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Jan 02, 2022

New Beginnings: Prepare the Way

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: January 2022


Today's Sermon


"New Beginnings:  Prepare the Way"


Isaiah 57:14-19

14It shall be said,
‘Build up, build up, prepare the way,
   remove every obstruction from my people’s way.’
15For thus says the high and lofty one
   who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
   and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
   and to revive the heart of the contrite.
16For I will not continually accuse,
   nor will I always be angry;
for then the spirits would grow faint before me,
   even the souls that I have made.
17Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry;
   I struck them, I hid and was angry;
   but they kept turning back to their own ways.
18I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
   I will lead them and repay them with comfort,
   creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips.
19Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord;
   and I will heal them.

1 John 3:1-2

           31See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 

New Beginnings:  Prepare the Way

            January 2, it is a time of new beginnings.  The passage I just read to you from 1 John reminds me of this.  Whenever he would baptize a baby, the longtime pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, John Buchanan, would hold up the child and say, “See what love the Father has for us that we would be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).  Baptism marks a new beginning, an affirmation of a set of values and priorities, commitments and community.  This is how the community promises to embody another way of being, the way of Christ. 

            You may be wondering why, over a week after Christmas we are reading from a passage in Isaiah 57 calling for people to “prepare the way.”  Isn’t it a little late?  The time to paint the nursery was last month.  The baby’s here, Emmanuel, God with us.  Maybe.  Or, maybe there’s one kind of preparing for the birth of Jesus and another kind of preparing for the way of Jesus to take up residence in our life. 

            The language of the Isaiah passage is of getting a road ready for the exiled people of Israel to return home at last, “remove every obstruction from my people’s way,” they’re coming home (Is. 57:14).  It’s similar to that familiar passage from Isaiah 40:4:

Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.

Here it’s literally getting the road ready, flat enough and wide enough, to handle a royal procession, the arrival of the king. 

            What rough spots do you need to level out?  What gaps do you need to fill in?  Sharp turns to round out in order for the Christ to fully reach and take up residence in you?  What are the barriers and as importantly what is the road you want to make together?  Just you will do the important task of laying the groundwork for the life you want to create, we have been and will continue to do that in the life of this congregation.  Even before the pandemic, we embarked on this important work, building a roadmap for our future.  The pandemic has only focused those efforts.

            It’s a critical effort because the religious landscape is in a time of seismic change.  Brian McLaren, who writes about the how faith and churches evolve (or fail to) says, “One question…remains open...will denominations and congregations in decline keep their heads down, obsessed with saving themselves and micro-managing their own decline...Or will they seize the destabilizations of their current systems as opportunities to give birth to something fresh, needed, and new?”[1]  While our denomination is in decline, we are not.  However, just because we are not shrinking doesn’t mean we are maximizing our potential for growth, growth not for growth’s sake, but for the sake of providing an open place for people to find community, grow spiritually, and better the world.  Think how important these are and how hungry people are for them:  Community—authentic relationships built on substance; the Calm app is fine, but it will not find you community.  Spirituality—we are spiritual at our core and so many people lack a place for that expression and inspiration or formation.  Bettering the World—there is so much need in this world and we come alive when we work together in ways large and small to be about something bigger than ourselves. 

           We get the privilege of making a way for that to happen.  One of the important milestones along our roadmap was the creation of a Christian Identity Statement for the church, crafted and approved by the elders, after plenty of prayerful discussion with many of you.  The purpose is twofold - to better to articulate to the community who we are and what we’re about, and to guide our internal decision-making about where to invest our energy.  Nicole Trotter, who many of you know, former staff member here, current pastor in Sonoma, used to humorously talk of being at cocktail parties and rushing to qualify and clarify herself upon sharing she worked in a church.  She recounted blurting out, “But it’s not that kind of church, we don’t hate gate people, we don’t think you’re going to hell if you don’t believe X or Y, and we don’t think evolution’s fake…”  I’m paraphrasing.  Her remarks, while funny, are also poignant – we’re often better at saying who or what we’re not than we are at saying who we are.  We’re Protestants after all.  Next week, we begin a sermon series in which we’ll work through that statement in part so we all become better at articulating who we are and who we believe God is calling us to be as children of God, for that is what we are. 

            The point of all this isn’t about propping up an institution.  It’s about building a space, creating a greater platform where people can be met by life-changing grace, where people can discover and live into that marvelous truth that the love of God is so that we would be called children of God.

            He was seated on what might be described as a platform, he being Pope Francis, when a young child approached him during a question and answer session for area young people.  However, when the boy reached the microphone, he froze, and rather than ask his question, he merely repeated, “I can’t do it.”  Come and whisper in my ear, the gentle pontiff said.  They helped the boy up to the platform, but by the time he reached Francis, the child was weeping.  The pope hugged him and then the two remained so close that their heads were touching as the child asked his question through tears.  Pope Francis asked if he could share with the crowd what had been said. The boy gave him permission and Francis shared that the boy asked if his father who had died recently was in heaven. You see the father wasn’t a believer, but he was a good man the child explained.  He had all four of his children baptized.  See what love the father has that we would be called children of God…

            The pope wondered what kind of love God had, that of a father (and we would add mother).  He added then, “do you think God would be able to leave him far from himself?”  This loving father, abandoned?  The Pope turned to the crowd, rather than answering himself and asked, “Does God abandon his children when they are good?” 

            The children shouted, “No!”  Notice, it’s the gathered community that holds the faith.  That’s what we’re building.

            “There, Emanuele, that is the answer.”  Emanuele.  The boy’s name was Emanuele, God with us.[2] 

            If we want to live into our calling, that kind of calling, we have to first know who we are.  We’ll see you next week.       



[1]Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt:  Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It.