Straight paths


The Second Sunday of Advent
December 4th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

On an early March morning, when the sun had yet to rise, I piled in a small bus with other pilgrims, and made my way out of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is perched atop a plateau, so to exit the city on the east side, you begin descending through stony hills that are vacant except for the occasional shepherd tending a small flock, and soon find yourself awash in the Judean Wilderness.

Our group was trying to beat the sunrise, in the hope that we would be present within that wilderness when the first light of day began to illuminate it.

We were successful, and as the dark shadows of the night before began to give way to highlighted rocks and sun-induced shadows, the contours of the wilderness began to take shape before my eyes.

It is a land which takes its shape from the water that is so often denied it…a deserted landscape where each valley and canyon lead into a central channel…a channel that forms the path of the road that leads from the plain of Jericho and the Jordan up toward the high plateau of Jerusalem.

That road is the setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan, and looking upon it that morning, I gained new appreciation for how vulnerable a traveler would be in that land of no trees and nowhere to hide.

This is the land in which John appeared…John who baptized in the Jordan, who may well have lived in the caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scolls were written and discovered…John whom Matthew referred to as the one Isaiah was speaking about when saying, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

The wilderness of Judea is a place where there are no straight paths.

The water doesn’t cut straight paths, but rather paths of least resistance, and the land is a testament to this.

If John is the one of whom Isaiah spoke…then what on earth does it mean to make the Lord’s paths straight in the midst of a meandering wilderness?

On this Second Sunday of Advent, that is a major question that is before us.

As we discussed last week, Advent is a season in which we prepare for the Lord’s coming as a child in the Incarnation, and for his second Advent whenever that may be.

This week I have been wondering exactly how we do that.

John speaks about repentance as being the first step in this journey of preparation.

But what kind of repentance is he talking about?

In our day and age, repentance is often relegated to the formal act of confession that we know from church, or maybe more generically in an apology for that which we’ve done wrong.

Being sorry can definitely accompany repentance, but I have always found that focusing too much on contrition can take away from the major purpose of repentance, namely that we “turn to God.”

Like a sunflower that rotates toward the first rays of sunlight and follows the sun’s path across the sky…a person who repents directs his or her attention to God and God’s realm, rather than the competing, and often seductive, false realms of this world.

Contrition for all the ways in which we don’t do this is certainly helpful, but if we find ourselves wallowing in the wrongs we’ve done, instead of turning toward the light, then we haven’t repented in the way John speaks.

John wants the people of God to be rid of all the barriers that prevent them from being in direct exposure to the realm of God…that is what it means to make the Lord’s paths straight.

Just like the water that John used to baptize in the wilderness, that takes the path of least resistance to reach the roots of the plants, bringing life, and then flows further to gather together as one in the river, a true believer repents in order to receive life, and carry it onward for others.

Making the Lord’s paths straight has virtually nothing to do with building direct highways through the wilderness, roads that would provide direct access to far flung settlements and reduce travel time.

It has to do with getting real before God…in all our blessedness and wretchedness…and finding ways to further reduce the gap between our truest selves and others…between who we have been created to be and the God who created us.

Getting real. Preparing the way of the Lord. Making God’s paths straight.

John lashes out at the Pharisees and the Sadducees who come out to observe him because the religion they guard and use to their advantage is more about increasing the resistance, and increasing the barriers between the average believer and God than it is about reducing them.

Perhaps those who came out seeking baptism were not so, but only time would distinguish them from their more politically motivated brethren.

It is the fruits of repentance which will determine if they are about making God’s paths straight or about placing stumbling blocks upon the road.

The fruit of repentance is not so different from the fruit of the Spirit of which our patron saint speaks in his letter to the Galatians.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Pursuing these values, instead of thwarting them is what repentance is all about, and is what preparing the way of the Lord involves.

One of the most striking features of the Judean wilderness is that the landscape is so stark.

It is easier to see contrasts and to distinguish life and death in such a place.

Anything that grows is being fed from water, and gains its life from being close to the paths that surface water takes, or has broken through layer upon layer of rock to reach the deep springs hidden in the heart of the earth.

Anything that does not is dried up, dusty, and dying.

What wilderness do you encounter this Advent season?

Is it an internal one where you go to wrestle with the spirits, or the wilderness of our world in which repentance is so often seen as weakness, and in which superficial manipulation of the tenets of God’s realm is more treasured than getting real and turning toward the light?

While John the Baptist existed in a distant age, and his context for prophetic witness was different than our own…his message…which is the message of all prophets who proceeded and followed him, is a timeless one.

The God who created us calls us into relationship, and asks nothing more nor less than the free will offering of our truest self, which is saturated in and sustained by God’s love.

Repentance means turning to that love and receiving it, so that we might share it freely…and it means letting go of anything that prevents us from doing so.

This Sunday, choose to be like sunflowers dear people of God.

Repent…turn toward the Lord and rededicate your lives, in matters both small and large, toward making God’s paths straight.

Be like water in the wilderness, following the path of least resistance, and bringing life wherever you go.

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