December 9, 2018, Clearing the Way – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I think quite a few of you have met my little dog Dorie. Dorie is a Welsh Corgi, so she has no tail and big ears and very, very short legs. And a really loud bark. But like many of us, she’s getting a little bit arthritic – she’s 13 and a half – and lately she’s been having a lot of trouble navigating our stairs. She’ll get up to the second or third step and then we hear her going back and forth, and back and forth, trying to figure out how to get up to the next step. But she never stops trying, because she wants to be with us. If Carroll goes up to work in his office, I’ll hear her little toenails, click click click click, click click click click, back and forth on the step until I come and carry her the rest of the way up to Carroll’s office. But then when I walk back downstairs, she comes right back down again because she wants to be with me too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the barriers that keep people (and dogs) apart lately, because I have eight children and four children-in-law and seven grandchildren and a sister and a niece who all live so far away from me that I hardly ever get to see them, except on facebook or videochats. Just like little Dorie, I really struggle with all that separation, I hate not being able to be with all those people I love so much. But there are a lot of barriers to overcome: expensive plane tickets, and unreliable cars, and North Country winters with their icy roads, and just the general busy-ness of life, to name a few. I’m sure most of you have faced those kinds of obstacles at one time or another. We all know that separation can be very hard, and loneliness and homesickness can be terribly painful.
When John the Baptist began his ministry out in the wilderness, drawing people from miles around, he laid claim to some words that had been written 700 years before he was born. Isaiah, writing his prophecies to the people of Judah by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was the one who wrote down the passage that would some day belong to John, the one God raised up to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of his Son. Isaiah wrote,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
Those words became the special property of a young man, kind of strange and a little uncouth, who appeared almost out of nowhere, preaching in the wilds along the banks of the Jordan River and baptizing people in its waters. John claimed those words, and those words claimed John. He was the Voice crying in the wilderness. And the words that he cried were all about obstacles. “God is coming to his people! The crooked roads are going to be made straight, every ditch and pothole is going to be filled in; even the biggest of hills will be bulldozed and the surface of every road will be smooth and level. God is coming to his people at last. Every obstacle, every barrier, will be removed – everything that separates God from his people. Paul said it well: “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That was John’s message, because the coming of Jesus that he was proclaiming was the beginning of the end of mankind’s long separation from God. It all began with Adam and Eve and their perfect companionship with God in the garden that he planted for them. God planted a garden for them to live in, where they lived as friends with every beast of every kind, and God came and walked and talked with them in the cool of the day. There wasn’t any barrier or obstacle separating the Creator from his creation, or dividing one creature from another; there was only the intimacy of friendship and trust. But then the serpent came and tricked Eve into rebelling against the goodness of God, and Adam joined her. Sin entered the world through the first man and woman, and from that moment until the birth of the baby in Bethlehem all of creation was alienated from its Creator.
The presence of sin in the world brought death and sickness and pain and war and cruelty and fear and hatred. God never stopped loving his children, and he never left them alone, but the corrupting power and constant presence of sin prevented us from being able to draw near to him. Instead of walking with God side by side, even his special, chosen people worshiped him from a distance, in fear and awe, carefully obeying – or trying to carefully obey – the 613 different rules and regulations of the Law, and day after day, and year after year, making amends for their sinfulness with the sacrificial blood of countless animals. And all the time, God’s presence was hidden away in the most holy place at the heart of the Temple, where no one was allowed to go, because no man could ever look at God directly and live. For so many years of human history, mankind has been suffering from separation anxiety, because whether we know it or not, the one thing we really long for, the one thing we really need, is to be with the God who loves us, just like Dorie’s continual and persistent desire is to be with Carroll and me, if only her little legs could get her there.
But the coming of Jesus Christ changed everything. And I think sometimes when we read these beautiful words of Isaiah and John there is a danger that they have become so familiar to us that we forget what they really mean. Mary understood it, when she sang how God has come to lift up the low and despised and to bring proud kings and kingdoms low; how he has come to the poor and hungry to fill them with good things and those who put their trust in their own riches he sends away empty. The way of the kingdom is that the last and the least will be lifted up, and the rich and powerful will bow low before him, and all flesh together will see God as he comes near to us, Emmanuel, the God who loves to be with his people. We see that in every act of the life of Jesus that we read in the gospels.
And it also means that we, who belong to his kingdom are called carry out this ministry of road-building, of doing what we can to clear away the barriers between God and his people. We do that first of all by loving one another, as Jesus said, “The world will know that I sent you if you love one another.” That’s the biggie, that’s the one great commandment Jesus left with us before his death. And it doesn’t just mean our pleasant and familiar brothers and sisters here at St. Philip’s or even in our sister churches of Norwood. It means we are to love Christians who think and worship and look different from us. It means we let go of our tendency to find safety in like-mindedness, but courageously and in humility welcome all children of the Father.
And the flip side of that is that we are to be a people of grace, and not judgment. In the wake of all the roadwork that the coming of Jesus accomplished in breaking down the barriers between man and God, the Church has had an unfortunate track record of coming along behind and erecting our own barriers. When we pass judgment on our brothers and sisters, we who are sinners ourselves, we make the road rough for them. When we set up man-made rules in our self-righteousness, we dig a pit for our brothers and sisters to fall into. When we refuse to forgive someone who has hurt or offended us, we set up roadblocks for ourselves as well as them. When the world sees the people of God acting with hatred or violence or prejudice, we create a barrier that makes them unable to see the loving face of Christ. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, God’s own road crew, helping to maintain the highway between our God and the world he loves.
God has come into his Creation, and there is no longer an impassible barrier between us. But the work of drawing all mankind continues, and we, his children, are to be a part of that holy roadwork. In love and grace, then, let us prepare the way of the Lord, let us make his paths straight. Let us do what we are able to see that the low and despised things are lifted up, the barriers broken down, and the hurt and wounded made whole, until the day when all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.