PREPARE THE WAY
A Sermon by Doug Davidson
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, December 8, 2013
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
I want to begin with a confession.
I am not a neat person. The truth is, I’m pretty messy. It’s not that I seem disorganized, but in reality, I always know exactly where everything is. I’m not messy like my old boss in my very first job after college, who had mountains of paper all over his desk, on the floor, and every other flat surface in his office, but somehow he always knew exactly where everything was. I’d go in and ask if he had a copy of the budget report and he’d (shuffle through papers) and say, “Here it is.”
No, I’m not like that. I’m just messy.
Now, if you were to come over to my house for dinner, you might not realize what a mess I am. Because chances are, if we know you’re coming, Jen and I have both arranged to take a couple of hours off that afternoon to clean up. Maybe we’ve even taken Elliot out of school early, so he can take care of his part. We’ve got the process down to a science; we know who does what, and we know exactly how long it takes to transform our house from its usual state into a place the feels worthy of guests. So by the time you arrive on the scene, things should look pretty good. As long as you don’t show up an hour early, and you don’t ever open the bedroom door, you might never realize what a mess I can be.
When I knew I was going to be preaching about John the Baptist, this wild-eyed prophet and his call to prepare the way of the Lord, one of the first images that came to mind was our last minute cleanup when guests are coming over. Perhaps John wants us to tidy up our mess—or at least hide it where it won’t be seen. Get the house in order. Someone really important is about to arrive—and you definitely don’t want to be found as you really are. It’s time to straighten up.
I think that’s one way we could read John’s call to “prepare the way”—and there’s probably some truth in it. In fact, if John the Baptist were sitting here in the front row, dressed in his camel hair suit and leather belt, munching on some locusts with a wild honey chaser, he might tell us that’s exactly what he had in mind.
But I think there’s something else in this story, a truth that to me seems a bit more subtle and slippery. It’s one of those elusive truths that I feel like I get into focus for a little while, and then I lose it. So I’d like to flip this familiar story over, shake it a little bit, and see what else we might find. Because I think this Advent story about John the Baptist might have something else to tell us about the upside-down nature of the reign of God—and the Christ who always comes to us in ways that confound our expectations and assumptions.
After all, it’s pretty clear Jesus wasn’t exactly the kind of Messiah John the Baptist expected. We meet John near the very beginning of each of the four Gospels. He’s the zealous prophet who heralds the coming of the Lord. He’s kind of like the hype man at a concert whose job is to pump up the crowd, before the main act takes the stage. John knew that One was coming who was more powerful that he was. If ever there was anyone equipped to really understand who Jesus was, it was John.
Yet both Matthew and Luke offer us a second glimpse of this Baptizing prophet. And in that second scene, we see John a few years later, locked away in prison, where he is soon to be executed. And, clearly, he’s having his doubts. He’s told everyone that, in Jesus, the kingdom of God has come. But Jesus is not ushering in God’s reign in the ways John expected. John imagined a Messiah who would end Rome’s domination of his people and their land. But as John languishes in prison, he begins to wonder if maybe he got it all wrong. Maybe Jesus wasn’t the one, after all.
Do you remember what he does? John sends a group of his own disciples to Jesus to ask him “Are you the one who is to come or is there another?” I love how Jesus answers. He tells John’s disciples, “Go tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
These are the signs Jesus offers to assure John, to assure us, that, in him, the reign of God has come. God’s reign is made real in a Jesus who meets people in poverty, in sickness, in brokenness, in weakness, in the hurting places of their lives. It’s revealed in a Christ who meets each of us, not after we’ve got ourselves all cleaned up, but in the midst of our mess. It is revealed in the Christ who meets us where we are.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to John in the wilderness for a minute. Matthew tells us “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea” came to be “baptized by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (3:5-6). We tend to think of baptism as a Christian practice, but for Jews in the time of Jesus, it was quite common. It was thought of as a cleansing rite, “intended to prepare a strongly demarcated people for the coming day of God.” In fact, in those days, there was a baptizer on every street corner. What was, perhaps, unique to John’s baptizing was his insistence on the need for radical change, or repentance. Indeed, if one were to boil the Baptizer’s message down to a single word, that word would be “Repent!”
