Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Luke 3:1-6

    Most of you know I’m from Nebraska, and compared to New York, there is really not a lot to do in my home state.  But as I was reflecting on John’s call to us to “prepare the way of the Lord,” I was thinking about one place that’s worth a visit, which is Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in the western panhandle.  Just west of what is called the Sandhills off of highway 2, you can visit an area where you can still see the ruts of wagon wheels of the Oregon Trail as so many pioneers took that way west in the mid-1800s.  It’s amazing to think that 150 years later, those ruts are still there, because so many people travelling in the same way wore that path down to be visible yet still today.
    In Jesus’ day, kings were responsible for constructing highways to more easily move troops to a battle site and to host celebratory parades after a battle victory or for the king himself to travel more easily.  Make the paths straight, fill the valleys, lower the mountains, smooth the rough ways, John says, just like a royal highway, for Jesus our King.  People would get the metaphor.  We still get it – God is asking us to do some road construction, not literally, but in our hearts.  However, John doesn’t proclaim this message of Jesus’ coming on a busy main road, Luke tells us.  He’s not talking about constructing another Long Island Expressway.  Rather, he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  And the road Jesus will take will lead him to the cross, for our salvation.  God has a different road work project in mind for us as followers of Jesus.  We are called to prepare the way for Christ, like John the Baptist, pointing to God’s central project for us –  that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  Today, I’d like us to focus on this image of the wagon ruts of the old Oregon Trail, a road in the wilderness, that led people from an old way of life to a new life – not always easy, but full of adventure, hope, and promise.  In the patterns and practice of our faith, how do we make a clear path for Christ?  Our new life in Christ is walking on a wilderness road, but many faithful have traveled the same road ahead of us.  Jesus himself promises to be our guide, our way, our truth, our life.  How can our spiritual preparations and practices clear the way so that ALL flesh can see God’s salvation in Christ?
    Our psalm for today is another earlier passage from Luke, Zechariah’s song that he sings with joy after his son, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin is born. If you remember the story, Elizabeth and Zechariah have struggled to have a child, and they are blessed with John in their old age.  But Zechariah doesn’t just sing about God keeping his promises to them in the midst of their personal suffering with infertility and longing for a child.  It’s not a private song meant only for him and his family.  Rather, he sings about God’s compassion and forgiveness shining on all those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, about freedom from our enemies and those who hate us.  Zechariah, like his son John, is a prophet, a messenger of good news that Jesus is coming to save us – from our personal and our communal sufferings.  In Jesus, we will see a way, when there seemed to be no way, Zechariah assures us.  Jesus is THE way, after all. It’s a song of hope and joy for all of us.
    So how do we prepare the way for Jesus and follow Jesus in his way, especially during this busy season?  There’s a lot we have to do this time of year.  The lists of preparations are long:  Christmas shopping for food and gifts, wrapping, sending cards, hosting and attending parties, cleaning and decorating.  Again, this week as we focus on that word, “prepare,” Martin Luther reminds us to think not only of what we need to get done “out there,” but to turn our focus first and foremost to our spiritual lives: he said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”  It’s OK if you don’t pray for three hours, but we prepare Christ’s way by taking time to pray, especially when we are busy.  Busyness and stress can be signs to us that point us back to God, to how important our spiritual preparations truly are.  We listen to the message in God’s word.  We take time to worship.  We take time for self-examination, listening to John’s call to repent:  What things in our lives are taking us away from God, and what habits, commitments, activities help us prepare Jesus’ way?  We focus on the tender compassion of our God, striving to forgive as Christ forgives us.
    There are easy habits we can build into this season of Advent that help us remember the true reason for this season:  lighting a candle and saying a prayer as a family at home with an Advent wreath, or using an Advent calendar to pray each day.  Luke’s gospel is 24 chapters long, which means you could read one chapter a day to make it to Christmas Day.  Our scriptures today tell us that our turning to God and our preparing the way for Christ to have first place in our lives isn’t just one more thing to do, it’s truly a way of life that anchors and guides the rest of our living, helping us to flourish.  These are ways we make a path on Christ’s wilderness road.
    Brain researchers have found that repeating activities over and over until they are habits literally create circuits or grooves in our brains.  Of course, this is what makes bad habits difficult to break, but it also means spiritual habits or practices can become a deeply ingrained part of our lives.  For example, when I visit people with dementia, I find it an extremely powerful and holy moment when we pray the Lord’s prayer together, and the person doesn’t miss a beat, or sings loudly and clearly “Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me,” or other favorite childhood songs.  Our spiritual preparation in Advent and always is carving deep ruts in our brains and hearts that will last – wilderness roads of hope, life, and salvation that center us even in the shadows and valleys of life.  John and Zechariah call us to prepare the way for Christ not only for ourselves, though.  We prepare the way for others to see Christ as salvation and life, a smooth, straight, clear way to follow with Jesus as our guide.  Whenever we show others forgiveness, mercy, compassion, generosity and so on we are witnesses to the way of Jesus, inviting others to follow.
    In the midst of our spiritual and holiday preparations, we give thanks to God that salvation in Christ has been what GOD has prepared for us from the beginning.  Jesus the way is God’s salvation project for the world.  As we walk this way and seek to follow Christ’s path, may we be led by God’s light, in the wilderness, in the darkness, in the way of peace.  Amen.