Pathways in the Wilderness
Sermon Delivered December 3, 2016
Whenever I hear this passage, I can’t help but think of a church group, in the standard work group garb, young folks in shorts and t-shirts, the older guys in pants and long sleeves, a parent or two passing out water, all happening in the middle of the desert somewhere, building a straight road, strictly because the bible says to prepare the way of the lord in the wilderness. Or maybe some earnest and moneyed believer creating a large construction company to level every mountain, to smooth the rough paths.
These possible scenarios just illustrate that John the Baptist isn’t telling those gathered around him to actually become road builders. So the question becomes, what does John mean when he gives the instruction to prepare the way of the Lord, to make God’s path’s straight? Or when Malachi talks about a messenger who will prepare the way? What does it mean to believers today to prepare the way of the Lord? What is this passage really calling its' hears to do?
It’s the doing part that I think is worth focusing on, which leads to the even larger question, what is it that Christians are called to do? In some corners of Christandom, the call is to save, no? The call is to get more converts for the cause, no? Is that what John is referencing, that believers go knocking on doors to get folks to join their congregations, or to focus on saving souls?
As reformed folks, as Presbyterians, the belief is that the church actual, that believers, that they really can’t do a whole lot of anything, focusing in on Paul’s insistence on being saved by grace alone. In other words, one’s works has nothing to do with whether their final destination.
But there are other denominations, who choose to focus on remarks about all will be judged by their fruit, or James’ edict that faith without works is dead. Folks that say that what one does matters, that that place in the heavenly by-and-by is earned, not just freely given.
I have to be careful here, because it could become very easy for me to get bogged down in the nuances of Calvin and Augustine and Luther and so on and so forth, but the bottom line is the role of works in faith is still, 2000 years after Jesus, a bit of a unsettled question, and even though this may be a room full of Presbyterians at an event sponsored by Presbyterians, a denomination that is very committed to salvation through grace, this passage does seem to pretty clearly imply that something must be done, that there is a call to prepare the way for the Lord, to make smooth the rough paths.
So what is it John is demanding of hearer? What does preparing the way look like, feel like, what is it theologically speaking? What is it practically speaking?
For a year or so I found myself little wiring homes in Louisiana that were being rebuild after the damage Katrina levied on the city of New Orleans. What’s interesting about electrical work is that unlike carpentry, if someone does a good job, no one should ever have to think about it, or notice it ever again. And even more interesting, the benefits of proficient wiring is not the wiring itself, but rather the power that is generated someplace else. The electrician does not create the light, the electrician does not actually provide the electricity, rather, the electrician prepares for the electricity to come, the electrician creates smooth and efficient pathways for the electrons. If an electrician does a bad job, that light does not come, or the electricity creates a fire or some other hazard. But they have nothing to do with the actual light.
This is a pretty rough metaphor at best, but the real miracle of light is not the work of the electrician, but rather the work of some power plant somewhere, the electrician only prepares the way.
I have to wonder if John the Baptist is calling the Hearer to do something similar, in other words, the final miracle, the light, the saving grace of God, the healing love of Christ, that’s not the work of the crowd there by the banks of the Jordon, that is the preview of God. Instead the crowd on the banks of Jordon’s job is to prepare the way for the love of God, for the movement of the Holy Spirit, for the healing of Christ.
Its that a beautiful idea? That is in not the responsibility of the followers of Christ to do the good works, but rather to prepare themselves as smooth and efficient conduits of Christ’s love? Doesn’t that take a whole lot of pressure off, to realize that no one is called to save the world, but rather to prepare things so God can do the work God needs to do?