Rev. Lyle McKenzie Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Last Sunday, as part of the ecumenical leadership exchange, I was at Knox Presbyterian and I thanked the congregation for welcoming me home. Like many times before, I was asked that morning how someone with the name McKenzie was a Lutheran and not a Scottish Presbyterian. Welcome home. They were very friendly and welcoming, if a little reserved in worship, taking time to warm up to humour in my sermon. It reminded me of a phrase I have heard Presbyterians use to describe themselves, “The frozen chosen.” They were much warmer, and we got to laughing together. It was good to be there.
Everyone involved in the exchange met for lunch this past week, Including Father William. And the first thing he said to me was, “You have a great community!” I could only agree. “You were warmly welcomed?” I asked. “I got applause,” he said. Welcome home. Laura asked how everything went for me. I told her it was all good, friendly and wanting to make me a Presbyterian. “Great she said, I told them you were a nice guy.” Laura’s experience at St. Luke’s was similarly positive, and so also at Grace for Daniel, and of course for Dave here as well. It is good to be in this together, and have the way prepared.
Today is all about preparing the way. Like Isaiah’s prophecy and John’s wilderness purpose, preparing the way is our calling, in the way of those who have gone before and prepared the way for God, for us. Who prepared the way for you? How and where are we called to prepare the way?
When I think about my arrival here at Church of the Cross I am grateful for those who prepared the way before. From Pastor Propp, to Pastor Johnson, to Pastor Maier, all faithfully proclaiming the Gospel in word and sacraments and helping to shepherd and form this community of the Cross of Christ Jesus. Each of them helped prepare the way for God to be present and active in this community, moving, reforming, growing, building for the future. And there were interim pastors, like Pastor Craig Knight and just before my arrival, Pastor Don Johnson, whose specific role was preparing the way.
I have always been thankful for Don, and his wild ways, standing out on the street corner waving people into church, introducing new liturgical ideas and practises, kind of flying around disrupting everything and everyone a little or a lot in the turbulence that followed him. John the Baptist might not be a bad nickname for Don. When I arrived, the community seemed prepared for a slightly calmer presence and to focus on what we needed to do together. I think Don helped prepare for that, as did all the faithful pastors before.
And of course this is not the work of pastors alone! Pastors come and go as a community continues, It is the work of everyone together in every time, the leadership and all who serve and support the ministry, other ministers, staff and regular volunteers, in music, youth, community care, administration – building community, trust, openness, welcome, forgiveness, compassion, hope, joy. Developing and supporting leadership, service, stewardship, vision and commitment. It is work we do together. It is the work of God’s Spirit. It is the work of preparing the way for God, as was prepared for God for us, by those before us.
For John the Baptizer, in good prophetic tradition, like Isaiah, Micah and Elijah before, that preparation was centred in the wilderness, a baptism of repentance – turning again to God, and pointing to the one who is greater.
At the “Wine before Supper” gathering at UVic last week, in our conversation about this gospel reading, a person talked very openly about it being a wilderness time, feeling they’d lost much of what they’d come to depend on, and uncertain of where it was leading. Over the supper that followed, I watched as another person carefully listened and comforted the individual, offering words of encouragement and hope. It seemed to me that the wilderness, repentance and forgiveness, and the comfort and companionship of another person were preparing the way for something new, something of God.
Lately, a friend and I have met in the morning for a weekly coffee/tea and a kind of mental health break for both of us. It is at one of those hip coffee places in the neighbourhood where they take real pride in their beverages and you pay for it. I tend to resent paying $3.50 for tea, mostly because I am cheap and think I can make it at home for a few cents. But this is loose leaf perfectly brewed tea, in a hip place that plays vinyl records. What am I complaining about? The place is busy much of the time when we are there, with people stopping to get a coffee on their way to work or after dropping kids at school, or retirees with a morning coffee routine. Sometimes it is downright loud, having to shout for conversation. Sometimes it is the same people, sometimes I don’t recognize them but many if not most are known to the barista and server. More than once, I noticed one woman who orders her coffee at the counter, and then the server comes around and they share a quite intimate kiss. I’m a little surprised, although the sandwich board sign outside says “coffee and love.” But I suspect coffee-work starts with leaving the house early, and this is their first chance to say good morning. Good for them.
What I see and experience in that neighbourhood coffee shop is a kind of comfort, comfort for people in the wilderness. Lots of important conversations happen I am sure. They do for my friend and me. And some just for fun and that’s also important. People are there for a time, for something good to drink-in with others, maybe connect and find themselves again just a little, and get on with their day, on their way. It’s just a coffee shop, but it’s preparing people in some way for their day, their life.
Right across the street is a church. I can’t help but make a comparison. It’s pretty quiet in the morning, no sign that says coffee and love, or God and love, or God and coffee, and why should there be. But they share something of a common purpose. To prepare a way for a new beginning to the day, to prepare a way for God and a new beginning to life! If I was serving that congregation I suppose I would have to do the cool thing and hang out there for my office hours and get to know the neighbourhood folks and their stories, and point across the street to say, I’m from there. And who knows what might happen in preparing the way for God, for them, for me.
There are beautiful words and images today for what this preparing the way of God means. In Psalm 85, it reads, “Steadfast love and faithfulness have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Preparing God’s way as others have prepared it for us, before us, in steadfast love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace. It is our purpose and calling, as for John and the prophets and so many others before us, preparing the way for God, for us; and so also our preparing the way for God, for others, for this world now, in ways of steadfast love and faithfulness, in righteousness and peace.
The gospel of Mark begins with the end before it all begins. The first line or title reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “The beginning” – and in the gospel it doesn’t end, the calling to prepare the way continues… with us; the “good news” – in Jesus’ arriving as God present in this world and our lives and every wilderness in which we and others might find ourselves, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, “of Jesus Christ” – saviour of the world as God intended, not in the world’s way of power over, but self-giving love for the world; “the son of God” – God’s very presence in a vulnerable humanity to save and free us from sin and death, now and forever. We give thanks that others prepared this way for God in Christ Jesus, for us before us; and for our calling to prepare the way for God in Christ Jesus, for others after us, in steadfast love and faithfulness, in righteousness and peace. Blessed Advent.