Not long ago, I was at a holiday party and I overheard part of a conversation. It was between a young man (who seemed to have just come back from a semester at college) and a much older woman who might have been a grandmother, an aunt, or a longtime neighbor. What was clear was that the woman knew his parents and knew his siblings.
The young man was livid. He was complaining about what he had found when he came home from college. His sister and brother, both younger, were getting away with all kinds of things that he was never allowed to do. The younger siblings were staying out late, they were going to places he had never been allowed to go, and basically they were getting everything handed to them.
The older woman listened compassionately, and said some things I couldn’t hear. But then, just as the person I was talking with stepped away, I was able to hear the older woman say one of the smartest things I’ve heard in a long time.
She looked at the young man and said simply, “Wow. I bet your brother and sister are so grateful to you. They must feel like they owe you everything for having come along first, for paving the way, and for preparing your parents.”
The young man looked shocked. He’d never considered it from this angle. What the older woman was saying was true, but true in that kind of hard, sharp truth that’s been there all along. It just had to be named. She had pointed out the great gift that the firstborn son had given—to his siblings and to his parents: The gift of preparing, the importance of being one who prepares the way for another.
Our Gospel today brings us a close-up of John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Last week we heard John identify himself with those words from the prophets, “[As] one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
John the Baptist is thought to have been 39 or 40 years old when he was executed by Herod. Though he was filled with faith in God, and it seems, an increasing faith that Jesus was the Messiah, John probably had no assurance that his work was paying off. Had he been on Calvary at the crucifixion, he probably would have thought it all had been a complete failure. And yet… John prepared the way according to God’s plan, even if he was not always aware of it.
By the time we read about him in the scriptures, John the Baptist must have already had some conversations like the one I overheard at the holiday party. Someone along the way—or maybe the Spirit of God—helped John understand and embrace his role. When they asked him, “Are you the Messiah?” Others might have been tempted to say, “Well yes, I am.” Or at least to enjoy the attention and leave it open-ended, saying something like, “Perhaps,” or “maybe.” But John was clear. “No,” he said. “I’m not the Messiah.” “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…[and] he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John lives in a hard, thankless place. He’s the warm-up act before the main event. John makes the appetizer, but a great chef will create the entrée. John does the rough, blunt, heavy carpenter’s work, but the real craftsman will step in later. John does the advance work, but soon will be taken out of the story (and killed by King Herod) just as Jesus really gets the mission going.
But what a great gift John gives Jesus, the disciples, and the Church! John does us all a tremendous service by showing us the importance of being the one who prepares and not having to be the one who always finishes and takes the credit.
A few blocks away, we have a great reminder of the power of preparation. We have Central Park because one was willing to prepare the way. Frederick Law Olmsted understood well that he would never see much of what he began. He would move huge sections of earth, pile rocks up in new places, and plant seedlings, imagining what the landscape might look like in 20 years, or 50 years, or 150 years. Even more amazing than the vision, I think, was Olmsted’s patience at preparing the way, getting things started, and being satisfied with that.
Can we prepare for others? Are we patient enough? So much in our culture suggests we shouldn’t worry about the future. We should get what we can, as quickly as possible. Who has time to plant a tree? Who has faith enough to get something started and then be not only willing, but to feel grateful to step away and let someone enjoy the good to come? But the real results come later, if we just do the prep work.
In our first reading, the Prophet Zephaniah prepares the way for a future of hope. He can preach about what’s coming because he’s filled with the confidence of God. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart,” Zephaniah says, because our God is a God of deliverance and forgiveness. Whatever has happened in the past is over and done. New life is coming. “God will rejoice over you with gladness,” the prophet says. “God will renew you in his love; will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” One way Zephaniah helps prepare is by leading people out of the past.
I recently heard a nurse talk about when she did this—when she helped prepare the way for someone, in that same way as Zephaniah, and as John the Baptist. This nurse worked in a drug rehab center and people came in and went out, so one rarely knew what the long-term outcome might be. But she remembered this one man that the other nurses avoided. He was angry and almost violent, and nothing they did seemed to help him move forward. One night, when everyone was just about at their wit’s end, this nurse remembered a left-over cake in the nurses’ lounge. She got a piece, found a candle and put it on the slice and lit the candle, and then she got the other nurses and staff to join her as they went into the difficult man’s room. They sang “Happy Birthday.” The man was so stunned that he didn’t even have a chance to tell them this was not at all his birthday, and the nurse I know explained to him: “This can be the first day of a whole new life for you. The past is over and done, gone forever. Today begins a new life, if you’ll have it.” Through tears and in shock—at least for the moment— the man seemed to catch a glimmer of the possibility. That nurse had helped prepare the way. She didn’t know what the results would be, but she had done her part.
John the Baptist is the patron saint for different people and different causes, but he might be an especially good patron saint for any and all of us who ever find ourselves part of the work of preparing. And we need him as we think about the future, especially as we think about the future of Holy Trinity. There are areas of concern where we might be tempted to ignore, but if we prepare, we’ll be doing God’s work, and God will have more to work with in the future. Even though we don’t have many, we can prepare children to learn the love of Christ and invest in our Sunday school and children’s programs. We put more thought and effort into older adult ministry as we prepare to age gracefully together and try to help each other make hard decisions about downsizing, simplifying, or addressing health concerns we’d rather postpone. We can prepare visitors to hear something new about God—whether they become more involved in this parish, or in another one. And we certainly need to continue preparing our building for a future filled with people and programs—helping others to prepare for others.
If we just remember that we’re baptized with water, yes—but we’re also baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit, then we can do the sometimes hard, sometimes lonely, often overlooked work of preparing the way. And that’s a special kind of faithfulness.
May God give us the courage and faith to be people who prepare the way for others—even if it feels like we’re planting trees to be enjoyed in 100 years.
Rejoice always! And let us especially rejoice that we are able to make things better for those who follow.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.