Sunday, December 10, 2017

Preparing straight pathways to God

Mark 1:1-8  This week, I have been remembering my trip to the Holy Lands in 2010. While our focus was on places where Jesus lived, walked, taught, died, and was resurrected, we also visited some of the places where John the Baptist was.
 We spent some time at a place along the Jordan River where tradition says John baptized Jesus. It is a popular tourist site, where the river is wide, and today, church groups from around the world often do baptisms there.
 There was another location we saw, in a narrow part of the river where there is a footprint sized depression in the rocks. Tradition holds that John baptized so many people that it wore that hole into the rock. Today’s Gospel text says people from the whole Judean countryside were coming to be baptized by John. Perhaps there were enough people to wear a dent into the rock!
 John came bringing change, and hundreds or maybe thousands of people agreed with him. Change was needed, and they were ready to enjoy the benefits of change as well as making changes in their own lives as well. The changes John proposed will help people connect with God. John proclaimed that the pathways to God need to be much straighter, much simpler.
 John is the designated messenger, chosen by God to prepare the way for Jesus, the messiah. Mark, the gospel-writer, quotes Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” In Israel, few roads are straight, because of the mountains and valleys that force roads to take twisted paths.
 Of course, Isaiah is not thinking about road construction here. He is speaking metaphorically, about making straight paths in our hearts for the Lord. In the five centuries between the Babylonian exile and the time of Jesus, religious practices became standardized. The belief was that ritual perfection would ensure that all of Israel was perfect – righteous – in God’s eyes. Such perfection would ensure that they were never again conquered and taken away in exile.
 For the wealthy, the rituals were not a burden, but for the poor folks, it was hard to be perfect. For example, there was that time that Jesus and the disciples were hungry on the sabbath, and they ate some heads of wheat. The leaders saw them and accused them of working on the sabbath because harvesting grain is work breaking the sabbath. They were simply hungry, and that was the only food around. The accusation was unjust, focusing on the letter of the law, instead of the spirit of the law, and the real needs of the people.
 John the Baptist is trying to make the path to righteousness straighter, easier, less burdensome. And the people come to him by the hundreds. They want a relationship with God, but the religious rules get in the way of the relationship. When perfection is the goal, guilt is a constant companion, because perfection is impossible.
 Guilt gets in the way of a healthy relationship with anyone, and especially with God. That’s why John invites the folks to be baptized and forgiven. When we feel free from guilt, our relationship with God is much easier.
 … I assume you are here because you, too, want a healthy relationship with God. But could the path between you and God be straighter? What do you need to do to straighten the path? Perhaps one of these scenarios is true for you: While we have good intentions about taking time to be with God, we simply get too busy or distracted to take time for prayer. With good intentions, we get up, planning to spend a few minutes in prayer. But the phone rings, or the TV news or newspaper draws us in, or the cat is hungry. And suddenly, all thought about praying is lost until the evening or even the next day.
 Or, we do take time for prayer, but it is the same prayer every time, and it becomes meaningless, a rote repetition of words that don’t register in our minds or in our hearts. We can check off the daily list item, morning prayer, but our hearts and minds aren’t involved.
 Or, we pray, but all we do is talk, giving God our laundry list of concerns and worries. We don’t take time to listen to what God has to say to us. We are so busy telling God what to do, God can’t get a word in edgewise.
 I have struggled with each of these patterns, at one time or another. Here is what is working for me right now. … I make a serious effort to be present with God, whether it is for a minute or two, or a half hour or longer. When I begin to pray, I imagine Jesus sitting with me. Sometimes, we even hold hands or touch knees as we face each other in our chairs.
 When I imagine Jesus’ being physically present with me, it is easier for me to be present with him for more than a few seconds before I get distracted again. I intentionally pay attention to God being with me, and seek to connect with God, doing more listening than talking.
 The exact way I pray varies, from pondering a short reading, to reciting Morning or Evening Prayer from the ELW, to using a computer prayer program, to simply sitting in silence for a while. What is important is being present with God on a regular basis.
 I hope you have an active prayer life, spending time in God’s presence, however you do that. If you are struggling with that aspect of your life, it’s the season of Advent, and a good time for making changes or for trying something new, something that will bring you and Jesus closer together. Listen to John the Baptist calling you into relationship with God, through Jesus, the one whom God sent. You could even consider having a conversation with me.
 Please pray with me. Jesus, you call to us all the time. Help us to be present with you. Help us to hear you. Lead us into a deeper connection with you. Amen