Written by Pastor Ed
Let It Be So
December 10, 2017 Advent II
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Mark 1: 1-8
Last week we talked about having a vision or dream of what things could be like, or would be like when one you love arrives. Or of having an idea for a project, like a woodworker. But just having the idea or a goal doesn’t get anything done. Author Patrick McManus says in his essay entitled “Sequences,” “Any fool can set goals. I’ve set more goals than a trapper sets traps. I could set half a dozen goals for myself this very minute, without exerting more than a couple of brain cells in the process. The problem is getting to the goals.”
He then goes on to explain that the problem for him is that starting out to accomplish a goal always involves a set of sequences. He illustrates his point this way:
“One day Hank said to me, ‘Pat , let’s take off the day and go fishing up Ruby Crick.’ ‘Sounds good to me,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Okay. But first we have to fix that hole in the pasture fence. Won’t take but twenty minutes.’
My shoulders sagged. ‘Hank,’ I said, ‘Either we go fishing or we fix the fence. Which is it?’
‘Both,’ he said. ‘First we fix the fence, then we go fishing. Now go get the wire stretcher and we’ll get started.’
I saw that it was hopeless. No matter how often I had tried to explain sequences to Hank, he could never grasp their significance. ‘The wire stretcher’s broken.’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s right. Well, we’ll run over to the Haversteads and borrow theirs.’
‘Yeah, but the Malloys borrowed our post-hole digger.’
‘We can swing by the Malloys and pick up the post-hole digger on the way back from borrowing the Haversteads’ wire stretcher. Then we fix the fence and go fishing. Easy as pie.’
‘We’re out of fence staples too.’
‘Is that right? I guess after we borrow the Haversteads’ wire stretcher and pick up our post-hole digger from the Malloys, we can zip into town and buy some staples at Jergans Hardware, come back, fix the fence, and go fishing.’
‘But Hank, you promises Sam Jergans you would haul him in a load of hay bales from the Nelsons’ the next time you came to town.’”
Well there are a few more steps in the account, but you get the picture. I can relate somewhat since I’ve done a fair bit of house renovation over the years, and what often starts with a simple, “Why don’t we,” or “It would be nice if,” turns into a major project before you get to the first thing suggested. We’ve probably all been there. McManus’ solution is just to go fishing.
To be ready for the future takes some planning, but it also means getting started. And that sometimes means making some adjustments. Isaiah 40 speaks to the exiles who were thinking about returning to their homeland. But before that could happen some heavy landscaping had to be done to make the road passable – every valley lifted up, mountain and hill made low and the rough places a plain. That’s major work that needed to happen before the promise could be fulfilled.
In the same way John the Baptist called the people to make a change as they prepared for the coming of the promised one. “Repent, change your ways,” he cried. And Mark characterizes him as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The wilderness plays a significant role throughout the scriptures, and is often emblematic not only of an actual place, but of how we often feel as we are in the midst of preparing for something, especially when we have this vision of how it’s supposed to end.
When I began working on the outside of this house we bought in 1991 I had an idea of what I was going to do, take off the old aluminum siding and paint. But of course, I didn’t know for sure what was under the aluminum. And when I took it off, I discovered that there were places where something had been torn off to make it even so the siding could be applied. I was faced with new problems, needing to make corrections. Thankfully, whoever had done the work left some clues, by using some of the boards that had been taken off as filler, so it gave me a clue as to how it might have looked previously. And eventually, after trial and error, and improvising, the idea we had became a reality.
Sometimes that’s the way it feels in the Kingdom of God. We’ve been given a vision of what that kingdom should look like, or at least what we think it should look like. And we say that the church is supposed to be a foretaste of that kingdom. We should begin to act, in the church, like what Jesus said the kingdom would be like, a place of safety, peace, and justice, where the road would be smooth.
But when the exiles returned to the promised land they discovered that things weren’t like they had been before. They couldn’t just recreate the world they had known before. While they remembered the glory days of David and the splendor of Solomon, the country was now in ruins, leaders were different, and they found themselves in a wilderness requiring change and adaptation. It was rough going, just read Ezra and Nehemiah.
In much the same way, the religious leaders of the first century thought they knew what the Messiah would be like. There were visions of a strong ruler who would over throw the hated Roman oppressors and restore the kingdom of David. John the Baptist pointed them to an itinerant preacher from Galilee who had been born under questionable circumstances, in a backwater town of Bethlehem and said, “You need to change your thinking, repent and get used to a new reality.” And it was rather rough going, just read the gospels.
Over the last decade or so, the church has been in a kind of wilderness. For centuries the church held a prominent place in society. Its influence was taken for granted and listened to. But that has changed. We live in a multicultural society, with competing voices, and, quite frankly, there are segments of the church that have discredited the message by adopting the vision not of Jesus, but of the other religious rulers of his day who thought that political power was the way to bring in the kingdom. Many people see the church as irrelevant at best, and at worst, as a racist, sexist, and violent institution. People no longer come to church because it’s what expected that people will do.
And so the church has been adapting, and hopefully changing. It still feels at times like we’re in the wilderness. As Mennonite Church Canada changes structure in trying to adapt, it has often felt like there are more questions than answers as to how it will look. Mennonite Church Alberta is needing to adapt and change, and yes, First Mennonite Calgary is and will continue to need to adapt and change. Perhaps not in what we believe or the vision we have of the kingdom, but in how we relate to the neighbourhood around us or in how we see our place in society. How will we be that voice crying out in the wilderness and pointing the way to a new and better reality to come.
But if we only look at all the changes needed, the sequence of things that will need to happen before we get to some new reality, we may, like McManus, just give up and go fishing. Instead we are called to get started, confident that the God who made the rough places a plain for the returning exiles and who sent his son into the world as a helpless infant, will continue to lead us through the wilderness and continue to give us clues as to how the kingdom is to be shaped and furthered. Then we too can say, “Yes, let it be so.”