Living Between Steps
It has become tradition at All Saints' to open the season of Advent as we did last week, with a single voice from the back of the church singing, a capella, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." That is our song--we are the people who have been called to prepare the Lord's way--and it sums up the whole of our lives as well as the focus of our worship this Advent: To get ready for God, to make his paths straight these four weeks before Christmas.
For most of us Advent is a season of preparation both here and everywhere else. There are presents to be bought and wrapped, cards to be written, parties to be gone to and given. It is a season of remembrance and reunion, when we see and hear from people outside our everyday orbits. Children come home from school, parents plan holiday visits, old friends stop by to say hello, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.
It is a season of homecoming, and if your home looks anything like mine, there is some work to be done. Anticipating guests, I notice things I had not noticed before: Spider webs in the ficus tree, paw prints on the sliding glass doors, tumbleweeds under the bed. The woodwork I have been going to paint for six and a half years suddenly seems urgent, and it is apparent that the fireplace has needed cleaning for at least that long. There are advantages, however; the papier mache angel I have been meaning to take down since last Christmas is still hanging from the high beam of my living room, so I am ahead of the game on that count at least.
It is a lot of work, and I dread it, but I also know from experience that when it is done my home will not only look but feel better to me. I have this theory, that when you clean house the molecules rearrange themselves. I cannot prove it, but I know for a fact that when it is clean my home has more room in it--partly because I have tossed out the useless stuff and put the good stuff where I can find it--but mostly because I have paid attention to the place. I have given it my critical eye and my loving care, and in return it purrs with satisfaction, a place I am glad to welcome my guests.
Do you know what I mean? If you do, then you know what John the Baptist means, too, because he is saying the same thing in this morning's lesson from the Gospel According to Luke--only the house that concerns him is the house of ourselves, our souls and bodies. Vacuum your hearts, he says, and dust off your minds. Wash the windows through which you perceive your God and make his paths straight, because he is on his way to stay with you. Prepare the way of the Lord; prepare a place that is ready to receive him, and one in which you are glad to welcome him.
When John the Baptist first preached his message, most of his hearers knew what he was talking about. It was the custom in those days for oriental monarchs to send couriers ahead of them on their journeys--to check out the roads and warn the locals to get to work, smoothing out the ruts and patching the potholes--because the king was on his way. The only problem was that John did not know exactly who was on his way, or what direction he was coming from. All he knew was that he was coming from God, and that the accommodations he preferred were the lives and hearts of those he met along the way.
Sight unseen, John consented to be his messenger, warning everyone who would listen to clean house, to pave roads, to prepare the way of the Lord. It was an exciting message:That the Lord was coming to be among his people, and that everyone would get a chance to see him. It was not a Christian message, mind you, because John had not yet laid eyes on Jesus, but it was a message of great joy, that God was about to become present to his people--not as a pillar of fire or a still small voice but as a savior. What could be better news?
Maybe it was not what John said, but how he said it. Repent! he said, and be baptized. Change your ways, and let me wash you off so that the outside of you matches the inside of you, which has been wiped clean of sin. Repent! he said, and you can guess that his hearers felt about the same way you do when you hear the word. Repent! The very sound of it conjures up revival tents, Elmer Gantry, all those billboards along the back roads of the South: The Lord Jesus Is Coming, Perhaps Today. Are You Ready? Repent! Contemplate all the ways you have broken your dear savior's heart, confess your wickedness and beg forgiveness, pray to be delivered from the torments of hell which you so richly deserve. Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord, and never mind that the road is paved with your fear, your despair and above all your guilt. Repent and be saved!
Where did the good news go? What happened to the welcome home party? What started out as a celebration has become a wake; those who were craning their necks for a glimpse of their savior have become preoccupied with their sins instead, and have somehow gotten the idea that what their Lord most wants from them is to hear how sorry they are, and how they will try to do better from now on. They have gotten repentance all mixed up with remorse, and dread the holy visitor they set out to welcome.
You may quote me: Repentance has nothing to do with feeling sorry--about yourself or for yourself. Repentance is not a matter of listing all the things you wish you had not done in your life and feeling badly about them, as if you could dilute them somehow with your regrets. Repentance is not about wishing you were a better person or keeping track of your faults, as if God might be persuaded to overlook them if only you could convince him that you are really, really, really, really sorry.
