Friday, December 7, 2012

Elizabeth's Story: Prepare the Way (Luke)

I have been in a real funk this Advent.  I've been wishing desperately that we were going to Key West -- tomorrow would be good.   Tonight would be better. Never would I have guessed that John the Baptist might provide me with possibility and hope.
Tomorrow's a full day, so the sermon is finished:


My name is Elizabeth and, let me tell you: things in my life did not work out as planned.
I expected a fairly ordinary life.  In something of a rarefied atmosphere, I’ll admit.  My father was a descendant of Aaron, brother to Moses and the first high priest of the Israelites.  We are a respected, well-educated family.  And my husband Zechariah – a priest as well.  Our marriages are arranged for us by our parents, so the wedding is an event of great trepidation.  I had encountered Zechariah before we were married – he often came to study and debate with my father—but I didn’t really know him.  What I did know was that my father and mother loved me, and I had confidence that they would find a good husband for me.  A wise and gentle man, a man to whom people looked for counsel and advice, a man who would be able to provide for our family.  And they did; Zechariah and I were very content with one another. 
Except: there was no family.  We were in what I suppose you might call a prestigious family line, but all we really wanted was to settle into our home and raise our children.  I imagined a life in which my scholarly husband would take the time to teach the Scriptures to our children, and would train our sons to follow him into the priesthood.  But the children did not come.  A great sadness to us. 
And then one day, the angel, that angel Gabriel who is so often poking around into human affairs, came to my Zechariah in the temple, and told him that we would have a son!  A son!  Of course, I did not know about this until I figured it out for myself, because that husband of mine, that scholar and debater, he questioned the angel’s veracity.  Not unreasonable, I might say: We were both well along in years, and a pregnancy was highly unlikely.  I wondered, too; of course I did!  But unfortunately my husband voiced his wondering, and that was the end of his voice – for nine long  months.
I suppose that God throught that Zechariah needed some time to ponder what was happening. Well, regardless of what God thought, that’s what Zechariah got: months and months in which to contemplate the ways in which God moves.  And I did, too.  I will tell you: That was a silent house!  I was so relieved when my cousin Mary, pregnant with her own child, came to visit!  I needed a conversation partner, and my husband had taken himself out of the running. 

Well, our son John was born in due time, and Zechariah’s voice was restored to him.  I began to hope that we were finished with unusual events and that we might settle down to that ordinary family life to which I had once looked forward.  Zechariah did tell me that the angel had given him very specific instructions about how our son was to be raised, but the requirements were not unduly burdensome.  And the angel had told him much more.  That our son would be a delight to us.  That he would be given the task of helping our people turn again to God.  That he would prepare the way for – the Messiah! 
How I looked forward to what lay ahead!  How I basked in the pleasure of watching my son grow and learn, and in imagining his glorious future!  Perhaps he would be the greatest of the priests.  A descendant of Aaron and a precursor to the Messiah!  A scholar and a leader!  A man of great renown!

And then – and then one day that son of mine, grown into a fine young man – that son of mine came into the house, tossed a jug of wine and a loaf of bread into a bag, slung it over his shoulder, and said his good-byes. “I’m going to the wilderness,” he announced. “My time has come.” 

The wilderness?  Do you know what the wilderness means?
I know that for you, the wilderness means the great forests of the north and west.  But for us, the wilderness means a vast and barren place, a landscape of rock and mountain, a hot and dry and windy landscape of emptiness.  Not where a mother wants her son to spend even a day.

But when he turned to me and I saw his eyes, I knew.  He would trade the security of the temple for the wildness of the desert.  He would exchange the robes of the priest for the skins of an animal.  He would  give up the fine wines and sumptuous meals of our festivals for wild locusts and honey.
He would abandon the glorious life to which I had hoped he was called.  Instead, he would respond to the God who called him to embody absolute clarity – single-mindedess – purposefulness – the power of repentance. 

Do you know what the word “repentance” means?  It means to turn.  It does not mean merely to confess, to apologize, to seek forgiveness. It means to turn, to make a change: to turn away from, and to turn toward.  John went to the wilderness, the only place empty and desolate enough to serve as a backdrop for the clarity of his call to our people: Repent!  Turn away from your distractions, from your rough and broken places, from the despair you harbor within you, from the world that entices you away from the Holy One.  Repent! Turn toward the God who longs to envelop you in love, who seeks to fill the low places in your life and to cause the mountains of desperation to crumble.

I wanted an ordinary life.  I wanted a family – and I had to wait many years for the one son who finally did arrive.  I wanted the companionship of a husband – and I got silence, at the most critical of junctures. I wanted my child to grow up to be successful and well-loved  -- and I got . . .
I got the son who prepares us for the Son of God.  I got the son who saw with a shining clarity of vision that we need to prepare for the one who comes to save us.  I got the son whose single-minded commitment to the call to repentance, the call to turn from brokenness to wholeness, took him from ordinary to extraordinary, from priestly ritual in the temple to cleansing baptism in the wilderness.

