Psalms 11 
1 Kings 18.17-39
I love the line “make straight / prepare the way of the Lord”. I love it outside of Advent too, but it is of course an Adventy passage. But I confess I’ve gone through this week without it saying much to me, to be honest.
But as I was watching a tango to the Madonna classic “Living in a Material World” on Strictly Come Dancing, I found myself reflecting on what I had been saying to the scouts at their service on Friday, about consumerism and celebrity not being the things to aim for, despite them being ubiquitous in today’s society.
We are living in a material world, and we may be being encouraged by culture and the media to be material people, but how does this sit with “make straight the way of the Lord”? Is this His way? The psalmist tells us that the Lord “loves righteous deeds”.
So how might we make straight? How might we repent and prepare? We might want to do so individually, but we might need to do so corporately too, as the church.
Individually, we might want – as the Vicar suggested last week – to re-visit our baptism vows as our advent prayer. “In the Lord I have taken refuge”. We may be living in a material world, but we are called to stand out from that. What marks us out as Christians in today’s world? What of our values, our ethics, our stewardship, our behaviour?
And corporately, how do we prepare? Again, last week the Vicar said something I made a note of. He said the CofE is a sleeping giant, and perhaps it’s time for it to wake up. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is time. Time to wake up. (Time to smell the coffee?!) Time to be renewed, in our prayer and in our action.
Renewed in our prayer. Prayer for people’s hearts to be “turned back.” For people’s turn or re-turn to faith, to discipleship, to church. We might pray – are we still praying Bob Jackson’s prayer, to bring people in? Not as bums on seats, but as curious or careworn, being embraced by the simple truth of the grace and mercy of our God. And to meet with us and with God. We might pray today’s collect “O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us…”
Renewed in our action. I think we are an active, increasingly active church, from Water Aid and Christian Aid, [well, a donating church, but that’s still active, even if it’s not always physically active] to foodbank, bigknit hats, winter coat collection, shoeboxes, wash bags, carol singing etc for charity…
If you multiply that across the wider church (and wider wider if you count Pope Francis) under ++ Justin on economics, some of the other bishops’ involvement in poverty and justice, then I do think the church is at least beginning to wake up and clear its throat to hopefully speak out – and be listened to – on a number of issues, on justice, on gospel values of truth and worth. We may currently be the voice of ones in the wilderness, but we are at the edge of moving into a new future. (Perhaps.)
If the church of today, the sleeping giant, could wake itself up and get moving, it could – couldn’t it? – have “a great might.”
I don’t think, though, that it can happen quite yet. It isn’t yet Christmas. It’s still Advent. There is still preparation to be done. There is a greater one coming, but for now we have work to do. We must make straight the path.
Across the world, the church suffers from living in a material world; too much hierarchy, too much property, too much bling, too much emphasis on buildings – pews, too much hostility to each other within the church family, too much pain caused to the inclusion and ministry of women or homosexuals by de-valuing their humanity and gifts, too much.. too much – or too little numerous other things. The church is “grievously hindered through its (our) sins and wickedness”.
As we prepare in Advent, we seek a straighter road, one stripped of extras, of material unnecessaries. One of prayer, of simplicity, of hospitality, of discipleship, of action. And one of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Because one of the resounding images (can an image resound?) in my head over the last couple of days is of Nelson Mandela, walking into freedom back in 1990. Slowly he walks down that long road out of prison, preparing for return to the broken world he was released into. As the world mourns his death and celebrates his life this weekend, those two words are repeated over and over again. Forgiveness and reconciliation.
If we want to prepare the way of the Lord, if we want to wake up the sleeping giant of the church to turn people’s hearts back to it, if we want to repent and renew ourselves in readiness for the coming of the Messiah, then perhaps there is no better encouragement this weekend (after John the Baptist) than what Nelson Mandela has taught us.
Let us make straight the paths. Our advent prayer is not only to work – individually and corporately – for simplicity, hospitality, discipleship and action, but for repentance – turning around. For forgiveness and reconciliation. For it is a contrite heart and a steadfast love which God desires, not the sacrifice of burnt offerings, even if he did humour Elijah with the consuming fire to turn the people’s hearts.
Our advent prayer is to own our baptism vows, to reject the materialism, the consumerism and the celebrity of the world we live in, and instead to seek the Lord our God with a contrite heart and offer him our steadfast love. And thereby, hopefully, we “shall behold his face.”