There is an old story that makes the rounds, about the evangelist who concluded his fiery sermon on sin by asking everyone in the congregation who wanted to go to heaven to stand up. A few of them did, mostly children and grandparents plus a couple of Sunday school teachers. Then he asked all those who did not want to go to hell to stand up, and everybody else got to their feet. Repentance is not about avoiding God's wrath.
Nor is it an intellectual exercise, in which you make an objective survey of your good and bad points and come up with a comprehensive self-improvement plan. Repentance is not deciding to be nicer, or more generous, or more spiritual; it is not, for that matter, something that is under our control. As much fuss as we make in the Christian church about the need for repentance, in the end it is more something that happens to you than something you decide.
Repentance is when you come home from a camping trip where you carried all that you needed on your back, or from a trip to another country where children are thin and go barefoot--repentance is that moment when you walk through the front door of your house and everything looks different to you. Your living room is like a museum, filled with such lovely and unnecessary things; your kitchen overwhelms you with its three sets of dishes and food enough for weeks; your closet is so full of clothes you wonder how you ever decided you needed them all. You are rich as Croesus, and you did not even know it; you have so much more than you need that you start plotting how you can give it away.
Repentance is when you wake up in the middle of the night with a pain, or a lump, or a fever, and while you lie there wondering whether it is something or nothing, your life begins to look different to you. You begin to count the people whom you love and who love you, and to think about all the things you meant to do as soon as you had time. Whether you have got ten days to live or ten thousand, you decide to take the time and to make every moment count.
Repentance is when you have got your life set--your career established, your savings plan begun, your daily routine streamlined for maximum comfort and efficiency--and someone else comes into that life: An elderly parent, a sick friend, a spouse, a child. All of a sudden everything looks different; one way of life dissolves before your eyes and another takes its place, a life in which you are intimately involved with another human being. Whether you are loving it or hating it, you have the sneaking suspicion that it is why you were born, and that it is the only thing in the world worth doing.
I heard a story about a soldier named Ralph. The teller of the story was a professor at a large American university who had been invited to speak at a military base one December. Ralph had been sent to meet him at the airport, and after they had introduced themselves, they headed toward the baggage claim. All the way down the concourse, the professor said, Ralph kept disappearing; once to help an older woman whose suitcase had fallen open, once to lift two toddlers up to where they could see Santa Claus, and again to give directions to someone who was lost. Each time he came back with a big smile on his face and picked up the conversation where he had left off. The professor could not figure him out.
"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked Ralph when he came back for the third time.
"Do what?" Ralph said
"Where did you learn to live like that?"
"Oh," Ralph said, "during the war, I guess," and over the course of the next hour or so he told the professor about his tour of duty in Viet Nam, about how it was his job to clear mine fields, and how he watched one of his friends after another blow up before his eyes. "I learned to live between steps," he said. "I never knew whether the next one would be my last, so I learned how to get everything I could out of the moment between when I picked up my foot and when I put it down again. Every step I took, it was a whole new world, and I guess I've just been that way every since."
Repentance is a complete turnaround, a change of course, a change of heart and mind and life. Repentance is too busy redeeming the present to apologize for the past. Repentance spends less time hating the bad than loving the good. Repentance is a matter of being grasped by God, of being picked up and put down again so that everything looks different, so that you lose your old bearings and are offered new ones instead. That is God's part in the process, anyhow. Our part is to have the good sense to say "thank you" instead of "no" or "not yet," and to learn how to steer by those new lights instead of scrambling to return to our old, familiar ones.
It is not, I think, something that happens only once. Life is full of such turning points, both large and small: Moments when we are offered a new way of looking at things, a new place to stand, a new direction. They are exciting, disorienting, liberating, frightening moments, which make them easy to discount. After the storm has passed, the fever has gone, the baby has been toilet trained, the war is over, it is easy to forget how different everything looked for a while, how changed, how brand new and wide open.
How lucky for us, then, that the Lord is coming, the Lord who has more such moments up his sleeve than we can either imagine or count. Repent! John says, Change! and it is less a message of judgment than of grace, an invitation to be lifted up and turned around to face the one whose name is Love. So prepare a way for him, make a straight path. Clean the house of your heart, sweep the front steps to your soul, understanding even as you do that it is the spirit of the Almighty working in you and in us all, making all things new, preparing in each of us a home he can call his own. Amen.
Barbara Taylor Atlanta, Georgia