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Sermon for December 4, 2011

Messengers of Love

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.
John announced: “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. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” Mark 1:1-4

More housecleaning will be done at this time of year than any other. You know it if you have a live Christmas tree, because you’ve already vacuumed the floor underneath it about 6 times this morning. We clean because holidays mean company. Company means you have to move the stacks of unwrapped gifts, fold or hide the piles of clothes, and clean or hide the stack of dishes in the sink before anyone comes over and finds out what your house looks like most of the time. When people come, we like to prepare for them–we clean, we cook and serve food, we decorate, and do what we can to make the visitor feel welcome. In the ancient Middle East, there was a practice much like our own: people would clean and to get ready for the visit of a dignitary. When the dignitary was a king or emperor, the cleaning included improving the roads leading to the city. It was kind of like an ancient New Deal. All kinds of jobs were instantly created, and the citizens of the area would be conscripted into service filling potholes, moving stones out the way, and smoothing out the road. The Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptizer both refer to this practice: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

I’m wondering if there are some road improvements to be done in our hearts this Advent. I wonder if the desert places in our lives need to be made ready for God to come into our lives.

Robert Frost’s poem “Desert Places” reminds me of where our work needs to begin:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

They aren’t just out there some place, you know—those arid places in the world. Desert places exist inside our own hearts. If we quiet ourselves, if we slow down and let ourselves think, we know there’s a place in our own lives where a straight highway needs to be built. We know that there are some desert places in our hearts need some road work:
· Leveling the potholes of sin with the cover of newness
· Straightening paths that we made crooked by our bad decisions
· Moving the stones and barriers out of the way that we put in our hearts to keep others out.

If we can stop and listen, the voice of John the Baptizer will sound as loud and clear as ever. His is the voice speaking out in the lonely wilderness of our hearts saying, “Repent!”

Let me tell you about what I do when I’m feeling nudged to get serious about straightening up my spiritual life. I get swept up in the moment. I plan major improvements. I say “I’m going to read a chapter of the Bible every day. I’m going to set time aside to pray. I’m going to study, and journal . . . and I don’t even like to journal. But I’ll do it for you, God.” I really do it, too–for three or four days. Then I get busy, or lazy, or I remember how I don’t like to journal. Maybe you do the same thing. In a burst of sincere commitment, you may actually read devotionally; you may actually find the time to say a few prayers (and, because we are Congregationalists, if we can’t think of any on our own, we read some that somebody else has written already – it’s OK). And what happens? Well, if you are like me, nothing happens...nothing at all. We try it for a week and nothing seems to change. We’re building this highway . . . so where’s God? We want some action! We want things to go fast! We want to hear the voice from Heaven; we want the choirs of angels to sing; we want our souls to soar! But it seems to take so long ... things go so slowly!

Having lived in New England most of my life, I can say that the roads are torturous if you are trying to get somewhere quickly. The pavement is in good condition, but it is very hard to find a straight path from point A to point B. The roads meander along rivers, or through crooked valleys and small villages. If you drive around long enough, you begin wishing for a straighter path, or a wider road, from point A to point B so that you don’t have to continually be wandering behind congested traffic on winding roads. But the roads don’t change. It would cost too much to alter the path. It would use too many resources. The highway department would actually slow traffic down. When travel becomes too inconvenient, people get angry! Some people shout! Some people honk their horns! Some people curse! Some people do some mighty interesting things with sign language!

The same is true in our spiritual lives. We recognize the problem; we recognize the need for a straight path to God. We begin the process of spiritual growth. And then we think of the risks and costs. Reading, prayer and silent listening take too many precious minutes out of our busy days. There are no immediate results. We are determined but we are not patient. We’re ready to go and we want to see some results, even when what we’re doing is responding to God’s call for change. We want to be transformed. We decide how we’re going to respond. We implement the plan and then say, “I’ve prayed my prayers, I read my meditation from The Upper Room, and I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer. Why isn’t anything happening? This doesn’t work.”

OK, you worked on Jesus...but did you allow Jesus to work on you? That’s the question. Did you allow Jesus to work on you? Did you let the Word of God move in you unhindered? For the call to repentance is more than just a call for us to recognize the need to say, “I’m sorry,” and set aside a few minutes a day to engage in “spiritual stuff.” The call to repentance is the call to turn our lives around, to change directions. Repentance begins by turning from the crooked way and walking the straight highway that connects us with the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit begins the process by inviting us to join the process of building a better and stronger relationship with God, a straight and level highway allowing the two-way traffic of love. Repentance, this turning around of our lives, is not a quick fix. The construction team headed by God’s Spirit does not do careless work. It takes determination on our part, to be sure...it takes a plan! And it takes patience. We must be diligent AND patient as God works within us to bring our soul-building projects to a new level of completion.

Spiritual road construction can last a long time...it’s even been known to take all of one’s life. But, far better for us to be on even the slowest of construction project than dejected wanderers in the desert. God has already taken the first step to building that two-way highway. When you sense God’s work in you this season, you will become a messenger of love – one who senses God’s presence and proclaims that God is here, straightening crooked lives and preparing hearts for God’s reign.

I opened with Robert Frost’s poem about Desert Places. Let me close Hank Anderson’s poem entitled “The Glory Road”.
Remember what Isaiah and John had to say,
About building the Lord a straight highway.
But how’s a poor poet to make every hill low,
And exalt every valley, I’d like to know.
We’ll write poems with the faith of the mustard seed,
To move all the mountains we’re apt to need.
We’ll fill every pot hole with poems and prayer,
And have it smooth as silk when the Lord gets there.
Ours will be a Glory Road never needing repair,
bringing joy to the needy and those in despair.
And while we’re at it, let’s make it plenty wide,
‘Cause there’s lots of us that want to walk by God’s side.

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