|December 10, 2000|
|First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct 06776|
|Rev. Michael Moran|
|Write to Rev. Moran|
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate
was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother
Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler
of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of
God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the
words of the prophet Isaiah, "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.' "
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ
Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and
peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in
every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the
gospel from the first day until now.
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will
bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me
in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my
imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is
my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with
knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in
the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest
of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of
Sermon: Prepare the Wall
I want to thank all of you who have taken time out of your busy schedules
and come to church today. I know how hectic these weeks before Christmas
can be when we try and prepare for the holidays and the gifts and the tree
and the decorations and the family coming from near and far - or having to
get ready to do the traveling ourselves. It's not a simple thing to prepare
I think if the planners of holidays had know what a crunch we'd all be in,
they'd have scheduled Thanksgiving a little earlier and given us six or
eight weeks of Advent.
Now I don't want to know who has everything ready and the cards are in the
mail and the presents are all wrapped and you're relaxed. Please, I have
warm affection for each of you; don't ruin it by telling me you're already
prepared for Christmas!
One of the great themes of Advent is preparation, which is the reason we
read and sing about John the Baptist who went into all the region around the
Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as
it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of
one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord!
I remember the first Christmas Eileen and I celebrated as husband and wife.
We were married in May of 1980 and in June we moved to Vermont, into the
parsonage of the Union Church of Proctor.
Our parsonage was a big Victorian turn-of-the-century Vermont house,
complete with a front porch, a side porch, a sleep porch, a walk in panty, a
walk in linen closet, a winter kitchen, a summer kitchen, and a beautiful
dining room. And it was in that dining room that I had an epiphany about
Advent, and it all came to me when I opened a roll of wallpaper.
Let me explain one thing before I go on. I grew up in a two-bedroom
apartment in New York City. Every three years the Mike the porter would
come by and ask my parents if they wanted the apartment painted white,
green, or yellow. My parents would pick a color and a team of painters
would come in and do the whole apartment in two days. That was the complete
extent of my experience in home decorating.
Then, as a newly married man, I moved to this massive house in Vermont and
my wife - still a strange term to me at the time - my wife suggested we
wallpaper this dining room.
Sure, I said, how hard can that be! We'll have it done by Thanksgiving and
invite both our families here for the traditional turkey dinner in our newly
decorated dining room. What a great idea!
Now I don't want to tell you about picking out the wallpaper, and I don't
want to mention that the first piece was hung upside down. Both those
events are sermons in their own right. Today I'm just going to tell you
about the first line of instructions when I took the plastic wrap off the
first role of wallpaper and this little sheet of paper with directions fell
Directions, first step, number 1 - Prepare the wall.
Sounds simple enough - prepare the wall. Let's do a thorough job and take
off all the old paper - that's a good idea. How long can that take?
How long? How long, O Lord, how long!
It was an archaeological expedition. Apparently at one time the dining room
was a color of green that you associate with a camouflaged tank disabled
sometime during WW II in the jungles of Panama. Under that was a very
interesting nautical theme, and under that a bright and cheery leaf motif
which I suspect was put up to ward off the melancholy which comes to all
Vermonters around the middle of April when you know it's spring somewhere
but that somewhere happens to be over 150 miles south and you're still
slugging through mud season.
First we borrowed a spray gun, then we rented a steamer: Night after night
scraping, spraying, scraping, peeling, steaming, scraping, peeling,
scraping, scraping. Finally we got to the last layer and in places we could
already see the plaster wall. Hooray, the end is near!
O, what fools we were. For when we began to scrape and peel that last
layer, we discovered that little tiny pieces, and some not so little pieces,
were pulling out of the topcoat of the old plaster wall.
Divots, cracks, craters, potholes began to appear. With each scrape and
peel another spot to spackle, another spot to sand, another delay, another
Spackling is a skill - a skill I don't have. The more time I put into
spackling, the worse the appearance of the final result. O sure it looks
good at night when you have time to work and the only illumination is a
couple of bear bulbs in the middle of the room. You go to bed feeling
pretty good about what you've accomplished.
But then, in the morning, when you wake up and walk into the room full of
beautiful sunlight, there they are - many little shadows showing exactly
where those cracks and craters were, where you carefully spackled and
patiently sanded, where instead of holes, you've made bumps, instead of
cracks, you've made lines so that the wall resembles something like a relief
map of the highway system in Los Angeles after an earthquake.
