Slow down and open your hearts to God.

There’s a stretch of US 27 between here and Avon Park, to the east is Crooked Lake and on the right is open pasture land, dotted by Sabal Palms and cattle. It reminds me of Patrick Smith’s A Land Remembered.  That novel follows a pioneer family through the settling and development of Florida, tracing their hardships, sacrifices and successes from just before the Civil War through the late 1960’s.

How impossibly difficult it must have been to scratch out a living and traverse this land 150 years ago.

In the pioneers’ time, even though it was mostly fairly level land, it was hard country to cross.  Sand is hard to walk on.  Working your way through palmettos is hard. There were mosquitos swarming. The low and wet places can go on for miles and thunderstorms pop up with little warning.

They would do very well to cover 15 or 20 miles in a day.  We are impatient if traveling 15 to 20 miles takes us more than 15 to 20 minutes.  And that is how we approach much of life. We live in an age of instant everything. Just a few years ago, if we wanted to find out about something, we’d have to go to the library and look it up. If you wanted to watch a TV show, you had to watch it when it came on, and you’d have to get up out of your seat to change the channel. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the theater during the week or two that it was there. If you wanted to go out to eat, you’d have to get out of your car or at least park it – there were drive-ins, but no drive-throughs.

With all of this instant access, it’s hard for us to connect with John the Baptist’s analogy about travel. We’ve made most of our rough ways smooth.  Mountains and valleys are scenic vistas as we zoom along. Our minds are racing and we aren’t always sure of where we are even going and why.

We’ve got to slow down, even now.  In the midst of our rush to get preparations ready for Christmas gatherings, parties, banquets and pageants, God is reminding us to pause to “Prepare ye the way of The Lord, make his paths straight.”

Luke draws us into the appearance of John the Baptist with a set in a tangible scene with very specific references to people and places that fit right in the flow of all the history that has built up to this point: The emperor, the governor, the tetrarch, the chief priests. Imagine if I were to say, “When FDR was President and Spessard Holland was governor, and Henry Louttit was Bishop...” And then John comes into view with divine revelation, quite apart from all of that. “There was this preacher named John on the bank of the Peace River south of Fort Meade...”

John’s message echoes the call of Isaiah and all the prophets before him, to repent, to turn back from our sinful ways and get back in favor with God. That is, after all, the salvation history of Israel, that familiar cycle of failure, repentance and restoration.

But there is more. John is at this hinge moment, the crossroads between the Old Testament and the New; the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel and the world are arriving in Jesus. All flesh shall see the salvation of God – now! Jesus, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Prepare!

God is calling for us to respond to the gift and invitation he has given us in Jesus. The Kingdom of God is at hand. It’s a discipline rather than a chore – if I’m not making too fine a distinction in saying that. We are to be disciples.

The first step is to focus on God and slow down, if even just for a few minutes, to focus on Him and just ask for his leadership and blessing in everything we’ve got on our minds, on our hearts, on our to do lists, and on our calendars. We can each make a list of obvious wrongs we commit, but it’s also more subtle than that. The first rock, often a boulder in God’s path, is our desire to forge ahead based on our wits and experience. That is quite natural, we are wired for it, and it is also the first step in the wrong direction. Repentance is turning away from that path, following him first, which then puts our wits and experience, our gifts and talents, to work for him.

One of the key things to remember about Jesus is that his will is perfectly aligned with the Father’s.  That is where we need to be. Jesus took time out regularly to get quiet with his father to nurture that unity, and so must we.

Devotional time and praying through our prayer lists are also important, but we’ve got to be careful not to let even that become a chore, “I read through it, God! Check! Done!” The same holds true for our worship together.

Next is to engage his Word on a regular basis. It is important, especially in our “i” world where everything is served to us a la carte, that we not fall into the delusion that the God who created the universe is sitting around waiting for us to define him on our terms. We can go out and stare at a sunrise or a sunset or a lake and wonder at the majesty of God, but scripture helps us know and understand him and his will for us. Some of that comes reading and studying on our own. Some comes through our worship, and in Christian education.

It’s important to study scripture in community to gain perspective from each other as well as the saints who have gone before us and upon whose shoulders we stand in interpretation and application.

Prayer and studying his Word are the keys to knowing our path, knowing how we are astray, and knowing where we need to repent and how we must live.

This leads to the third and last point for today, which is to live out our prayers and study as best we can. As James wrote, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” As we yield our wills to “Thy will be done”, we find God shaping us to respond more graciously and resolutely to the provocations that come to us from without and the temptations that well up from within. We find when we participate in acts of mercy and compassion in his name, be it at the Care Center or the Thrift Shop or volunteering in the schools or mission trips, to name a few, we see the glory of God in the faces of the people we serve – his people – as down or broken as they may be.

For such he is doing for us – as down or broken as we may be.

Prepare ye the way of The Lord.  Make his paths straight.