3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Last week, we talked about Advent being a time of waiting, anticipating the coming of our God in the flesh of a tiny baby, in Jesus. Recognizing the importance of taking our eyes off of our to-do lists long enough to remember why it is that we celebrate the birth of this one small, vulnerable, poor, migrant, baby in the first place. Taking a pause in the rush and bustle of our busy-ness to reflect on what we are waiting for, and who Jesus is.
This week is different. Instead of waiting and watching, calling out where we see God alive in our midst, we are invited to prepare, in a very active way. Level the mountains, fill the valleys, straighten the crooked roads, smooth the rough paths. Pay attention to those things in us that need leveling, filling, straightening, smoothing—to wait, but also to prepare for the one for whom we wait.
It feels like we are back in the story of Mary and Martha—Mary, spending time sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening and being present with him, and Martha, preparing food and drink and all the other things necessary to make Jesus welcome in their home. The ages old question persists, in this world in which we want to know that one right answer. So which is it? Are we to wait and watch, or prepare? Prepare or wait? How do we use this Advent time of anticipation of Jesus’ birthday?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Tanzania to spend time with the people of the Lutheran Church of Tanzania and the ministries they share with their communities. As I thought about offering hospitality to family and friends, and once again welcoming Jesus, and putting down the to-do list, I was brought back to the days in Tanzania.
I remembered a couple of hours spent in an airport waiting for a flight, glancing in shop windows looking for chocolate, which was in short supply in Tanzania. As I purposefully strode down the hall, I heard a voice call out to me, “Polepole!” Slowly, slowly! Everything, and I mean everything, is “polepole” in Tanzania. The last night we spent in Arusha, our group acknowledged this by going to a restaurant, placing our orders, leaving, and returning a couple of hours later to eat. No rushing, no urgency, just staying in the present, taking things as they came. Kind of like we are asked to do in Advent, this season of waiting and watching and anticipating.
Leveling the mountains, raising the valleys, making crooked roads straight takes on a different meaning in a country with almost no paved roads! After a rain, tractors would be sent out on the dirt roads to physically smooth the rough places carved out by running water. The way had to be prepared again, quite literally, so the rare vehicles could get through. Kind of like we need to do in Advent—notice what is taking up space and getting in our way, so we can make room for Jesus to take his place in our lives and our hearts. Prepare ourselves, allow God to prepare us, to be truly hospitable, to one another, and to the presence of God in our midst.
I learned more about hospitality in Tanzania than probably anywhere else I have ever been. We were invited into several homes, and our experience in each was quite different. One home was beautifully decorated, with several rooms, electricity, and running water, including a sink built into their dining room so it is available for guests to wash their hands before eating. We were served a veritable feast, a table overflowing with food that had been prepared to welcome us.
Another home had two rooms, separated by a curtain, with a dirt floor covered by hay, no running water or electricity. By our standards, this family of six had nothing. When we had visited a while, the mother said, “you can’t leave until you take something.” Upon hearing this, I looked around, wondering what on earth we could possibly take from them. She stepped behind the curtain and brought us a pail of water and cup with which to wash our hands. Then, she served us tea with sugar—a rare treat in Tanzania—and homemade cakes made with ground corn.
In a third home, we were given a banana leaf, cut open to reveal its moist insides, so we could use it to clean our hands before eating a handful of roasted nuts, another rare treat.
I realized as I reflected on these experiences that, as different as the homes were that we visited, the hospitality, the thought for the comfort of the guest, the pure joy on the faces of our hosts at having something to share and people to share it with, was the same. I learned that no matter how little I seem to have, I will always have enough to share.
Wait, or prepare? Prepare, or wait? I think the answer, in true Lutheran fashion, is both-and. Our hosts certainly prepared for our coming, so they could provide a way for us to wash, food to eat. They also waited, anticipating our arrival in a spirit of “polepole,” as if nothing were more important than welcoming us to their homes.
As we continue our Advent journey, we are invited to wait and watch, to look for God in our midst as we anticipate the celebration of Christmas. We prepare food and gifts and our homes for those with whom we will celebrate. And, we ask God to open our hearts and minds and clear away the hills and valleys and rough places, those things that prevent us from welcoming one another, that keep us from being able to see God at work in our lives and the lives of those around us. As we celebrate Kashton’s baptism today, we remember our own baptisms, and the promise that God will continue to transform us, every day.
Most importantly, we have a God who, we are told, comes to us in overflowing love, and promises to be faithful to us, and that is what we are anticipating. So, polepole! Slowly, slowly, we wait and watch and prepare for the one who was, who is, and who is to come. What better way to spend this time before Christmas, than to reflect on God’s love and promise, and prepare to receive it, and share it, anew.