An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Open Up The Way

A sermon on Luke 3:1-6 & Malachi 3:1-4 by Nathan Nettleton

Those of us who live and move near the evangelical end of the Church are often fond of talking about a “personal relationship” with Jesus, or a “personal relationship” with God, but we are often remarkably vague and unclear about what such a personal relationship means and how it is developed. Most evangelical Christians would have no difficulty in giving you a simple answer about how such a personal relationship is commenced — something about believing, repenting and accepting Jesus as your personal saviour — but the descriptions often sound more like meeting the selection criteria on a job description than like a genuinely personal relationship.

This selection criteria approach often then continues in our whole understanding of the nature and conduct of our relationship with God. Some take a kind of legalistic approach and focus the whole relationship around keeping ourselves compliant with a growing list of selection criteria by carefully obeying a whole bunch of biblical laws, believing that it is by thus keeping ourselves clean and acceptable that we maintain our relationship with God. Others take a sort of spiritual hero approach which sees a relationship with God as a kind of mountain to be climbed. In this way it is felt that real progress in the relationship is only made by those who are heroically dedicated, disciplined and strenuous in their endeavours. They are like extreme mountaineers or Olympic athletes in their embrace of extreme spiritual disciplines and lifestyle choices which seem unimaginably out of reach to us mere mortals. Both of these approaches have considerable merit, and both are capable of shaping very admirable people whose faith is very real and whose lives are indeed a great blessing to the world around them. But both are also, at times, responsible for producing people who are harsh and proud and notably lacking in the joy and generosity that were so much a part of what drew people to Jesus. And both can be missing an important truth about relating to God, a truth which seeks to raise its voice and get our attention at this time of year as the season of Advent stirs us to anticipate and welcome the coming Christ.

Listen again to these lines from tonight’s readings:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, … indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every 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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:4-6, quoting Isaiah 40:3-5)

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78-79)

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:6)

One thing that all these readings have in common is that they speak of a God who takes the initiative in seeking us and drawing near to us; a God who is coming and reaching out to us without waiting for us to first meet any qualifications or achieve any heroic spiritual feats. This is a crucial aspect of the gospel proclamation at this time of year. God is coming. God is not standing off at a distance. God is not withholding Godself. God is not waiting for us to measure up or achieve something heroic before responding to us, as if to reward us for our achievements. God is coming; coming with new life and a new world, a new culture of new joy and love and generosity and mercy. God is coming, and the question is not ‘how do we achieve this relationship?’, but ‘will we receive this relationship?’.

I’ve been doing some reading recently on the writings of the sixteenth century Spanish saint, John of the Cross, and John is really strong on this. He speaks constantly of God’s love as flowing out unstoppably, as being eager and persistent, even generously pushy and intrusive. He points us to the Advent image of a God who breaks in to Mary’s life as an eager illicit lover, ravishing her and conceiving within her the hope of salvation for all the world. He speaks of the inrushing love of God, and depicts it with images such as a waterfall, and the overflowing breasts of a nursing mother, and bright sunlight spilling in through every opening. We have to work harder, he says, to keep this inrushing love out than to let it in.

And so it is that this voice crying out in the wilderness saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord”, is not calling us to spectacular new achievements, but simply to removing anything that would obstruct the Lord’s access to us, anything that would be an obstacle to his approach: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Fill the valleys and level the mountains and hills and straighten out the hazardous turns and make the rough ways smooth so that all flesh may see the salvation of God.

This has long been known and preached. The fourth century poet and hymn-writer Prudentius commented on this passage saying that the messenger of God comes

that every hill might low become
and tough ways plain,
lest when the truth should glide from heaven down to earth
it then would find a barrier to its swift approach.

And his contemporary, the great preacher John Chrysostom said that when the prophets says “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the rough ways shall be made smooth,” he is signifying that “it is no longer toils and labours but grace and forgiveness of sins, affording the way to salvation.”

The commentator I’m reading on John of the Cross (Iain Matthews, The Impact of God, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995, p.35) has given me a great image of the difference this makes. He suggests that we imagine ourselves stranded and starving in some inhospitable wilderness place. The pathway to the salvation we so desperately want and need will involve an almost inhuman feat of effort and endurance as we hack a path throw the undergrowth, scale forbidding mountains and forge dangerous rapids to get to the place where there is safety and food and shelter. This then is the quest of our earlier options, the legalistic and the heroic spiritualities that have to find their way to God and achieve communion by their own mighty efforts.

But everything changes when we hear the sound of the search and rescue helicopter overhead and realise that it has spotted us and our rescue is at hand. Now our attention is not on trying to carve out a seemingly impossible path to some remote place of refuge, but simply on clearing a space big enough for the helicopter to land. We are not trying to achieve some distant goal, but simply clear the obstacles to receive the enthusiastic redeemer who has come to us. How do I make the space to receive what is so eagerly and unconditionally seeking and reaching out to me?

This then is the call to us in this Advent season. The main task is not to construct but to receive. The key word is not achievement, but space. The key question is not ‘What must I achieve?’ but ‘What stands in God’s way, and how can I clear the path to me?’ There is nothing we have to do or accomplish or master to get God to notice us or desire us or approve of us or want to commune with us. God’s awareness of you and desire for communion with you is already heightened and yearning and searching and inrushing. But just as can happen in any relationship, we can shut ourselves off from what is being offered through our fears or anxieties or busyness or our too many competing commitments and investments. It is no accident that our reading from the prophet Malachi depicted the approach of the gospel as being like a raging fire that purifies us by burning away all that contaminates and complicates us. It is the same raging fire that we often use as an image of a fierce and passionate love that both sets us trembling with anticipation and sets us running away in fear, terrified of what it might cost us to surrender to it and receive it.

God’s love is eagerly seeking you and washing against your defences, ardently desiring to open you up and flood you with joyous love and mercy and grace. In a few minutes we will be gathered around this table, and that inrushing love will be offered to you as broken bread and poured wine. Your outstretched open hands are a symbol of all that God needs to come flooding in: an open space, cleared and empty and willing to receive. Prepare the way of the Lord. Open up the pathway and receive. Come, Lord Jesus, Come.


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