Prepare the Way
Isaiah 40:1-11 | Mark 1:1-8
In the second week of advent we come to the story of John the Baptist, and those words from the prophet Isaiah – Prepare the way of the Lord.
Now John the Baptist plays a critical role in the introduction of Jesus, especially in Mark’s gospel. Mark doesn’t have any of the Christmas story – no manger or angels or magi or shepherds, no Mary or Joseph. Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus begins with John. John preparing the way, baptising the masses, baptising Jesus, and then, when John is arrested, Jesus – his cousin – comes out of obscurity to begin his ministry, almost as if he was picking up where John left off.
John is a sort of transitional figure. The imagery we have of him – in the wilderness, camel’s hair clothing, diet of locusts and honey – is very much that of the Old Testament prophet, and his call to repentance also echoes that tradition. It seems likely that he was associated with the Essene, a sort of monastic, separatist movement within Judaism who we know placed great weight up on the call of the prophets to repentance and to holiness.
But at the same time, he marks a transition. For, though, as many of the prophets did, he spoke of one who was yet to come, John was able to point his disciples to that one in the flesh, to tell those who had followed him that this one, this Jesus, was the one they should truly follow. “Look,” he says to his followers, towards the end of Mark 1, “the Lamb of God!”. And his, John’s disciples, become the first to follow Jesus.
This is John’s role, as Mark tells the story – to prepare the way. To get people ready for an encounter with Jesus, the one who was to come, the one that the whole tradition of the prophets had been pointing towards.
The words that Mark chooses to describe John come from Isaiah 40, that famous passage that begins “Comfort, Comfort, all my people”. The beginning of the second section of Isaiah, these are words spoken to the people of God during their time of exile, when everything had gone wrong for them; their nation divided and conquered, their temple destroyed, the people taken as slaves into a distant land. Words of comfort, spoken to assure them that this suffering was coming to an end, that their closeness with God (which they had associated so strongly with the Temple and the rites and rituals associated with it) would return, albeit in a new way. And the prophet, the one crying out “prepare the way of the Lord” is the one who will mark an end, and set the scene for a new beginning.
So what is it that John does to prepare the way for Jesus? In all of the accounts we have of his ministry, it’s really hard to escape from one central word that seems to capture his teaching.
Of course, that’s also one of the words central to Jesus’ proclamation – “the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news”.
It’s not a word that we use very much in the world today. Certainly not outside the walls of the Church, and, honestly, not all that often within the Church either.
Of course, it’s part of some pieces of liturgy, and creeps into prayers of confession from time to time – although we aren’t really very big on those in our tradition, either.
But I’m guessing that if you did one of those words cloud things based on the language we use in Church – in our songs, our prayers, our sermons – ‘repent’ would only appear in very small font. And most of the times it gets used it’s probably in our Bible readings.
We aren’t very comfortable with the language of repentance.
It goes against the grain. It seems to go against the positive declarations of God’s unconditional love that we (quite rightly) place at the heart of our proclamation of the good news.
And I think, too, that we connect (or suspect that others connect) the word repent with that sort of aggressive, relentlessly negative brand of “turn or burn, sinner” Christianity that we really don’t want to be associated with.
But it’s an important word in the Christian vocabulary, and while the word itself might be hard to rehabilitate into use outside the Church, the ideas behind it are as relevant – or more so – than ever.
For at its heart, the call to repentance, the ‘making ready for the coming king’ is a call change: to change the way you think (or see the world), and thus change the way you act, in such a way as to align (or realign) oneself with the Kingdom that God has promised, and that Jesus has made known.
Repentance is what prepares the way for the Kingdom to come – in our lives, in our world.
And though we might not choose the language of repentance, or of the Kingdom of God, that idea, that call, is incredibly timely right now. For we are in the midst of what is quite literally a once in a generation disruption of the status quo at every single level of society – in our individual lives, in our communities, in our Churches, in our national economies, in our international relationships. Everything has been thrown into the air, and there will probably be no better chance ever for us to choose to restart facing in a different direction – which is precisely what repentance means. To think, and then act, differently.
Perhaps the last time the world as a whole has seen such a disruption was the second world war. And many nations took the opportunity to rebuild differently – we start to see the acceptance of women in the workplace, we see the emergence of welfare safety nets and national health systems and universal education. No-one called it repentance, but that is what it was.
When you hear calls for us to take this opportunity to build back with a focus on renewable energy and an end to fossil fuels, that is actually a call to national, and international, repentance. To set ourselves in a new direction, more truly aligned with the values of the Kingdom.
This week saw the international day for people with disabilities, and their catchline this year, which you might have seen on our signboard, “Build back better for all”, reminding us that so often people with disabilities get left out of our thinking and our planning; that is a call for repentance, to ensure that the marginalised have a voice in our decision making.
In Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, one in every six children lives below the poverty line, with the greatly reduced opportunities that go with growing up lacking the basic needs for education and flourishing. So when we hear calls to make at least some part of the jobseeker allowance permanent, to lift thousands of these families out of poverty, we are hearing a call to repentance, to a change in our national priorities.
But this sort of social reorientation is only one part of the call to repentance – we have to also hear that call on us as individuals.
And again, let’s see the interruption of COVID as an opportunity. That’s not to say that it’s a good thing – it’s not – and I’m certainly not in the ‘God sent COVID so that we might…’ school of thought (still less ‘God sent COVID as punishment because we….’) – but it is an opportunity, because it has forced us in so many ways out of old habits, and invited us to reassess what matters and then act on that.
I know that for many it’s been a rediscovery of the simple joys of connecting with other people; of how good it is to chat over a cup of coffee (or even tea) or a shared meal. For others it’s been the profound recognition that “we’re all in it together” is far more true than we ever realised, and with it a deepened commitment to working within the community, or for causes which make for a better world.
How do we as individuals take this as a chance to ‘repent’, to change direction, to align ourselves once more with the things of the Kingdom of God?
And we also need to ask the same question of ourselves as a Church. All over the world congregations have faced not being able to meet in person for worship, and have been confronted with the question “what are we, when we are not gathering on Sunday?”
I believe many of us have realised, or re-realised, that the Church has become internally focussed, worship-centric. When that was taken away, we found ourselves asking what was left.
So for us as congregations and denominations, we too need to be asking – how do we “build back better”, how do we emerge from this time more aligned with the mission of God and less focussed on our own needs.
I’d normally finish a sermon like this by asking everyone to pause and identify one thing that they would like to do differently, one way that they would like to change direction, to repent, as we emerge from COVID.
But to make just one change is to fail to take advantage of this once in a lifetime disruption. I was involved in a review a couple of weeks ago in which someone mentioned that he had taken a change in role as a chance to identify 47 concrete actions he was going to take to improve his personal health and wellbeing. 47. And that was just changing jobs.
So I don’t want you to think now about one way you want to “build back better”. I want you to go away and make a list. Maybe not 47. But more than one.
John prepared the way for Jesus by calling people to repent. To actually change things, to change the ways that they were living in order to fit with the values and priorities of the Kingdom that Jesus was coming to proclaim.
It’s a big call. Let’s take it seriously.