Monday, February 15, 2016

Sermon: "Ready for Use", Isaiah 40:3-8/Luke 8:5-8, 11-15 (February 14, 2016)


(Video of this sermon)

(This sermon is the first in a Lenten series on the elements of worship: Preparing, Confessing, Sacramental Community, Proclaiming, and Responding)

The other day, I was in my office with Elizabeth and Meredith Kukla, who were admiring my collection of stoles, when I decided to use it as a teaching moment. Every week, the Church school teachers remind the class of the liturgical season, so I wanted to see how much the girls remembered about the liturgical colors. They hollered that green was for ordinary time, almost before I got the question out, and they remembered that purple was for Advent—I was impressed they’d clearly been paying attention so far this year—but they struggled a little bit when I challenged them to tell me the other season that uses purple (I’m sure that they would have had a much quicker answer if I had asked them after class today). To help them remember in the future, I told them that Purple is the color of Preparation for our biggest holidays (and yes, you’re allowed to use that pneumonic device to remind yourself, too). Preparation…such an important aspect of Lent to remember, and yet, this is far from the only time that we’re called to the important work of preparing.

For the next few weeks during Lent, we’re going to be talking about Presbyterian worship: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. This week, as you might have guessed, we’re talking about preparation: if you hadn’t noticed previously, go back and reread the Prayer of Confession and the Prayer for Illumination. Both were written to draw our attention to the preparing aspect of worship. Although it might seem a little bit redundant or silly to talk about worship IN worship, it’s so important for us to understand what it is we’re doing every week, because only once we understand that can we begin to understand how it’s supposed to impact our lives. Ongoing examination of the way we do things is central to Reformed theology, the theological tradition of the Presbyterian Church. And what better time to examine this important part of our lives than Lent?

Having entered Lent this past Wednesday, we really are at the perfect time to think about preparation. The whole reason it lasts 40 days is to symbolize the 40 days that Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness in order to prepare for his public ministry. We use Lent to prepare ourselves for the death and resurrection of Christ each year, an event which is absolutely central to our faith. But for all the importance that we place on it, especially this time of year, how well do we really understand preparation? So, in my very own preparation of this first sermon in Lent, I decided to begin by finding a definition for the term that I could use as a jumping off point. Generally, I found most dictionaries defined “preparation” with some variation of “the process of getting or making ready,” which makes sense. But one particular definition, which wasn’t really all that different from the other ones, stuck with me. The business dictionary,[1] of all places, defines preparation as “the STATE of making something ready FOR USE.”

This struck me for two reasons. First, because most of the other definitions described our usual understanding of preparation as a process, which begins at point A and concludes at point B, point B being the event for which we had been preparing. I referenced some of the normal things that we prepare for in the 90 second sermon trailer earlier this week: a job interview or presentation, a big test, a trip, moving to a new house, and so on. In most cases, no matter what it is you’re preparing for, there necessarily comes a time when the preparing is over—either because you’re as prepared as you can get, or because the event has caught up to you and it’s go time. But this dictionary describes preparation as a STATE, an ongoing attitude or status, a way of being. In a way, this definition doesn’t describe preparing as a verb, but as an adjective.

The other reason this definition has stuck with me is that it specifies that preparation is about getting something ready FOR USE. Not just for the sense of accomplishment or completion, but for deployment in the world. In this sense, preparation is in service of something bigger.

It strikes me that this definition is particularly apt for our responsibility for preparation in the Church. We should be in a perpetual state of preparation, whether we recognize it or not. God is always preparing us for the work that we are called to do in the world. God is eternally making us ready for use. And unlike so many other events that we prepare for, Church life is cyclical—we prepare during Advent and Lent each year without fail, but we also prepare every single week when we join together for worship. By our very nature, we’re a preparing people.

Hopefully, even if the understanding of worship as preparation is new to you, it doesn’t particularly surprise you. I know that whenever an important event looms in my life, I prepare for it as much as possible, and what’s more important than our relationship with God? Remember, “Liturgy” means “the work of the people,” and every Sunday, we have some work to do!

