coming to him to be baptized. Think about the logistics of that for a minute. What does the middle of nowhere look like? Here in Kansas, it looks like this:
If someone were drawing a crowd here, it might not be too hard to see. But the wilderness where John the Baptist was preaching looked more like this:
So when Isaiah talks about clearing the way by filling in the valleys and flattening the hills, you can see why this is needed. Getting rid of the obstacles. Because a road through this wilderness is full of bends and turns. There’s no way to have a straight path here.
Preparing the way means getting rid of the obstacles.
How are you and Jesus getting along right now?
John the Baptist came to point people to Jesus, to help them see that he was the Messiah. Sometimes there are things in the way, keeping us from seeing.
Going back to the analogy of cleaning, this is my go-to answer for finding lost things. When we can’t find something, we clear away everything that might be hiding it. Clean out the drawer or the cupboard. Clean off the counter or the table. Keep cleaning and clearing until we find it.
This is how we prepare the way for Jesus to work in our lives, too. We clear away anything that’s getting in the way. This might be a mess that we’ve been ignoring. This might be grief we’ve been avoiding. This might be a relationship that’s deteriorated. Or a wrong that needs to be righted.
There was a woman who had been at her job for fifteen years. She had never married because she was so totally focused on her work and it consumed her life. She loved her job, and because it was for a Christian company, she considered it her ministry and service to God. But some of her coworkers and boss saw that she was burning out and seemed to have lost sight of her own relationship with God. So they gave her a long vacation.
It was a beautiful and generous gift that she didn’t want to accept because she didn’t see the need for it. But she did. On this vacation she had a hard time letting go at first. Gradually she accepted that her only purpose during this time was to find her way back to God.
As all the clutter of life got cleared away, she gradually uncovered a scar that had been made all the way back when she was a teenager. One night when she was fourteen, her parents had left her in charge of watching her five-year-old brother. While she was cleaning up from dinner, he asked if he could go outside. She told him to wait until she could go out with him, but then the telephone rang. It was a boy from school that she had hoped would notice her. He was inviting her to go to the movies.
As she hung up the phone, she was so caught up in dreaming about this boy that she forgot about the dishes and she forgot about her little brother. Screaming jolted her back to reality, and she ran outside to find her little brother had fallen out of a tree. A neighbor came and helped to call her parents and get her brother to the hospital where they found he had a broken leg.
When her parents finally brought him home after midnight, she couldn’t stop sobbing, “It’s all my fault.”
“It’s okay” her dad insisted, trying to reassure her. “Everything’s okay. Your brother’s going to be fine.”
But she could not be consoled, and she would not forgive herself. She never told her parents about the phone call from the boy. And the next day, to punish herself for getting distracted, she told the boy she was sorry, but she couldn’t go to the movies after all. He never asked her out again.
During her vacation, the woman remembered this event and began to see that she was still trying to make up for her brother’s broken leg by being the most responsible, focused worker she could be. One of the ways she began to see this was in realizing that she was always taking flowers to people in the hospital or at home, but she would never expect that she herself deserved flowers. She discovered that she wasn’t allowing God’s blessings of joy and peace for herself. She was too busy making sure she was the one who brought them to other people.
One of the Bible stories that helped her to see this was this one about John the Baptist. Mark tells us that John was drawing crowds, rather remarkable especially since he was out in the wilderness. But rather than allowing himself to be the center of attention, he was making sure that people knew that he was not the one bringing the salvation they were seeking. He said, “Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” (Mark 1:7-8)
And in John’s gospel, John the Baptist is described as “a witness” who came “to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” The gospel writer adds that John “himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (John 1:8)
Sometimes we ourselves get in our own way because we forget that we are not the light. We, like John, can testify to the light. We can help point people to the light. But only Jesus can be their salvation. Only Jesus can change hearts and lives and bring peace.
We can help. We can point.
Have you ever had a dog that points? If you’re a hunter, you’re probably familiar with the way a dog points. We have never been hunting, but we had a dog that was part pointer, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, he would stop and pose, his nose and one paw pointed at something that only he could hear and see.
I think John the Baptist was like that. John saw that Jesus was the messiah, and he knew that people would need help to clear away the things in their lives, in their hearts and minds, that keep them from seeing Jesus.
What are you seeing that others might need help to see?
How are you preparing your life for Jesus?
What needs to be cleared away?
Let us ask God to help us see how to prepare the way for Jesus.
 Adapted from Brown, Sharon Garlough. Sensible Shoes (Sensible Shoes Series) (p. 166). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.