But the job must move on. You've left perfection behind long ago, and now
you just want to get it done. So you prime and you size and six weeks, no
eight weeks, no twelve weeks later, you have a wall that is free of what is
old and ready to receive what is new, and when you look at it in the right
light, is smooth and finished and prepared.
And so there it is, step 1 of the directions is complete: Prepare the Wall.
It took a lot longer than we could have imagined; it involved a multitude of
steps, the learning of new skills, and help from friendly parishioners.
This first step ended up being 95% of the total job, but finally it is done.
Who could have thought that so much would be covered by those three simple
words: Prepare the wall.
And you want to know something - the wall looked so good I was tempted to
not even cover it with wallpaper. I mean the wallpaper, which was the
point, was almost an afterthought once the wall was prepared for it.
Now I mention this last point because I want to move from a lighthearted
explanation of preparing the wall to a more serious examination of what John
the Baptist meant when he proclaimed: Prepare the Way of the Lord!
Last week the Rabbi from Temple Sholom, Norman Koch, was visiting and I
asked him, "What is the Jewish view of preparing the way for the messiah?"
He told me one school of thought held that the Messiah will come when he is
no longer needed. The Rabbis teach that if you are planting a tree and you
hear that the Messiah is at the gate, finish planting the tree and then go
and greet him.
Don't think the messiah is going to finish your work for you or make your
work unnecessary. The messiah's job is not to create a better world, but to
receive the world that we have created and say to us, "Well done!"
This made me think of my wallpaper experience, and how when I was done
preparing the wall, it almost didn't need wallpaper any more. Wallpaper was
the finishing touch that made it all complete, but most of the work was in
It made me think also of the words of Paul we read this morning:
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will
bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. And this is my prayer,
that your love may overflow more and more that in the day of Christ you may
be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that
comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Of course we believe that the messiah has come, and that God in Christ has
initiated the work of salvation through the cross. But, we also believe
that Christ will come again. And Advent is a season when we think not only
about the birth of baby Jesus in the manger, but also about the coming of
the Son of Man in Glory at the end of time.
So the words of John the Baptist, "Prepare the Way" were preached not only
to that first congregation by the river Jordan, but to us here today, to us
who have been given the task of preparing the way for the Lord to return and
claim sovereignty, dominion, power, and glory.
What can we do to prepare the Way? What can we do to make a world where the
messiah is no longer needed?
Let us call to mind the words of the prophet Micah:
"With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of
rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of
my body for the sin of my soul?"
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of
you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
That sounds like a set of instructions with more work behind them even than
"Prepare the Wall."
To do justice - does that mean that we must be concerned about people living
in places I've never been living under systems of oppression that we can't
control? Does it mean that even though I am a straight white Anglo male I
must concern myself with prejudice against the not straight not white not
Anglo not male? Does it mean we must consider the means of production and
the conditions of the workers when we buy sneakers or sweaters or cute plush
toys with labels that say "Made in Malaysia"?
And loving kindness - does that mean we must refrain from telling Aunt
Harriet that the traditional pigs knuckles and sauerkraut casserole no
longer is well liked at the Christmas buffet? Or exactly how much patience
and tolerance are we supposed to have for the co-worker who stands over the
desk talking about their Thanksgiving at Club Med with seemingly nothing to
do on the job except thwart everyone else from finishing their work and
leaving for the day. And how about that driver who doesn't understand that
the new set of stop signs at the top of the Green here mean you take turns,
not that you see how fast you can follow the car in front of you through the
intersection? Does loving kindness mean you don't lay on the horn as they
cut you off? I admit I've failed that test.
And walking humbly with our God - does that direct us to a life of personal
piety and faithful discipleship? Does God expect a daily word of prayer, a
ready awareness of his presence, an appreciation of blessing, a heart of
gratitude, a generous sharing of our time, talents, and money?
Prepare the Way by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with
our God - is that what is necessary to take a world and scrape off and peel
away what is old and make it ready for what is new? Is that the path of
preparation for the Messiah who has come and begun this great work and will
come again and bring it to completion?
"I am confident of this," says Paul, "that the one who began a good work
among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. And this
is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more that in the day of
Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of
righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of
Prepare the Way! Amen
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