When John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness, baptizing for the repentance of sins, he is preparing the way of the Lord. He’s not making a highway to drive upon, he’s not clearing brush for a road. The Holy Spirit is bulldozing the way through us, making a space for God to work.
Isn’t this what God is doing when we are called to repentance? Isn’t God at work clearing out the pride, the greed, the fear, the sin that entangles? These must first be cleared away to make a smooth highway, to make a way where God can work, so that the kingdom has a pathway to travel.
The way is Jesus Christ, and the way goes through you. God is making a space for the kingdom, and that space is in you.
The world in which we live is frantic. It’s a busy time of year. Is preparing for Christmas the same thing as preparing the way of the Lord?
Finding peace outside of this sanctuary can be a challenge, and I don’t deny that. I struggle to find it, too, in the noise of the world. And in the added noise of approaching holidays, I hear a lot of jingling bells. In advertisements on the radio, on television, there are bells. Now, I love the sound of handbells. I even like church bells. But jingle bells are not my favorite sound. But what would happen if that sound was transformed into something with meaning?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, wrote about mindfulness, the discipline of being truly present in one’s own life. He died in January of this year, but years ago, he wrote, “In my tradition, we use the temple bells to remind us to come back to the present moment. Every time we hear the bell, we stop talking, stop our thinking, and return to ourselves, breathing in and out, and smiling. Whatever we are doing, we pause for a moment and just enjoy our breathing. Sometimes we also recite this verse: ‘Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.’” He says, “Bells are beautiful, and they can wake us up.”
We also have a need to be awakened. This is part of the message of Advent—last week, Advent began with the message KEEP AWAKE! This week, we hear the message about preparing the way. I am suggesting that we find a way to prepare our hearts by paying attention, by letting the sound of a bell wake us up. You ever wonder why we begin worship with a chime, the singing bowl that is rung three times before even the music begins? It’s a wake up, an attention-getter, and an invitation to stillness, in a posture to receive whatever God has to show us.
And we can go a step further. The bell can be a call to prayer. Any jingling bell can be a call to prayer. The prayer brings us back to the center, back to ourselves, back to the space where God works.
Deacon Tammy Devine wrote something years ago that has stuck with me—that her centering prayer mantra is to say “Lord, Jesus Christ be present now.” She wrote, about this centering prayer: “It reminds me to quiet my mind, let go and be Christ’s presence on earth. It connects me with the gift of goodness—of Emmanuel, God-with-us. It helps me focus on the words of others instead of jumping to interject my idea. Because of this practice, I better understand what people say and notice what they leave unspoken.”
What if we take the time to be more awake and more aware? What if we hear a bell and immediately pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ be present now.” It’s so simple, but not easy. Simple, and also significant. Hearing a bell and saying a prayer is not just another thing to remember—it is a call to prepare the way. You can take part in clearing the way in your own heart and in your own mind and in your own life.
Hearing a bell, taking a breath, and praying “Lord, Jesus Christ be present now.” This is about seeking God’s guidance. Is this not what it means to prepare the way of the Lord? The way of the Lord goes through you, and suddenly you become a participant in building the reign of God. We are not called away from the world, but deeper into it. This is what Advent is about: God chooses to be involved in the world.
Remember the God who guides you. When you hear the sound of a bell—or whatever sound reminds you that you are a child of God, whatever sound brings you back to your center—let that be a call to prayer, “Lord, Jesus Christ be present now.” This is what it means to prepare the way of the Lord, a space where we trust God, a space where we are loved and made whole and transformed. This is preparing the way for the reign of God.