Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
January 10, 2021
Texts: Genesis 1:1–13; Mark 1:1–11
At the beginning of the musical Godspell, following a blast from a shofar, the Jewish instrument made from a ram’s horn, the character playing John the Baptizer comes out and sings, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” After Jesus is baptized, he sings, “When Wilt Thou Save the People,” with the words, “O God of mercy, when? The people, Lord, the people, not thrones or crowns, but men.” As he continues asking shall crime bring crime forever, he asks God to save the people from despair and to bring them to hope that their prayers are heard by God.
It is certainly a feeling we all have in this time of Covid, bad economy, international turmoil, and the promise of possible change. Although the Gospels and Godspell itself tell a story of the promise and possibility of change in an almost rapid-fire fashion, we know that the hard work of preparing for change is in the spaces between the sentences and paragraphs of the stories we read.
Few of us like to spend our time preparing for any of the tasks that lie ahead of us, whether those tasks are writing reports, going to meetings, or even taking a vacation. But preparation is the foundation of how we have to live. Have you ever noticed how recipes often tell us to prepare all the ingredients before mixing; in fact, my Chinese cookbook invariably says, for whatever recipe is printed, to have all the ingredients prepared: that is, cut them all ahead, have them in separate bowls or piles, ready to dump in at a moment’s notice. If you’re cooking the garlic, you could burn it while you’re chopping the scallions. Prepare everything ahead, yes, every little ingredient ahead.
Our society has become such an instant gratification society that we often don’t think about the importance of preparing. Even our esteemed president said recently that he had not been sufficiently prepared for a long-term war in Iraq. Imagine that! We just want to jump ahead to the results and don’t take everything into consideration.
As we think about the spirituality of preparation, we can learn something from the approach of other religions as well as from other times. In Buddhism, for instance, there is something called “conditionality,” the preparation for meditation. Usually, we think of meditation, a Buddhist word for what we would call prayer, as preparation for living, but there must be actual preparation for prayer or meditation.
Most religious writers tell us that we should set aside a time for prayer or meditation, usually a time when we will have silence around us, a time without interruption. This is not easy to do in a world where we are constantly being bombarded with news, information, phone calls, or even barking dogs or meowing cats. Everything around us seems to demand our attention, our immediate attention. So, how do we, how can we prepare––for prayer or for anything that requires concentration or openness to God?
Whether we are preparing for prayer, meditation, or just cooking a good meal, we need to plan. Now, that sounds obvious, right? But I am not talking about the act of planning as much as our intent, essential to planning and preparing. What is our intent in preparing? How do we think about the preparations we make for our lives? How do we live more intentionally?
In the reading from Genesis this morning, there’s an almost whimsical view of God creating the heavens and the earth, but it’s quite well planned. In the old story, God looks out on the void and chaos and creates order and God sees that the order created is good. In a sense, this is also a story about preparation, the preparation of the earth for living creatures. First, there is the creation of order, night from day, then the sky from the earth, then the seas from the drylands where the vegetation of every sort is put, and so forth. The old story carries forth a God who looks at each step of the creation and after determining what had been done was good, moves onto the next step. That’s a bit of how we should approach our lives. Step one, done, now the question: Is it good? Did it work? Then move onto step two.
Although Mark’s Gospel addresses a different event in the story, John’s baptism of Jesus, before the baptism, the Gospel quotes the prophet Malachi saying that a messenger will prepare the way. That messenger is, of course, John, who prepares the way by preaching a baptism of repentance. He set the stage by announcing what would come afterward so that the people, who needed to be saved from their despair, would be ready for the hope that Jesus would offer.
That is what it’s all about, of course, being saved from despair, having hope for the future. During this time, the old, often ineffectual by this point, is wrestling with letting go. We wrestle with our old habits, our old prejudices, our old feelings as we face a new world, for many of us, a world that we do not understand. It’s not the world of our childhood, not even the world of our adulthood. Change just seems so rapid and often beyond our control. How do we prepare ourselves for such a change?
Experts in this field say that people need to develop a strategy for considering options. Often just taking a pad of paper and doing brainstorming session on paper to consider options, no matter how crazy they seem. Then we are told to look at the options and to examine the pros and cons of each option, and then for all the seemingly good options, to develop a plan of action. You may develop several plans of action for as many different options. That’s okay because it’s the part of preparing that’s most essential: expanding the mind to consider the possibilities.
Preparing for prayer and meditation, for the entrance of God into our lives in an active and interactive way, is also expanding the mind to consider the possibilities. The Gospels, especially Mark with its stark and always immediate action of Jesus, don’t give much of Jesus’ internal thoughts, of his planning or preparation. As I said before, we often have to read between the lines. In the same way, we have to read between the lines of our lives to prepare better for the future. As we do that, let us consider our options and let us prepare for our future.
Shall we pray: God, you who created the heavens and the earth, you who gave us our minds and souls, help us to live in hope for the future and to plan so that future will be one open to you and the world. In the name of him who is our hope, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.