So begins the main part of Godspell, with John the Baptist singing the good news from Isaiah. In the recent production on Broadway, which I got to see with our Youth Group, he then extended his hand and water poured out from above into his hand as if from heaven and into a pool that was hidden onstage. The rest of the characters began to dance ecstatically in and through the water, singing and enjoying baptism in a way that we don’t even touch in the Episcopal Church. The characters understood that their sins were being washed away and they responded with all the passionate, almost hyper energy of the young people they were.
Now that sounds like a different kind of preparation for the Lord than we’re used to thinking about in advent. Common Advent themes are quiet and introspection; repentance and focus on sin; patient waiting… not ecstatic dancing and joy.
So what does it mean to “prepare the way of the Lord”? Are we supposed to be on our knees in silence? Or are we supposed to be partying and dancing?
The Isaiah passage that Luke is quoting in reference to John the Baptist is itself a meditation based upon the ancient practice of preparing the road for a royal visit. Take the way NYC shuts down when the President visits, and multiply it into a massive works program that starts months in advance: the king or emperor is going to be travelling on this road, so we need engineers, and we need to fill in the ruts, smooth it out, and do a lot of hard labor to prepare it for the honor of receiving the royal feet.
And who is to do that work? Us. This is not the Pelagian heresy of earning our own salvation through our works: it is only through God’s grace, and not our works, that we inherit salvation. Who else will prepare the way if not us? Is that not the mantle that John the Baptist took up—unworthy though he was—until he was faced with Jesus himself desiring baptism. When we commit fully to preparing the way for the Lord, sometimes the Lord shows up and then shows us the way. And that commitment includes both the penitence and introspection that we usually associate with Advent and the ecstatic optimism and joy that the kids in Godspell were expressing.
And I want to consider one way into that today—prayer. If you think of all the kinds of prayer that there are, most of us are very very good at one of them: petition. Please God do this… Please God, give me this…. Please God, make such and such happen. And that’s fine—we should ask God for things. “Ask and it shall be granted unto you,” and all that. We aren’t pestering or bothering God with our requests. But do we only ask God to do things for us, or do we hear that God is asking us to do things for God? To turn a John F. Kennedy quote around a little bit:
Ask not what your Lord can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Lord.
Prayer is a dialogue both ways—it’s not just us talking to God, it’s about us listening to God. What is God asking you to do because Jesus is coming? What needs to be done? Think of all the preparations that go into getting your house ready when you’re having a baby. Jesus’ arrival—whether in Bethlehem or at his second coming is like that. And who else will do it if not you—if not us. God is longing for us to prepare the way of the Lord… which rut can you fill in? Which length of road can you survey and plan for and build? That’s what I hear in the Gospel today. Luke is challenging us to be like John the Baptist; to cry out and prepare space for Jesus in our world, in our city, in our lives, in our hearts, in our families.
On my way home from bringing communion to a parishioner on Thursday afternoon, my iPod played another song from Godspell. It’s one that Jesus sings—a ballad called “Beautiful City.” I’d already worked on most of this sermon, and hearing the song I realized that it encapsulated much of what I wanted to say: the optimism of “we can build a beautiful city” (or a way in the wilderness). “We might not reach the ending/but we can start/brick by brick/heart by heart.” Building is how we turn our lives around—when we are at the end of our rope, we pick up a brick and start to build, and things take shape and build ourselves up with it. Because the hope of the song is to build not a city of angels but a city of man. It’s also appallingly gendered—they thought they were so avant garde in the 1970s, and now we hear it and think how dated it is. But that’s part of what this waiting in Advent is about: Jesus is a man; God comes not in angelic form, but in human form. God participates in the building of the city of man though Jesus the man. And through us.
Here's a link to Hunter Parrish singing "Beautiful City" from Godspell.