Each week, worship begins with several elements that are intended to help us prepare our hearts and minds for this work. Isaiah 40:3, while originally written to the Israelites in exile, serves beautifully as a modern call to worship: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” We come to worship each week out of the wilderness of our lives, bringing the chaos and anxiety and hurt with us. God doesn’t ask us to “leave our baggage at the door.” In fact, Jesus taught us that everyone who comes to him in faith is welcome, baggage and all…but we can’t fully embrace Christ unless we’re willing to put our baggage down first. This isn’t something that comes easily or naturally to us—so, we choose to go through the work of preparation.

Through the prelude, the passing of the peace, the call to worship, and the confession—which Andrew will talk about more next week—we begin to build a highway in the desert for our God. We give our hearts and minds the space to focus, the resources to level the uneven ground and to lower the hills and mountains of our defenses. We welcome and make peace with our neighbors so that unfamiliarity and enmity has no hold on us. We call ourselves to the task at hand, reminding one another that we’re embarking on a journey that requires intentionality. And we admit our wrongdoing to God, clearing the path ahead of our guilt and hubris.

The neat thing about this highway that we’re building through our preparation is that it’s actually a two-way street. The road we construct through our preparation is the way that God is able to enter into our hearts, but it’s also the path along which God leads us out, towards Christ, towards the new life that God has prepared for US, towards the service that we’re called to out in the world.

So we’re creating this path in the wilderness through our preparation, making ourselves ready for God’s use. But why do we need to do this work in the first place? Why is preparation even necessary? Can’t we just show up and have God meet us where we are? Well…yes, we can. God will meet us wherever we are. But if we don’t prepare, we won’t be ready to greet God. We won’t be ready to follow God. We won’t be ready to go where God leads us, ready for use.

It turns out, the highway that we’re clearing for the Lord is actually more of a garden path. Our second reading for today, the parable of the sower, is found in three out of the four gospels. It’s a wonderful metaphor to use in a sermon about preparation, because we all know that plant won’t grow just anywhere. They require time, care…and preparation. Yes, the seed of God’s word WILL be sown, regardless of our personal preparedness, but it can’t take root unless we’ve cleared a path for it, unless we’ve transformed the wilderness into the order and beauty of Eden once again. God, the compassionate gardener, wants desperately for God’s Word to take root in our hearts, to blossom and bloom and flourish, bearing fruit and renewing life, but that can only happen if the soil has been carefully cultivated, tended, and prepared. And that, my friends, is a matter of our own free will. Will you choose to be the good soil, one who, when you hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance?[2] Will you make sure your eyes are opened to see the glory of the Lord as it’s revealed?[3] Will you make sure that your garden path is in the state of being made ready for use?

Ultimately, when we undertake preparation of our hearts and minds, we’re demonstrating our trust in God. In order to prepare for worship each week, we need to let our guard down. We need to open ourselves up to the indwelling of Christ, tear down the gates that we build so carefully during the week, and let the gardener in. At the Ash Wednesday service, we symbolically did that by burning papers that represent the things holding us back from a full relationship with Christ. That was preparation. That was making the rough places plain. That was clearing the way.

But it goes beyond that. While we were planning the Ash Wednesday service, I realized that ash is more than just the remnants of something destroyed. It can also be used as fertilizer. That's right: it isn't just a symbol of destruction and endings and mortality, it can be used to prepare the ground to give new life. In the very act of acknowledging our fragility and sinfulness, we’re preparing ourselves for the hope and freedom that comes when the Word of God is planted within us.

So, friends. Although we may only wear our purple stoles for a few weeks during the year, remember the preparation we do during Lent is merely a small part of the preparation to which we’re called. We prepare for the work that we undertake in worship so that worship can be preparation for the larger work we undertake in the world—the work for the kingdom of God. The garden path that we’re cultivating is just the beginning. Once the seeds are planted, only God knows the path of their growth. But we can be confident that when we do our part, God will bless our preparation with magnificent fruit. Let’s be a people defined by their preparation, consistently making ourselves ready for God’s use. Amen.

[2] Luke 8:15
[3] Isaiah 40:5

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