The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
I was driving back from Hurstville on Thursday having picked up the rescued food for distribution and I was thinking about this week’s reflection. I was thinking about what it means to be alert and I began to notice how many alerts there were as I drove through the streets. Every few metres there are signs warning us all the time to remain alert, to be aware of what is coming up: 50 km signs, 60 km signs, no right turn buses excepted, no turn left turn, one way, slow, no standing, no stopping, no parking, koalas crossing. So many alerts to make us aware and keep everyone safe and doing the right thing.
Alerts are warnings, telling us to watch out. To be aware of what is going on around us. To be alert How many alerts do we have on our phones? How many Apps do we have that remind us of things we are meant to do or are warnings such as weather or fire alerts. Last Summer I was constantly getting alerts about bush fires. I was awake to the danger and ready to act. It is handy to know that hailstones are on the way or damaging winds or floods. These all alert us so that we can take action, be aware of our surroundings, the world we live in and possible dangers, to be alert, prepared, safe.
In last week’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus’ call to Keep awake. We thought about being awake as compared to being asleep. This week we are thinking about being alert as compared to being sleepy. How do we wake up and remain alert? To be alert means to be wide awake, aware and attentive. When it comes to the ways of God, are we wide awake? We have Apps that remind us to pray five times a day, or that give us a daily reading or reflection or prayer. But are there deeper things that God wants to alert us to? Are we alert to what God may ask of us in our generation? Long before Apps there was a man called John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness of Judea, alerting the people of his day. John cried out, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ This is a shortened version of Isaiah 40:3-4 which says, ‘A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.’ It means prepare the road on which the Messiah will come to us. This road is made by acts of justice and kindness and mercy and love and grace, preparing to receive the one who has alerted us to live differently, to fully live the life of the Kingdom of God. John alerts us to the road we are travelling, the life we are living. Are we alert to the things God may want of us? What changes do we need to make so that all can live a fuller life. Are we still asleep? Are we still lost in our sins or living in the freedom of Jesus? We have alerts on our phones and signs along our roads but where do we see or hear God’s alerts?
Notice that the alert in our Gospel reading today comes from the wilderness. So much of our time is take up in the metropolis, in city living, dazzled by its lights, working for its goals, surviving, exploiting, rushing, being exploited, frustrated, sold out, consumed. We are caught up in the busyness of this world with all its messages. We are bombarded with advertising; to be cool, to be up to date, to be in charge. We get messages constantly delivered to our phones bearing fake news and scams and threats.
When one goes about preparing the way for the Lord, trying to create a fairer and more just and inclusive world there will be lots of opposition. I heard on the radio that throughout the world there are groups of people and most often they are young white males who band together to target vulnerable people, people with disabilities, women, people of colour, social justice advocates etc. They target these people online and harass them, pushing some to suicide, pushing them to give up the causes that they are involved in, threatening them and even carrying out some threats.
We need to be hearing that voice crying out in the wilderness, saying to us prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight and to be hearing the life enhancing word of life to sustain us on the journey, messages that alert us to God’s life and constant presence and peace.
The wilderness is the place of beginning, the starting point, the place of ‘Being’ from which we begin. Like John, Jesus began in the wilderness. To begin elsewhere is to risk adding our misconceptions and agendas and ego and desires and best intentions to something that requires us to listen deeply and be aware of presence, God’s presence and God’s promptings and to move at that pace and with that awareness rather than quickly jumping to do it our way, acting in ways contrary to the ways of Jesus.
The alerts of God come from a place of stillness and silence- a place of alert stillness. Just after dawn or early in the morning before the mechanical noises that humans create, you may observe things in the silence and stillness that you may not observe later in the day. You may hear the natural sounds of your environment and perhaps notice things that you might miss later in the day as your mind is taken up with the tasks before you.
The place of alert stillness is not far from the place of sleep, nor is it far from the place where the mind kicks into action, perhaps it is on the boundaries, on the threshold, a liminal space, but it is not daydreaming. It is a place where we are listening for God, available to hear beyond the thinking mind and its preconditioning forms of thinking, prejudice and bias.
This means that the alert signs are not there sticking out for us to clearly see but need to be searched for and listened for. They require us to go to the wilderness, to learn to be still and silent, to quieten our mind and listen with our heart. This is a process or a spiritual discipline that we can learn. It takes time and practice. When we first attempt to sit in stillness and silence, two things often happen; we either fall asleep or our minds are filled with all sorts of thoughts, alerts about all the things we have to do or have not done. There are often messages of self condemnation or comparing ourselves to others. Learning to sit in stillness and silence requires us to welcome those thoughts and in welcoming them they lose their power over us. Our goal is to move beyond or distinguish between all the advertising alerts of the outside world and move beyond the fear and ego alerts in the mind to a place of stillness and silence where we listen with the heart, to listen to divine and to be alert.
It is when we are still that we know. It is when we listen that we hear.
It is when we remember that we see your light, O God.
From your Stillness we come.
With your Sound all life quivers with being.
From You the light of this moment shines.
Grant us to remember you at the heart of each moment.
Grant us to remember.
-from Praying with the Earth: a Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell
Photo: Hedgegrow, West Cork, Republic of Ireland
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation