For those of us who live in northern climates, the season of Advent is often a snowy time of the year. Earlier today, my wife and I shoveled our driveway after a twenty-four hour snowstorm that left three to six inches of snow to be removed. With the two of us, it was not a difficult job but as I get older, I know that tomorrow morning I will be sore from approximately 45 minutes of work. One night last winter it snowed heavily along with a fierce, blowing wind. We discovered in the morning that the white stuff had drifted in front of our garage to over three feet. After working a few minutes to get rid of it, we decided it was time to call the snow plow.
Preparing the way can be difficult, but it must be prepared for something to happen. If the plows don't clear the roads, no one goes anywhere. If the boulders that have fallen on the mountain highway are not removed, traffic will be at a standstill. Preparing the way is necessary and it requires work.
The Gospel of Mark starts out with a shout to prepare the way. Just as the town crier in eighteenth century Boston strode down the street ringing his bell for all to listen, so the Elijah to come (Malachi 4:5), John the Baptist announces the coming of the One to bring deliverance-- no one less than the Lord himself-- Yahweh returning to Zion to become king. In John's ministry, the words of Isaiah are fulfilled.
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight'" (Mark 1:3; cf. Isaiah 40:3-5)
John will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, but plowing the road will not be easy. John is a truth-teller. The world needs truth-tellers, but they are seldom received well in their lifetimes. Their words are too honest and we prefer a more subtle approach. We want a softer message that gives us time to adjust. "You're doing great! But can you work on just a couple of things?" We don't mind a little criticism as long as it comes wrapped in encouragement. It is hard to adjust to a prophet who speaks with a sense of great urgency, who will not give us time to get our toes wet in the chilly waters of repentance. We resent a preacher like John who insists on pushing us into the cold wetness of transformation without letting us adjust to it gradually. The guy dressed in camel hair lacks a comforting bedside manner.
Yet, even though it is difficult to accept, John's intensity is for our benefit. The preparation necessary requires, not just clearing away the debris on the road, but taking a crooked, winding path and stretching it to make it straight. If that sounds painful, it is. We the people are the road who must shovel away all the things in life that cause us to stumble over the ways of God. We must straighten out our crooked lives to be ready for God's visitation to us. We must repent. We must change our hearts and lives. To repent involves not just a little redecoration of the spiritual house; nothing less than a complete renovation will do. It is an unnerving thought that is also a promise. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
When the old Christendom spoke of the coming again of the Lord Jesus, it always thought first of all of a great day of judgment. And as un-Christmas-like as this idea may appear to us, it comes from early Christianity and must be taken with utter seriousness … . The coming of God is truly not only a joyous message, but is, first, frightful news for anyone who has a conscience. And only when we have felt the frightfulness of the matter can we know the incomparable favor. God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us, he purifies us, he sanctifies us, he comes to us with his grace and love. He makes us happy as only children can be happy.
The difficult and disarming work of making the path straight, the work of confession, repentance, and penance is difficult. It goes against our rebellious nature. It dispels our illusions that we are our own lords. It has been announced-- shouted-- that the true Lord is coming and we must prepare. We must know our place. And in that humbling of ourselves, we come to see the promise in our repentance. We see the importance in clearing the street of our sin and straightening the way to our hearts. For it is only then that the one true Lord, the King, can enter into our lives when he arrives.
John the Baptist not only leads the way in clearing the road; he guides us in the work of repentance that is ours and ours alone. John can do his part and guide us, but only we can do the work necessary for our repentance.
Like a trumpet in the middle of the night, the shout has gone forth. "Get ready! The Lord is on his way! There is no time to lose!"
Will we be prepared for the King's arrival?