Perhaps it’s John’s emphasis on repentance that explains the dramatic change in tone we find beginning at the midpoint of our Gospel story today. In the first six verses, we read that people from all regions and all walks of life were coming to John to be baptized. But Matthew tells us that “when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” he was furious. “You brood of vipers!” John exclaims. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7-8). From the cool waters of baptism, John’s attention shifts to fiery words of judgment.
Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees tend to get a pretty bad rap throughout the gospels—and often it’s for good reason. But these were people who’d given their entire lives to the practice of devotion to God. They were known for their “exacting interpretation and scrupulous observance” of the law. They took their faith seriously. They were the ones who never missed worship, and always stayed for the adult spiritual formation hour after synagogue. They were deeply invested in living out their faith. And they may well have argued that their vocations—their entire way of life—was all about “preparing” for the coming Messiah.
Yet John—and later Jesus—seems to suggest that this is the heart of the problem. This belief that their own houses were in order, this security they found in their own exacting religious practices and their identity as children of Abraham—these things about which they were most proud—were often barriers that kept them from the kingdom of heaven.
The baptism John practiced was a ritual of repentance that begins with confession. It begins in recognizing our own need. It begins in admitting that there’s a lot of mess and pain in us that we don’t know how to let go of. Or, to say it another way, such a baptism begins in recognizing that, in and of ourselves, we don’t know how to “prepare the way.” Our lives are unmanageable. We don’t know how to get our own houses in order. Repentance begins with the recognition that God’s path through the wilderness may be straight; but ours is anything but.
As I pondering this prophet and his message of repentance, I couldn’t help but make the connection to Nelson Mandela. Like John the Baptist, Mandela was locked in a prison because he preached of the need for radical change, change that was a threat to the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. In one of the many tributes written about Mandela this week, I found the quote that appears at the beginning of our order of worship. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela wrote: “To be truly prepared for something one must expect it. One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.”
When I first read that quotation, I assumed Mandela had written those words to encourage his fellow South Africans to live in expectation of a more just future, even though it was not yet a reality. I assumed he was encouraging them—encouraging us–to keep faith, to prepare the way by living in expectation of a future they had not yet seen.
But the real context of these particular words is very different. Mandela wasn’t talking about a future in which our hopes would be realized. When Mandela wrote “To be truly prepared for something one must expect it” he was writing about the likelihood that he was to be executed by the apartheid government. He was preparing to die. Both John and Jesus knew that same reality, the cost that can come from confronting empire. For John, it led to his execution in prison. For Jesus, it led to a cross.
Perhaps this is where the cool, cleansing waters of the baptism John proclaims meet the “fire” we find near the end of our passage. John warns those religious leaders that every tree that “does not bear good fruit” will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:10). This is an image of judgment, but it might also be understood as a fire that purges. For the Jewish religious leaders of John’s day—and perhaps for us—the false sense that we can “prepare the way” through our own efforts may need to be burned away. Perhaps our belief in our own adequacy is part of what needs to come and die, if new life is to be born in us.
During this Advent time, we prepare our hearts again to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, the one whose name means God with us. We are preparing to celebrate again the way in which God was born into this messy world in Jesus. Because of this we can proclaim that, in the midst of our hurts, and our struggles, and our insecurities, God is for us. Yet as David Bartlett has written, “God with us” means not only a God who is steadfastly for us, but one who stands against “the old pretensions and securities that prevent us from faithfulness.”
You know, if you ever do come over dinner, and we have enough time to get the house cleaned up, one of the last things I usually do is go outside and sweep the path that leads up to our front door. If John really is calling us to get our houses in order, maybe that begins with sweeping away the deceptions we have about how we’ve already got it together. Because in the midst of all John’s firey language, I hear an invitation. It’s an invitation to let go. I hear an invitation to prepare to meet God as we really are. Fragile. Weak. Vulnerable. Broken. Messy. To admit our need. To let the illusions be burned away. To prepare our hearts for the coming of a King who is born not in a palace but into the mess of our human reality. To open ourselves to the coming of the one who can take the broken stuff of our lives and our world, and join with us to fashion it into something beautiful, something just, something life-giving.
We don’t need to tidy up. We don’t need to make ourselves “presentable.” We need to prepare the way by opening ourselves, so that we might be ready, during this Advent season and each day, for the miracle that is Christ, born anew, into our lives and into our world. Amen.
 Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 118.
 David Bartlett, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels, Andrew F. Gregory, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 21.