Prepare the way!

I’m sure you all know this story, but I’ll tell it anyway! It’s told about a rabbi, but it could just as easily be a priest or a minister, or just about anyone. A rabbi prayed to God that he would win the lottery. The synagogue needed a new roof, the poor needed to be fed and the gas bill needed paying. So the rabbi prayed hard that he would win the lottery and that all his financial problems would thus be solved. Each week he prayed, and each week he watched the results programme, and each week he didn’t win. But he kept praying to God, ‘Oh Lord, let me win the lottery’. And then one day, God decided to break God’s customary mystical  and transcendent silence and spoke directly to the rabbi. And God said, ‘OK, I’ll let you win the lottery, but meet me half way – buy a ticket!’

We are always saying in the church that all the good things we receive in this life – joy and love and goodness and beauty.. and the knowledge that we are God’s beloved children no matter what – all those things are down to God.. We can’t earn them – we can’t buy them – they come truly as gifts. And so we praise God. God’s love meets us before we even know about it, let alone have ‘earned’ it. We believe that God loves us no matter what we’ve done or who we are – that’s there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. It’s sheer grace.

But there are times when we recognise that there are things we can do to make ourselves ready to receive those gifts. There are things we can do to make sure that we notice them. There are things we can do to say ‘God, I’m looking for you. I want to be on your side in this world. I am going to sign up for the way I know you want the world to be.’

We know that there are things we can do to get ready for God to touch our lives, to clear a path for God’s gracious love to find its way right into the heart of us – you can if you like buy a ticket.

It’s been wonderful to celebrate Maddison’s baptism today. None of us can know what will happen to her as she grows up. We can’t predict entirely what kind of person she will be. The first lesson of parenthood – that this child is their own person! But what Dan and Meghan have done today is something like getting her a ticket, they’ve got her over the threshold towards God – fonts in many churches are actually even right by the door! But the love of God is free, it’s on the house – and will come to her by God’s overwhelming grace. All we need to do is show up or set out on the road, or get on the train or make a straight path for God to come – choose your own metaphor for this great mystery of faith! Meet me half way says God in the joke – but of course God, like the father in the famous story that Jesus told, goes much more than half way and meets us when we’ve only just set out.

There’s a great novel by a Russian writer about two brothers. One of the brothers says that the world is such a terrible place that he wants to hand back his ticket to life, and he wants to give up on God. Bringing a child for baptism, and even turning up on a Sunday even once in a blue moon is to say that you will take a ticket, that despite how things sometimes look you want to sign up to what God could bring to a world like this, that you want to do something, however small, to say ‘yes’ to life and God and hope and goodness.  Growing up teaches us that we cannot solve everything ourselves or make God happen – that there are things we just have to wait and hope of. But maybe growing up in faith is also learning what you can do – that it is worth putting yourself on the right path, it’s worthy buying a ticket to this great show that is God’s love for the world. A voice cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, clear a straight path.’ We can clear the way, and then wait for God to come.

Some years ago – when I was minister in a different church from this one – we were thinking about how we might encourage more people to come to our church. One of our members, one of the oldest, said something like, ‘God may be waiting to renew our church, but it won’t come by our striving for it. It will come because God is doing it’ She spoke wisdom. Of course it’s not true that we should do nothing. But neither is it true that we can do everything ourselves. We can prepare the way, or perhaps prepare ourselves, and then wait for God. We can buy a ticket and set out on the journey. These weeks before Christmas are traditionally a time of spiritual preparation for Christians, a time for us all to prepare ourselves for what God may do with us and what God will do with the world. We don’t have to rely on ourselves alone – but God’s grace comes to us unbought, unearned and beyond our dreams.

It’s been great to welcome Maddison and her parents and god-parents. They are preparing a staight path for her, a good life, a loved life.. And they have come to the church because here we continue to say with all we have in us that God’s God’s miraculous and overwhelming love will come to her. For as John the Baptist promised, ‘All humankind shall see God’s deliverance’. Amen.