By The Rev. C. Bruce McNab
In ancient times, when a king was preparing to travel through his territories, work crews would be sent out to prepare the roads. If there were rough places, they’d be paved over. If there were ruts, they’d be filled in. If a road went up too steep a hill, the hill would be leveled or the road re-routed. The king’s subjects would spare no effort and overlook no detail in their preparations, so their sovereign’s journey would be swift, smooth and direct.
That sort of thing didn’t only happen in antiquity. Joan and I worked in Thailand back in the mid-1990’s. Living there, we learned that the Thai people loved their king, and whenever the king traveled by car in a remote or rural area, they would resurface all the roads the royal vehicle was going to drive on. Sometimes they’d even build new ones, just for the occasion.
John the Baptist was sent to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” That word “way” means “road.” The mission of John the Baptist, the mission of making a “road” for the Lord himself to come into the lives of people, is the work of every church today. And I’m talking about making a road for the Lord to come not just to us, but to the world around us.
Christ Church is in a period of transition right now, as you have been for a while. And when a congregations are in transition it’s natural for them to want to turn inward and focus on themselves.
I’m not in a position to know for sure how things have been in this regard here at Christ Church, but I know from experience that it’s possible.
The main questions on the minds of congregations in transition are:
- What’s going to happen to us now?
- Will our future be better than our past, or will it be worse?
- What do we need?
- What kind of leader are we looking for?
The work of a church is not mainly a ministry of self-care. Certainly, the Lord wants the members of a church to love and take care of one another. But, as wonderful as that is, there’s more a congregation’s mission than that. As glorious as love between sisters and brothers may be, and as good as mutual affection and joy in one another’s company can make us feel, God calls us to be other-directed... just the way John the Baptist was. Every congregation, including Christ Episcopal Church in Sheridan, Montana, has a mission to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Preparing a way for the Lord means preparing a way for the Lord to come to the world around us, starting with our immediate neighbors and moving out from there.
I don’t live here; you do. I don’t know the specific needs of this community; but you do. So, you tell me: How can Christ Church create a new path, a new road for our Savior to enter the lives of the people who live within, say, a ten mile radius of this church?
And don’t tell me, “We’re too small,” or “We’re too insignificant to make a difference to anybody else.” In this season of Advent it’s appropriate for us to remember that God does his greatest works through the least likely people and the smallest of groups. He sent his Son to be born to the wife of a carpenter in a little village in a minor province on the fringe of the Roman Empire. He transformed the known world through a gospel preached by a handful of disciples from that same rural environment. Christ Church in Sheridan—small as you are—is exactly the sort of body through whom God has done his greatest works in the world. And that should be inspiring to think about!
John the Baptist had a vision of rough and crooked roads being made smooth and straight, steep hills leveled, ruts filled in, and rough places paved to make a highway for the Lord to move swiftly in to accomplish his work.
And the main “machine” for John the Baptist’s road-building operation, what we could think of as the bulldozer that pushed the obstacles out of the way and made the basic path for the new road, was repentance. Repentance is the way we begin to build a highway for the Lord. It is “Step Number One.” Repentance means acknowledging our sins, and then changing our minds, changing our attitudes, and changing our lives.
If the highway we want to make here for the Lord is a road by which He might come to the community around us, what does this church need to repent of?
There are four general categories that apply to every church, everywhere. Urban, suburban, or rural. Large, small, or in between. Since I’ve only been here three times before today, I can’t possibly know enough about Christ Church to name exactly what this community needs most to repent of, so I’ll tell you about the four general categories of repentance, and you can figure out what applies to you and what doesn’t. Here are the four categories:
First: Repentance from selfishness and narcissism. This is the natural, human inclination to regard our private needs and concerns as having primary significance. This is a struggle for every one of us, because we each see ourselves as the center of the universe. The same thing happens to churches.
Every parish tends to put its INTERNAL needs ahead of the external dimension of its mission.
But: Churches have to ask a bigger question —not just “What do we want?” But, “What does God want from us for others’ sake?”
Second: Repentance from factionalism and disagreement among ourselves. Factions dilute the energy and sap the spiritual power of a church. I have no idea whether there’s any of that here or not. Maybe there’s perfect unity here. I hope there is! But even so we still come before God with repentance for our past failures to work for unity, peace, and concord among others—our failures to be peacemakers.
Third: Repentance from settling for a kind of easy “cultural Christianity” that plays down the tough demands of the Gospel: Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our own cross and follow him. It’s easy to be “church members.” It’s plenty hard to be disciples. If we’ve set out to follow Jesus, then we have to be MORE than good, tolerant, open-minded, church-going Episcopalians. We have to hunger for holiness!
And, fourth: We need to repent of reluctance to talk about Jesus and his saving work—Jesus the hope of the world, Jesus the Son of God, Jesus our Savior. He is what’s distinctive about Christianity. You don’t find Muslims reluctant to talk about Mohammed. You don’t find Buddhists slow to refer to the Buddha. Disciples of Christ are called to reproduce the life of our Master, in our words and in our works.
Christmas is coming, and – as it says on billboards – “Jesus is the reason for the season.” If there had been a more effective way for the human race to be shown the love of God . . . or a simpler, more accessible way of making people see that we’re God’s children, meant to share an eternal destiny with him . . . then God would have arranged for that.
Jesus — son of Mary and Son of God, laid in the manger in Bethlehem, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and raised to life and glory by the power of God — is the essential Person in world history. That’s what we believe. That’s why we’re Christians. His very name, Jesus, means “God will save.” Our mission is to communicate His presence to people who don’t know Him yet. And we do that best, not with sermons but by the way we live in compassionate, Christ-like service to the people around us.
It says on your website that this building was consecrated to the service of God on the First Sunday of Advent in the year 1896. That was 116 years ago, last week. You have a wonderful history, but you also have a future full of hope and possibility. There’s an old saying: “The past is history. The future is mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why they call it ‘the present.’”
The gift God is giving us right now is the opportunity to prepare a way for the Lord to touch this town and this area in a wholly new way.
That’s the gift. Now we have to decide what to do with it.
For a pdf version of this sermon, please click here.