First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
1See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?  For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
1In 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.’ ”

Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The reading from Malachi and the reading from Luke both speak of one preparing the way.  For what are we preparing this day?

Downstairs, food is being prepared for the community dinner at the Methodist church this afternoon.  We’re preparing for a combined Advent worship this evening here at Concordia with the Superior Lutheran choir and all five of the ELCA congregations in Superior participating.  We’re preparing for a Lessons and Carols celebration on January 6, and we are of course preparing for worship on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.

Christmas comes and goes every year.  Which of our preparations this season have any lasting effect beyond the annual celebrations?

There’s no reliable way to measure that, is there?  We don’t know whether a particular verse of a particular hymn touched someone in a particular way that inspired that someone to reach out and make a difference for the future of some individual or the community at large.  We don’t know how God might have used a phrase in a prayer or in the sermon to inspire a person with hope or for action.

Do we ever know?

I do know that I was angry the other day while listening to the news.  I try not to let it get to me.  I know what people are like, and I know to expect the worst.  I know that the worst is often what happens.  People are people.

Of course I have seen some remarkably kind and generous deeds enacted by some of the most unlikely people.  Usually, though, I’ve learned to expect the opposite.  I expect to be disappointed by the news.  I expect to hear of thefts and assaults.  I expect to hear of vandalism and destruction.  I expect to hear of murders and accidents.  I even expect to hear political squabbling.

The other day, though, that squabbling was too much.  It probably wasn’t really any different than it has been for months, but I must have reached a saturation point, and anger sat like a weight between my shoulders—or maybe I should say like flint to a fuse!

Some of my friends use Facebook as an outlet to spray that anger out into the atmosphere, saying what frustrates them and getting whatever support they can.  The anger I felt was not the sharing kind, though.  Nothing good could come from sharing it, and a whole lot of yuck could have ensued.

On the other hand, keeping anger inside to smolder is no good, either!

So, my anger comes out today—in a different form, as questions:  What good is it that we exist in this world?  Does anything good come from what we do in this world?  Does all of our earning and spending have any effect beyond our own pleasures?

That’s where my title speaks today.  “Preparing for What?”  Is what we do each day, even when we gather with family and friends over the holidays, really focused merely on ourselves, on we can get out of it, and how we can promote the personal interests of our nearest and dearest?

I’m afraid that was the basis for the anger that hit me so suddenly and threatened to ignite an explosion unbecoming to any Christian hoping to proclaim God’s Word and share God’s love.  What I saw looked less like public service and more like self-conceit. 

Of course, I want to say that what makes me so angry is when I see this in the highest offices in the land… but that’s not quite it. 

What really makes me angry is how well that self-importance mirrors the inner desires of people who are not in government service, people like you and me, and how what we see taking place out there works to legitimize the same kind of thing in here—even though we know it’s wrong!  It’s still wrong, even when powerful or famous people do it.

When John the Baptist was inspired to prepare the way for Jesus, he didn’t march right up to Herod and shout at him to be a better example for the people.  He shouted out to everyone, from the lowly hand mucking out the stables to the priests in their fancy robes.  “Repent!” he hollered, and he washed them in the river as a sign that they could be different, that they could be part of something new, something wonderful, something grand.  And even though John likely did not march into Herod’s palace, he did point out Herod’s faults…  It would have been nice if Herod would have changed…

But nice doesn’t always happen, especially when people have power, like Herod.

Herod eventually imprisoned John, and finally had him executed.  He offered no respite to Jesus.  John’s proclamation was unable to change Herod… does that mean that John failed to prepare the way for Jesus?

Was John sent to change Herod, or Pilate, or Caiaphas?  Was John sent to the city and national leaders?  Only sort of!

John was sent to prepare the way in the wilderness, wherever that wilderness might be.  He was sent to proclaim the nearness of God to people on the fringes, and in the pits.  John was sent for everyone, because everyone can change for the better.  Everyone can be encouraged to see a way to help someone else who has some kind of need.  Everyone can prepare the way with a simple (or not so simple) act of love.

We may not be able to change the Herods of this this world, but we can work so that those Herods’ worst deeds do not reflect our own.

We change our ways for the better, in order to prepare a way not merely for a holiday celebration, but for a better world.  We prepare a way for God’s love to reach wherever it is needed.  We stand here within God’s creation prepared… prepared to be better than we were, so that the world can be better than it was…

We prepare for nothing less than God!  We prepare for nothing less than God active in this world, and in us, always… in Jesus’ name.  Amen