December 8, 2013, Advent 2 – Prep Work for the Messiah
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This Thanksgiving – just before the Plague struck our house – we had a wonderful dinner with family and friends, all of us stuffed into our not-so-big dining room, using every chair in the house (with small people on the wobblier chairs that we don’t usually use) with a small child on a bar stool and Roseanna and her room-mate sharing an old wooden trunk. Normally we would have had Thanksgiving dinner at our son and daughter-in-law’s house in Madrid, but this year Wyatt, who is a contractor, had just begun a very thorough remodel of their kitchen, so their house wasn’t exactly open for company.
Now, if I were to plan to fix up my kitchen, I would think about painting it a new color, and if I felt particularly energetic I might even make new curtains, but Wyatt, who knows what he is doing, and who likes to do everything perfectly, plans to fix up their kitchen the right way, and that meant that there was a lot of prep work to be done. Oddly enough, in building, the very first prep work generally looks like – and it generally is – demolition. Before he could begin to build anything, all the old stuff had to be torn out, right down to the bare bones of the house.
It’s an old house, so there were layers and layers of boards and lath and plaster, and they found newspapers in the wall that dated back to 1906. It was a long and dusty and noisy and exhausting job, but in the end there wasn’t anything recognizable left in the room – just the skeletal frame of walls and ceiling and doors and windows. The floor was nothing but beams, and my grandson Alan was so inspired by that that he just had to put on his Spiderman pajamas and go leaping from beam to beam. But the most important thing was that as Wyatt and his co-worker Chad tore away at the old construction, they found years and years of badly done work: years of quick fixes and careless woodworking and poor materials. The only way they could do the job of building right was to do that long and dirty prep work to rediscover the original foundation, the sturdy bones of that well-built house.
The job that John the Baptist was called to do was that kind of a job, the job of prep work for the coming of the One that God had promised to send his people from the very beginning, ever since the first man and the first woman chose to do things their own way instead of God’s way. And the whole of our human history, and particularly the history of God’s interaction with his chosen nation, Israel, has been the record of man’s attempts to cobble together a world and societies on their own terms, with God stepping in to brace things up and prevent a total collapse here, or to graciously provide some blueprints to keep things safe and point the builders in the right direction there. But through it all, from the very beginning, God’s plan has been to do the thing right, to build a world that is unshakeable, to remodel creation in all its perfection so that he can say once again, as he said at the beginning, that it is all very good.
But first, the prep work. John’s task, as the prophet Isaiah wrote – it’s found in the 40th chapter of Isaiah – was this:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
That describes a lot of work: Isaiah is talking about heavy, dirty, dusty, exhausting labor, but he isn’t talking about dirt and rocks and he isn’t talking about boards and plaster and lath – he is talking about the prep work needed in the hearts of his people so that they would be ready at long, long last for the coming of the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with his people, building a new Israel according to the original perfect specifications that he had laid out before the creation of the world.
John’s job was all about preparing the hearts of God’s people through repentance, and that was indeed some heavy prep work. Repentance means tearing out our old constructions of self-righteousness – all those things we cobbled together to convince ourselves that we were alright, that our way was leading us where we wanted to go. We see the signs of our bad construction in broken relationships and bitter feelings and we paper right over those things or slap a coat of paint on and try to go on with our lives, but all that faulty building remains under the surface, and our lives get more and more unbalanced and less and less stable, until the original design, that good foundation that God formed in us from the beginning of the world, is almost unrecognizable.
And that’s what had happened in the nation of Israel. God’s chosen, special people had made their identity as God’s beloved children into a mere religion. Pious acts like prayer and fasting and tithing had become religious trappings performed not out of love for God, but as an outward show of holiness. And the system of sacrifice established by God as a sign pointing to his own sacrifice of himself, had been made into a system of commerce, a barter system for righteousness, so much so that the sacrificial animals could be bought and sold right in the Temple itself.
The coming of the Messiah was to be the beginning of the great Remodel – not just of the nation of Israel, but of the whole creation, even us Gentiles – the re-building of all that had foundered and wandered and gone off-balance, through sin and ignorance and carelessness. But first the prep work of repentance, to strip off all our self-righteous and stubborn and foolish religious trappings and to expose the pure and lovely bones of God’s image at the heart of his people.
As Christians, Christ dwells in our hearts by his Spirit always, but we are no less prone than the Jews of Jesus’s day were to cobbling together parts of our lives according to our own specifications, plastering over things that really need to be torn out, crafting our own shabby religion out of what should be our living faith. In Advent, every year, we prepare to welcome the Messiah of God into our hearts and our lives in a fresh way because we are always in need of the loving and capable remodeling of the Great Carpenter. But first, the prep work. First, we do the dusty and sometimes exhausting but always life-giving labor of repentance, letting the true light into those places that had grown dark and cramped, getting rid of clutter, squaring up those places that had shifted out of balance. That is the healing and purifying work of the Spirit within us, if we open ourselves to him.
I encourage you this week to spend some time alone with Jesus Christ, who called you and formed you from before the foundations of the world. Ask him to do the prep work he needs to do and then to reveal to you the glory of his image, the strong and sure and unshakeable foundation on which he is building his church – which isn’t this brick-and-mortar building, but is you, the chosen and beloved family of God the Father. And I can say with Paul, as he wrote to the church in Philippi, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
When Wyatt is done remodeling his kitchen, I know it is going to be so gorgeous that I will have to repent of a little kitchen-envy when I visit them. But the work of redemption that God is doing in our midst is so good and so glorious that it is beyond our comprehension. As we read in Isaiah and the other prophets, though, which is our good Advent practice, God gives us glimpses of his blueprints that can just about knock your socks off they are so good and so glorious. Listen again to the words of Isaiah that we read earlier, as he describes the Great Remodel, his glorious plan for the healing and restoring of the whole creation:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.