Saturday, December 03, 2011

Advent 2B

“Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the Lord’s path straight!” says John the Baptist.

I know what he means. In my first week here in Tokyo I decided to go for a walk, to get to know the area a little bit better. It’s hard to get to know a place from a subway car or from a seat on a train.

Still in Alberta mode, where the streets are a grid, I wandered from the office to, what I assumed was the area of the Tokyo Dome. It didn’t look that far on the map, so I charted my route, thinking that it was just a quick north east from the front door of the church.

Well, I kept walking, and walking, and walking, and walking. And walking. And no Tokyo Dome anywhere in sight. I looked on my map and none of the street names were listed.

Since I had a general idea of where I was I tapped on the compass on my iPhone, and I knew I had to go south west to get to where I wanted to be. So I followed the compass for quite a few blocks.

After walking for another hour or so, I thought to myself, “This is crazy. I really gotta figure out where I am.”

So I stepped into a 7-11 and asked the clerk, “Tokyo Dome?”

She looked at me funny as if to say, “Really?”

So I asked again, “Tokyo Dome”?

She looked at me quizzically and pointed. I looked in the direction she was pointing, and THERE it was staring down at me! I didn’t see it because I was concentrating on the streets and not the buildings.

I tried to figure out how I could have gotten so far from my mark. After all I had stayed on one street. But then I realized that the streets weren’t straight. And apparently they weren’t MEANT to be straight. I’ve been told that the streets here in Tokyo were built in such a way as to confuse the enemy.

And I say, Job well done! While I hope I’m not the enemy, the streets sufficiently confused me. And still do. I still get lost trying to find places. And it doesn’t help that the streets were designed for people to get lost in them.

You have to be from here to really get the streets. Or at least you have to be here a long time to understand how to get around without getting lost.

I wonder if that’s what it’s like to be Christian here in Japan. After all, Christians are a VERY small part of the population. Christianity isn’t indigenous to Japan and hasn’t been here very long historically. Christianity is still trying to find its way around the streets, and not get lost searching for its final destination.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” the John the Baptist says, “Make the Lord’s path straight.”

The people of God known as Israel knew what it was like to try to navigate the streets in a strange land.

Some have said that the road John was talking about was the road they were required to build while in exile in Babylon. John, they say, was evoking a common memory. He was asking them to recall a time when the people of God know as “Israel” were captured and forced into slavey. And as slaves they were ordered to build a road each each year so that a procession honouring the pagan God Marduk could be celebrated.

The road would only be used once. It’s job was done. Then a new road for next year’s procession would have to be built.

So not only were they captured, taken from their home in Jerusalem and brought to a foreign land. They were enslaved, forced to work their hands raw to build a road celebrating the victories of a false god. They worked all year to build a road that was used only once. Then they started again on a new road. This went on year after year after year after year.

But now the announcement had come. God was bringing them out of exile. They were going home. Their penalty was paid, and their exile was over. So they packed up their stuff and started walking. Their path would not lead to a false god. But their path would led to the God who made heaven and the earth. The God who put the stars in the night. The God who rescued them from slavery and gave them a home. The God who chose them to shine God’s light in an often dark world.

And those standing at the Jordan River, listening to John, knew this story and they knew their place in it. They knew exile. They knew the exile of not being welcome in the halls of official religion. They knew the exile of poverty. They knew the exile of pain. Of disease. Of loneliness. Of grief. Of hunger.

They knew the exile of broken family. They knew the exile of depression. They knew the exile of wondering if their lives have any meaning. They knew the exile of wondering if their death would go ungrieved.

They knew the exile of feeling separated from God.

These were the 99 percent. These were the ones who toiled day after day, scrounging for a scrap that fell from society’s table. These were the ones who thought that God had abandoned them long ago because they couldn’t measure up religion’s impossible demands. These were the ones aching for a God who would touch them, wash them clean, and give them a new life.

So that’s where John appeared. John waist deep in the Jordan River, the river that the people crossed from the wilderness to the Promised Land, gazed out in the crowd, and everyone thought to themselves, “He’s looking straight at me.”

Yes he was. John stood in front of the crowd, and the look in his eye said, he knows you. I mean he REALLY knows you. He hasn’t met you before and doesn’t know your name but he has you all figured out.

He knows what hides in the secret chambers of your heart. He knows what you do when nobody’s looking.

He knows your shame and he knows your pain. He knows all that stuff you’d rather keep quiet and hidden. He can see it in your eyes.

He can see in the way you keep staring at the ground while he’s preaching.

He can see it in the way you walk. He can see it in your phony self-assured strut or with your hunched back, stooped from being beaten down by the world. He knows the secrets you harbour.

He knows your failings. He knows your broken places. He knows those moments of weakness that, if ever came to light, your life would end.

He knows about your cancer. Your failed marriage. The feeling that life is passing you by.

He knows about the grief that tearing your heart into rags.

He knows how you just can’t put down that bottle.

He knows how you just can’t let go of a lifetime of resentment.

He knows that some days you feel so lost and purposeless that you wonder if life is worth living at all.

Yes. He knows ALL of this. That’s why he’s so loved and so feared. But when he looks at you and excavates the buried hurts that lie in deepest alcoves of your soul, his eyes soften and he pleads with you, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.”

But, instead of scolding you for your moral failings, or telling you to stop blaming others for your troubles, he leads you to the shore of the Jordan River and reminds you that when the people of God were liberated from their slavery in Egypt, they crossed the Jordan which led to the Promised Land.

Then, looking so deeply into your eyes that you’re afraid you’ll melt, he opens his arms and says, “Your exile is over. Enter the water of freedom. God is giving you a fresh start. God is putting you on a straight path. It’s time for you to start over. It’s time for you to begin again.”

The Baptist was giving out second chances. That’s the gift you are given each and every day when you remember the gift of your own baptism. The gift of starting over. The gift of a new beginning. The gift of rising each new day knowing that you are forgiven and free. The gift of knowing that yesterday is behind, and today is full of new, fresh possibilities.

The gift of knowing that you are used by God for great things in this world. The gift of knowing that God is doing something special and loving with your life. The gift of knowing that God’s love shines through you.

The gift of knowing that whenever the world knocks you down, you will rise again to meet whatever challenges come your way.

Even though, as Christians, you are one percent in Japan, you are 100 percent in God. You are a people chosen by God to lead others to the waters of life. You who gather in love and scatter to serve, so that God’s name and God’s love may be known in this part of the world.

Get you up to a high mountain, O St. Paul’s, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O people of God, lift it up, do not fear; say to a world needing a word of grace, “Here is your God!”

May this be so among us! Amen!

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