Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
December 4, 2022
How We Prepare
Dary grew up in Maine, which means he has spent a lot of time downhill skiing. He was on the ski team in high school, skied on weekends through college, and even worked as a ski instructor for a winter after he graduated. As a result, I’ve watched a few more downhill ski races than I might ever have anticipated before he and I met. One Olympics a few years ago, I remember watching Lindsay Vonn before a giant slalom race, utterly focused – eyes closed behind her orange goggles. She was sitting, but bobbing and weaving on her skis as she waited her turn at the top of the mountain. “What’s she doing?” I asked my more knowledgeable husband – “Visualizing the race,” he said. It was her second run, and she knew the course, so she prepared by running it in her mind’s eye – seeing the turns, tensing and moving and visualizing success as she waited for a chance to actually make it down the mountain.
Visualization is a common strategy for athletes to prepare for competition. It primes your body and mind to respond quickly. Studies have shown that if you can envision yourself succeeding, you are more likely to actually succeed at what you’re attempting – envisioning yourself attaining a goal, you can convince yourself it’s possible. Call it the power of positive thinking – or just smart preparation – visualizing success can help ensure it.
In one of the most watched TED talks of all time, social psychologist Amy Cuddy describes the impact of power poses: ways you can move your body that actually boost confidence and lead to a greater likelihood of success. Take a superman pose for a minute or two before a difficult phone call or an interview, and you’ll feel more powerful, more equipped to handle what is to come. What we do with our bodies and what we picture in our minds prepare us for the future, and lead to better outcomes. Incredible, isn’t it?
Chefs prepare for busy meal service by prepping their mise en place, chopping, shredding, slicing, peeling, measuring ingredients so they’re all close at hand, clean and ready for the mad rush to come.
Musicians and actors get ready to perform with practice – playing a piece or running a scene over and over until it’s perfect, going over the sticky tricky parts until the notes become muscle memory, imbedded somewhere deeper than conscious thought. This is what preparation is, isn’t it? Learning, practicing, anticipating, imagining success, and building experience so that the work feels natural, second nature – easy, even.
Last Sunday, we heard Jesus give us a wake-up call – shaking us from our slumber so we might open our eyes to the reign of God appearing all around us.
In case we hit snooze, or need another nudge, we hear the hoarse cry of John the Baptist this week – happy Advent, you brood of vipers! He quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying: prepare! Prepare the way of the Lord! The valleys will be lifted up, the mountains made low, and rough places made a plain!
Now Isaiah was speaking to people who were in exile in Babylon, longing to return to their homeland. The prophet is casting a vision of a holy highway through the desert, promising the people that God would move mountains to bring them back home. He’s giving them hope for a different future.
John is another story. John cries out in the desert because the one for whom they’ve waited is coming, and people need to get ready! We don’t know much about where John came from or why he starts preaching when he does in this gospel. But somehow, John saw the signs and knew –the messiah was coming. And though he is out in the wilderness, crunching cicadas in a hairshirt with sticky honey hands – or maybe because he is out there, on the margins, John knew that the advent of God would change the world forever.
So John tells the people they need to make some changes to be ready for Christ when he comes. He calls them to repent – to turn away from the old ways, away from religion of laws and hierarchy that exploits the poor and excludes the broken, away from acquiescent faith that bows down to Rome’s military might and worships wealth, turn away from all of that – and turn back towards God: God who makes a way in the wilderness. God who promises peace. God who uplifts the poor and provides for the hungry. Turn back to God, John calls, and be baptized.
Baptism was a ritual used for converts to Judaism, a symbolic washing away of the old life so that a new life in the religious community could begin. But John is calling everyone to be baptized. Even faithful religious folks need to change, he says – if you’re not bearing good fruit, the whole tree needs to be chopped down.
What do we make of these angry verses? Do we write off John as a sweaty toothed madman out in the desert, a crazy relic of ancient Israel? Or can we hear him as a herald of the reign of God, a new era that we still hope for, still look for, still long for today. What I hear John saying is: what we do matters. How we care for one another. How we honor God. How we work for the future we envision. As the modern translation, The Message puts it: “What counts is your life. Is it green and flourishing? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
What counts is your life. Our preparation during this Advent season often becomes domesticated, doesn’t it? We clean up, and decorate with branches of evergreen and holly. We hang lights, pull out the ornaments, put up the tree. We bake and buy, wrap presents, and plan. But the preparation to which John calls us is so much bigger than that. Bigger than a day of celebration. Bigger than getting our homes or even our hearts ready.
We’re called to prepare for the reign of God! To prepare for peace! To prepare for an end to suffering, forever! They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord! And when we envision God’s promise of peace as possible – watch out! Because we know the power of vision and visualization! That’s the dangerous, the incredible gift of the prophetic imagination! Visualizing success can help ensure it!
So how do we prepare? We prepare for the arrival of the reign of God by acting as if it’s already here. Because we know how this story goes – we know that Christ was born not as a prince but as a pauper, and his ministry began not in the halls of power but out in the wilderness, with John, being baptized alongside everyone else. And so out on the margins is where we meet him – and we serve him when we serve those in need. We prepare by embodying those values that he held dear – values of love, generosity, hospitality, belonging. By seeking the justice we know is coming. By making a way where there seems no way is possible. By trusting that the promise will be fulfilled, and acting as if it were so. We prepare by envisioning and working for the future God promises is coming, the future we glimpse in the life and ministry of Christ.
I wonder – how will you prepare this Advent?