This sermon was delivered on the occasion of our Annual Meeting.
This time of year, I do a lot of preparing. Though the setup takes a lot of work, I particularly love preparing our house for Christmas. Unpacking and hanging all the ornaments is a tradition I shared with my family, and that I now can share with my girls. I love telling my oldest daughter the stories behind certain ornaments and helping her decide where they should go. I also put out our international crèche collection. They remind me of travels I have made or friends from far away places. Each inspires something different in me, reflecting the culture and artistry of different countries. And of course, my daughter loves helping me hide away the baby Jesuses until Christmas day. We even take down some artwork on our wall to make room for the cards which friends from far and wide send to us. There is something homey and comforting about the whole process of preparing for Christmas, and I love the way that the preparation makes me feel grounded and joyful.
In our Old Testament lesson today, the text says, “prepare the way of the LORD.” In this season of Advent, we are to prepare for the arrival of the Christ Child. Now certainly, unpacking ornaments, advent wreaths, and crèches are one way to prepare. But God is talking about a different kind of preparation today. God is not talking about an outward change – like decorating our homes. God is talking about an inward preparation – an inward change in anticipation of the LORD. I am reminded of how one of our parishioners just recently prepared himself for the LORD. Several weeks ago, one of our young parishioners decided to receive his first communion. He prepared by reading about the Eucharist at home with his family, asking questions, and talking with them about their experiences. He worked on memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, so that he might fully participate in the prayer life of our community. And then he sat with me as we walked through the Eucharistic liturgy, talking about what each part means, why that part is significant, and what all those crazy things on the altar are called. Finally, he chose someone to present him before the entire community, where he and we all declared that he was prepared to be in full communion with this community. He waited and worked to prepare himself for the consumption of our LORD. And now, each week that I have placed the body of Christ in his hand since then, I have felt a sweet, deeply abiding satisfaction when he reaches his hands toward me to receive Christ’s body.
The kind of preparation that our young parishioner did is a small taste of the kind of preparation God calls for in our Old Testament today. Isaiah says that in order to prepare, we need to make straight in the desert a highway for our God, lift up every valley, make low every mountain and hill, level the uneven ground, and make plain the rough places. This passage is so familiar to us, that many of us miss the magnitude of what God is saying. When was the last time you tried to fill in a valley or level a mountain? Of course, God is not telling us to literally take the winding roads of deserts and make them straight. But in the metaphors, God is telling us that preparing for God is not easy work. In fact, preparing for the LORD is a monumental task. Preparing for the LORD is not like preparing our homes for Christmas, where we can make a basic checklist and slowly check the items off the list. When given the hefty work of preparing ourselves inwardly for God, the task of leveling our valleys and mountains and smoothing out our rough places is much more difficult.
In some ways, I have watched St. Margaret’s do a lot of this interior work. Over the course of the last year, our Vestry and Buildings and Grounds Committee have made level the mess that had become our Undercroft. Though taking on an expensive project, they together worked to clean out harmful mold and mildew, solved a drainage problem to prevent that kind of damage again, and reimagined how that space could be utilized by us and our community. Meanwhile, our educational offerings have been totally made low in this last year. We revamped our Sunday School program after years of struggling to find the best way to raise our children in the faith. We reworked our worship schedule so that adults could claim an hour in their busy lives to ponder their faith and make straight paths in the desert. We have filled in the valleys by marching in parades, sponsoring baseball teams, eating pancakes at local diners, and inviting total strangers into our midst so that they might help us fill in those valleys. Of course, anyone who knows St. Margaret’s also knows that you are only a stranger here for about one Sunday before our wonderfully welcoming community has made sure they know your whole life story before your coffee cup is empty.
All of those have been wonderfully positive things in our lives, but not easy work. I cannot tell you the number of people who worried and fretted over our Undercroft expenses, complained about how long the work was taking, and questioned the wisdom of the work. I cannot tell you the number of times I myself considered whether we should halt educational offerings altogether due to low turnout. I cannot tell you how many times I needed each one of us to invite someone to church and instead heard someone say, “Oh, well isn’t that what our new website is for?” We have been making progress toward straightening paths, filling in valleys, and leveling mountains. But we have also gotten very dirty, been impatient and frustrated with each other, and sometimes have dropped our shovels altogether. That is what happens when you do this kind of preparation for the LORD. The work is not easy. The work is monumental. The work is, well, work. And work is what God is inviting us into today.
The good news is that today’s text is one of those “both-and” texts.[i] Yes, God is inviting us into some hard work today. As we reflect on another year of service, at the mounds of dirt we have already moved, God is charging us to roll up our sleeves and keep digging. And yes, God promises that the work of preparing will not be easy work. But God also makes a promise while we are in the mire of making roads straight. Our text today from Isaiah says, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This last sentence has been lingering with me this week. Maybe because I am a nursing mom, or maybe because this is the only time that scripture talks about the work of a mother sheep, but I find myself riveted by these words.
Just this week, I had one of “those” nights at our house. I do not know whether she was teething or just had a rough day, but I lost count after the fifth time I woke up to my infant’s crying one night. The next morning, I woke up bleary-eyed, almost falling asleep while eating my morning cereal, spilling my coffee on my computer, and generally having a rough time trying to focus. That is the life of a mother with young children. And I assume, the life of a mother sheep is not much easier – constantly using her body to protect and feed her lambs. To that wearied mother sheep, God says that God will gently lead her. In fact, not only that, God will gather up her lambs, embracing them in God’s bosom, and then God will gently lead the mother sheep. I am reminded of the many times someone has scooped up my daughters when they were losing their cool. I am reminded of the individuals who have forced me to go take a date night while they watched my kids. I am reminded of the encouraging words and sympathetic nods I have received over these last five years.
That is the kind of care God promises us in the midst of our work. God says, “Go out there and get dirty filling valleys, leveling mountains, and straitening roads. And when you are weary from the work, I will scoop up your little ones, and gently lead you by my side.” As I look forward to the coming year, I hear both a charge and a comfort for us today. We all have more to learn, more people to serve, more spreading of the gospel to do. But we also have a shepherd who tenderly encourages and comforts us – and then kicks us right back into the ring. Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] George W. Stroup, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 28.