A number of years ago I was part of a group of young people at our church who put together a version of the musical, ‘Godspel’. It was a wonderful experience and highlighted elements of the story of Jesus from different perspectives. The opening scene is one I remember. It confused me at first. I. along with others in the musical were asked to research several philosophers and we were each allocated one of them. We walked around the stage parading our thoughts and wisdom before the audience – and within that group of philosophers there was some profound wisdom and knowledge! Suddenly a horn sounded, and a soft voice was heard in the distance (the rear of the hall), singing a repetitive refrain: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’. Over and over, building in volume as the person walked up the aisle and onto the stage. At first, we philosophers ignored the song, but eventually it engaged us and drew us into its simple refrain. The words pointed not to deep rational thoughts, philosophical truth or belief systems of the world. It pointed to One who was revealed, sitting on a ladder high in our midst. This person gently descended into our presence and blessed and called us and we became followers of this way. Throughout the rest of the story, we were the rag-tag group of followers of this Jesus who had come amongst us to draw us into a deeper, more profound vision of being human.
I remember the simplicity of our becoming. The simple singer who drew us into a song of preparing for something deeper, more mysterious and filled with possibility and hope. I remember being caught up in the song as it lifted us out of our individualistic thinking and competitive, reactive philosophies. I still think of that song every year at this time because I read the Gospel for the week and meet John the Baptist once more. Every year at this time a strange figure who dresses weirdly and speaks in harsh tones makes an appearance and invites us to ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord!’ and I wonder what this means?
What does it mean for a secular world to prepare the way of the Lord – to even believe or hope? We are surrounded by people of many faiths and none – agnosticism and various forms of atheism abound. There are the spiritual-but-not-religious, the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ and all who wonder what it is all about – whether that be Christmas or life in general. What does it mean for us to prepare the way of the Lord in a world where forms of religious fanaticism become so demeaning and dangerous? What does it mean to even consider the possibilities of the Divine breaking into human life in ways that transform and lead us more deeply into what it means to be human? In a world where forests burn and the earth is scorched by growing drought and people feel deep distress; a world where kids in school are shot by people living with anger and hatred or with mental illness; a world where some starve or die from lack of clean water whilst others are fighting obesity and the associated diseases; a world where millions are homeless due to war, oppression, hatred; a world where boredom, despair and alienation contribute to suicide and addictions; a world where exclusion, loneliness and isolation plague too many people’s live; a world of greed, where very few control too many resources and refuse to share; a world where power is abused and people are hurt – where domestic violence wounds and kills too many women…? What does it mean to prepare the way for Love to break into human life, into our lives? What does it mean to become more deeply and profoundly human, embracing other people, alike and different, the earth and the Spirit that holds all things in Divine grace and love? How do we prepare ourselves to enter into a deeper expression of being human and a life that is richer because it nurtures body, mind and spirit?
In this annual story of John the Baptist bursting into the life of his world, we encounter an irritating, confronting and deeply challenging voice. His language confuses our modern minds, especially when we recoil from the judgemental language we often associate with particular forms of religion that leave us feeling fearful, guilty, judged or unworthy – and ultimately we reject it. John’s language of judgement and sin don’t gel with our world and our the way we think about ourselves and others, although we, ourselves, are no doubt often given over to judging other people, in words or actions when they transgress our own belief systems or ideological constructs of life.
John speaks of the One who comes, the One whose way we prepare as coming in judgement to sift the grain from the chaff on the threshing floor. Judgement! It is so often what religion and ideology becomes! But what if the judgement is really about discernment and perception, about seeing with clarity? What if the One who comes, comes to see us as we are and wants to challenge us to become whom we can be? What if the judgement is about urging us to let go of that which prevents us from entering into the deeper, richer life that we can live but aren’t? What if judgement isn’t about punishment, guilt, fear and rejection but about seeing us clearly and sifting out the mess of life?
Similarly, when John speaks to the crowds who come and commands them to repent from their sin, is this about guilt and shame, about nit-picking the errors of our lives, the things, big and little we do or say that ‘transgress God’s laws’ and leave us feeling guilty? I wonder if it is more about the things we do, the choices we make, that detract from our becoming and being the deepest and fullest expression of who we can be? Don’t we too often choose to be something less than we know we can or want to be?
All of this takes place in the wilderness and it is probably in the wilderness that we find ourselves in a place where life is raw and more focussed through the struggle of barren experience, where entitlement and privilege count for less and injustice shines brightly before and sometimes within us. Preparing the way of the Lord is about making paths straight and levelling the playing field such that justice and righteousness flourish and people are included into a new way of deep humanity that is hope-filled, life-giving and there is abundance for all.
When we embark on the strange, confronting journey of ‘preparing the way of the Lord’ it is about becoming more whole and growing into our own unique being, allowing our deep, rich humanity to shine through. This journey leads us into wider living to prepare the way for Divine life to abound in our families, communities, workplaces, leisure and learning centres and the world we inhabit. It is the invitation to see through and beyond the wisdom of the wise and knowledgeable to something deeper that is grounded in practical, generous, abundant love that flows through and around us and all people such that peace and vitality fills our world in infectious grace. Preparing the way of the Lord invites to engage the questions and struggles of our world and our lives and to open ourselves vulnerably to the Living God who is love, looks deeply into us and invites us to become who we can be for the sake of the world. This is love, grace and life!