When Hannah and I were in China, we lived in the dorms on the campus of a university (Zhejiang Tech). The closest entrance to campus was what they called Back Gate (Houmen). And right across the street was some of the best street food you could get. Charcoal roasted lamb skewers, fried dumplings with fried eggs draped across the top, hand-pulled noodles in rich broth. To the left was the main street that took you anywhere else, and to the right there was construction. There was always construction, and never progress. The sidewalk turned into red dirt, a dead-end overpass, and a few trucks that never seemed to be doing more than making piles. After a few months, we barely even looked to the right anymore. And one time, it’s Sunday night, and we were away for the weekend and got a cab from the train station to take us back to school.
“Where you going?”
“Zhejiang Tech, back gate”
And we were in the back of the cab just talking about whatever. At some point we noticed it was taking too long, and we looked out the window and didn’t recognize the street, and we said, “What’s going on?”
“It’s not there.”
“What’s not there.”
“This didn’t used to be here”
That construction site didn’t look any different on Friday afternoon than it always did. But come Sunday night, there was a highway across our front door. The only way you can do that is with good preparation.
I told this story to a friend of my father’s, Gary Kitchen, and he told me something similar about when he used to travel for work. There was this one place he used to go every few weeks or so, and every time he went, the building next door had two people, setting up scaffolding. Every time, the scaffolding got a little bit bigger, but it was always just two guys, standing out there, setting up scaffolding. This went on for I don’t know how long. Couldn’t they get it done a little faster? Then one time he’s out there for business again and the site is covered with people. There’s hundreds of people out there, it’s a beehive of activity. The next time he goes out there, the work is done. And there’s those two guys, out there, taking down scaffolding.
Do you know what those two guys were doing, setting up that scaffolding? What those trucks were doing, making piles? They were preparing the way. In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, there was a man in Galilee, talking about the same thing.
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” (Luke 3:4)
“Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). John the Baptist was preparing the way. He was getting on his road grader and making smooth the path so that the road is ready for the Lord to come. He was laying scaffolding so that the stone that was rejected could become the cornerstone. He was preparing people with repentance and hope. He told them that the world was not as it should be, and we bear some responsibility for that. Even now the axe is lying at the foot of the tree, and don’t think that you’re immune just because of who you are. And then he started painting the picture of the world as it could be. If you have two cloaks, share one with the one who has none. If you have food do the same thing. Be honest in your dealings and sacrifice for each other, and you will bear good fruit.
Two thousand years later, John’s call rings in our ears, as we wait for Christ to come in glory. Like I said last week, we are here “in the meantime” between promise and fulfillment. And so, we wait in hope, learning to see in the dark. But good things come from good preparation. Now we use what light we have to get ready for God’s arrival. Someone’s got to light the runway so that the plane can land.
How do we get ready? The first thing John tells us is to clean ourselves up. If we want to make room for Christ in our hearts, we should probably tidy them up a little. Clear out all that old anger at those who’ve done us wrong, and replace it with forgiveness. Wipe off that selfishness that privileges our comfort over someone else’s and replace it with service and sacrifice. This is the work of repentance. It begins with removing the logs from our own eyes.
But preparation goes further than that. Preparation begins working towards the hope that will be fulfilled in Christ. If we want to make ready, we have to go out into the dark, into the wilderness, and begin making a highway for our God.
So what do we do? We set up scaffolding. We make piles. We quietly do the little work that makes the big work possible. We show up, week after week, day after day, committed to the work of love even when it isn’t easy, so that together we can make things happen. When we need to come together, we do so on the strength of all that shared work, all that time spent in fellowship is the scaffolding that enables the Lord to build the house, because unless the Lord builds the house, it is built in vain. We proclaim the good news with our mouths and our hands, and fight the good fight even when we know we’ll lose.
Ida B. Wells prepared the way. In the 1890’s, she became the country’s strongest anti-lynching advocate. She kept statistics and wrote detailed accounts filled with moral outrage. She travelled the world, passionately committed to both Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage. 80 years before Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat on a train to a white man. They chased her off the train. But she paved the way. She co-founded the NAACP, which, with Rosa Parks as a plaintiff, successfully challenged Montgomery segregation. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Florence Nightingale went to an army hospital in Crimea and was shocked that so many more soldiers died from hospitals than from battle. She organized a response, called in every favor she could to bring sanitation and resources into army medicine, and when she returned to England she wrote the book on nursing, built schools, and trained new nurses. She would be amazed at the modern hospital, but it’s thanks to her. She paved the way.
Do not wait idly. Prepare the way of the Lord. Keep your eye on the horizon and your hand on the plow. Exercise your faith muscles. You may not be in a place where you can make a lot of progress in kingdom-building. You may be stuck in a job where doing the right thing is punished severely. You may be in an environment where God’s message of love and reconciliation cannot take hold. But don’t let your muscles atrophy. Continue to work, in whatever ways you can, to prepare the way for God to come through. We might not make a lot of progress sometimes, or it might not look like we’re making progress. But we can exercise our servanthood, practice our message, and get our faith muscles strong so that when it’s our time to shine, we’re ready to hit the ground running.
Don’t turtle up. Don’t be on the defensive any more than you have to. Set up the scaffolding, gather the materials, clear the brush. Do the right thing even when no one is looking. If you have not practiced doing the right thing when it is easy, how are you going to do it when it’s hard? Don’t get swallowed up by darkness. Don’t get cynical, instead, get ready so that when hope blooms again in the world, you will have your eyes open enough to see it. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let your heart be hardened by the world, but continue to insist on love and justice even when it seems impossible. Practice in small ways the change you want to see grow bigger, and when the time comes, when the light shines, you have prepared the way. You have made straight in the desert a highway for our God.