My sermon for this week was based on Mark 1:1-8.
To download an audio of my sermon, click here.
When I was a kid, I used to love obstacle courses. We had a bunch of jungle gym equipment in our schoolyard, and although it was not an obstacle course per se, we often turned it into one. My friends and I would challenge each other to make our way across the schoolyard, climbing up this, weaving our way around that, jumping over the other thing.
Basically, we would challenge each other to take the most difficult route from point A to point B possible, because it was fun at the time.
But there was one kid in our class who was weird. We tried to get him into our game, but he said, "Why would I make it hard on myself to get to the other side of the schoolyard?"
The wind was sufficiently sucked out of our sails.
I think of this chapter in my life in relation to this week's Gospel passage. It has given me cause to reflect that sometimes it is appropriate to put obstacles or challenges in our way, and other times, it is simply better and wiser to remove them.
John the Baptist was all about removing obstacles in his own life, and I think his lessons and example can ring true to us still today.
John, let's be honest, would have been locked up or at least given a wide berth by most "respectable" people if he had lived today. Hey, in the end, that's what happened to him in his own day. He wore camel's hair (which is uncomfortable as hell), he ate locusts (or locust beans, the meaning is not clear) and wild honey (which probably didn't taste all that bad, but he would have had to fight the bees for it).
He was ascetic, he was wild, he was eccentric. And people flocked to him in droves.
My personal opinion is that people were drawn to him, not in spite of his odd lifestyle, but because of it. He eschewed comfortable clothes, palatable food and pleasant company. The reason he did this was that these things were obstacles to him in his search for enlightenment and in his ability to commune with God. There is something admirable about a streamlined, simplified life.
But I think John's message ran deeper than just the minor distractions of luxuries. He was free of worrying what people thought about him, free of caring about judgment, free of the desire to please, to compete, to prove himself. He seemed to be free of grudges, of needing to compete, of keeping up with the Joneses.
In short, he was free of a number of obstacles you and I struggle with daily. These obstacles prevent wisdom, charity, peace, justice and love into our hearts. These obstacles also prevent these virtues from flowing out of our heart.
John was a herald. Heralds would have been a fairly common occurrence in John's time, and his listeners would have been well-acquainted with them. When a king traveled visit the cities in his kingdom, he would send a herald, sometimes months ahead of the visit, and they would say things much like John said: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!"
This was to advise cities to patch and sweep their roads, to decorate the main drag, to put on their best clothes in order to show the king the best they had to offer.
Of course, John was not announcing the arrival of an ordinary king. He was heralding the coming of Christ. He was not advising them to patch the roads of their city and make them straight, he was calling on people to straighten the roads into their heart.
He was advising them to remove the obstacles that would prevent the message of Christ from entering into their hearts.
That is what we are being called to do this Advent season. A season of preparation, we are called to wait for the coming of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas. We are called to clear away all the things that might make the roads in and out of our hearts level so that we can not only receive the message of peace, justice and love he conveyed, but so that acts of peace, justice and love can flow our of our own hearts in return.
May we do so this Advent season.