I got the son who says to us all, as he has been saying for 2,000 years: Prepare!  Prepare for the invasion of unsurpassable love into your world!
And so for you, the question is, how do you prepare a way in your own life for the Lord during this Advent season?  Where are your crooked roads and rough places?  What are the areas in your own life which you need to ask God to straighten and smooth?  Where are your valleys and mountains?

Are you angry at someone?  Perhaps even at God?  Places of anger, of hurt, of resentment – those are rough ones.

Are you too busy this month?  Are you baking and cleaning and writing cards and wrapping gifts and going to work and negotiating family dramas?  Is there any space in that life of yours in which a newborn king might nestle, or is your life a mass of crooked and intersecting and crowded highways?

Or perhaps time hangs heavy on your hands?  The things you used to do to prepare for Christmas are done by younger generations now.  Many of the people to whom you used to send cards are gone.  Loss in your own life leaves an empty cavern where a space used to be filled with tinsel and glowing lights. When you look at your life, its valleys seem to extend endlessly outward, one low place after another.

Unless maybe you are faced by a landscape of mountains and hills? One seemingly insurmountable challenge after another.  Each day you scale one mountain, only to discover that another lies right behind it.

Where might God be calling to you, as God called to John in the desert?  Where might you be able to hear God with clarity, as that single-minded son of mine did in the wilderness?

I suggest that you find a place for yourself this week that reminds you of my house during my pregnancy with John.  A silent place.  An empty place.
Now, I would be the first to tell you that nine months is too long.  But an hour or two – that would be well worth your while.  I urge you to find an hour or two for yourself this week: one day when no one is around, or one evening when you can slip away to a quiet room in the house.  One little block of time where you close the door, turn off your phone, and put aside your to-do list. Sit quietly, and open your heart to God.  Tell God that you are present, that you are trying to make space and to prepare a way for the coming Christ Child.  And slowly, ever so slowly, ask yourself and ponder these three sets of questions:

Is there a particularly rough place in my life right now? Am I walking a crooked road?  Do I find myself in a valley of shadows?  Or am I exhausted from climbing one mountain after another?

What is this place and time like for me?  What are my preoccupations?  How I am distracted from God? 

What do I need to release to prepare a way within myself for the coming of Christ?  What crowds my vision, what blocks my hearing, what wall stands between me and the one who comes to sparkle joy and press peace into my life.

Sit there quietly and ponder these thoughts, as I did 2,000 years ago.  And then pray, to the one whom you await:
Come, Lord Jesus.

Come and rub down this rough spot in my life.
Come and bend that cooked line straight.

Come and fill my valley of hopelessness with cool water.

Come and pat down the mountain of impossibility that looms over me.
Come and create an empty space within me, just for this time, so that there is room for me to notice your arrival, silence for me to hear the voice of your messenger, and peace for me in the desert of waiting.

Come and help me to hear the voice of your prophet John, the one disrupting all plans as he cries out in the deserts of our lives:
Prepare the way of the Lord!


  1. This was the prayer of my heart this morning, and my prayer again as I read your post. So much to block out His still small voice. So easy to miss the main thing. Thanks for your inspiring words.

  2. I would so love to hear you preach this. You invite me (and others) into the story so that we can see our own story woven into the gospel story.

  3. You lead me on paths I would not otherwise have taken. This is a sermon that will stay with me. LOVE the prayer at the end. Hope you get to Key West soon.

  4. Absolutely beautiful Robin. Gorgeous.

  5. Your writing is awesome. !!
    I am away from 14th - 27th December; no blogs or social media. I will carry your words with me. Blessings and prayers.

  6. As an afterthought,I had this from the writer John O'Donohue in my draft posts. Reading it again after I read your posts it seems prescient.Hope you like it. Blessings
    It didn't have a title but I coined one: Advent Like Thin Lace
    The human person is a threshold where many infinities meet.
    There is the infinity of space that reaches out into the depths of the cosmos; the infinity of time reaching back over billions of years.
    A world lies hidden behind each human face.
    In some faces the vulnerability of inner exposure to these depths becomes visible.
    When you look at some faces, you can see the turbulence of the infinite beginning to gather to the surface. This moment can open in a gaze from a stranger, or in a conversation with someone you know well.
    Suddenly, without their intending it or being conscious of it, their gaze becomes the vehicle of some primal inner presence.
    This gaze lasts for only a second. In that slightest interim something more than the person looks out. Another infinity as yet unborn, is dimly present.
    You feel that you are being looked at from the strangeness of the eternal.
    The infinity gazing out at you is from an ancient time.
    We cannot seal off the eternal. Unexpectedly and disturbingly, it gazes in at us through the sudden apertures in our patterned lives.
    A friend, who loves lace, often says that it is the holes in lace that render it beautiful.
    Our experience has this lace structure…..

    John O’Donohue, Anam Chara