This is the message I gave today at Camas Friends during meeting for worship. It is based on Luke 3:1-6.
The Parking Lots
When I was in high school I did what many people my age have done for generations and that was work as a grocery store carry-out: a bag-boy as we called it back then. I have many fond memories from that first job, not least of which was my promotion to working in the dairy department where my colleagues and I would eat ice-cream from damaged cartons, and have the bakery bake us up frozen pizza’s that we’d “accidentally” sliced through while stocking them in the freezers.
As a bag-boy there were two main areas that I conducted my job: the end of the register where I bagged groceries, and the parking lot where I traversed the sea of cars next to the customer I was serving on many blistery Ohio nights in the rain, sleet and slushy snow.
Of these two locations, the parking lot was where I had some of the most profound experiences of my life as a bag-boy. As a young and very earnest Christian, I took every opportunity to talk to people about my faith, the worship band I was playing on, and even offer to pray with my customers. I remember many times in that 2-5 min. walk to a customer’s car having the opportunity to catch-up with my regulars, listen to someone who had just learned bad news, or hear of family troubles at home. More than once did I offer to pray for them whether right there standing by their car, or later on my own. I never had anyone turn me down. I used what little space was given carefully, I was never pushy, I didn’t always talk about faith, but you’d be surprised how many times in that parking in Alliance Ohio, I had an opportunity to be a listening and compassionate presence.
I like the contrast between a moment of goodness, a mercy in a strangest place – a parking lot.
When I think about it parking lots are really interesting places. They are in a way transitional spaces. A parking lot is an place in-between coming and going. They are places we are not meant to stay and If you have found yourself living in a parking lot then you know that something has gone terribly wrong. Sometimes they are resting places, I have caught a nap or two in one. Sometimes they are places of dread, as in the parking lot of a funeral home. And sometimes they are places of great joy, as in an airport lot when you’re on your way to see a loved-one.
But most of the time there are marked by the stress of finding a good spot close to the door, watching carefully for other drivers not watching carefully, keeping an eye open for obstacles such as carts, debris and people.
For all they are, parking lots are not permanent places of life. At their worst they are places of devastation, often they are places of waiting, and at their best they are places of preparation.
Advent is like a parking lot. For some of us it is a time of joy and celebration. For others, we are only reminded of great losses and past hurts. But advent, these four weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus — isn’t it nice that we only focus on four weeks and not 9 months like Mary had too — is a time of watchfulness, a transition place, a place of preparation.
Crooked Paths Straight
And this is John’s work as the forerunner to Jesus. He is the scout, sent on a mission to “prepare the way,” “where the crooked shall be made straight.” I have to say that often by the time we arrive at advent season, I feel a little “crooked,” out of place, not very prepared, not always very well.
- I am 3,000 miles from my family.
- I suffered a great loss days before thanksgiving a number of years ago.
- I have a wonderful family.
- I am devastated by the sorrow and the need around us.
- I am the pastor of a lovely Quaker meeting in WA.
All of these shape my experience of Christmas – both good and bad. They are a part of the path that I am on. How about you? What is your path and how straight is it right now? How prepared are you for the Christ-child to be born? What does this parking lot look like to you?
Luke tells us that John came preaching in the wilderness. That would be basically like John preaching in at Fred Myers or West Field Shopping Plaza’s parking lots today as though to meet those on the “crooked path” to show them the way through. And this is significant. John went preaching in the wilderness, which was like parking lots, in that it was a “no place,” uninhabitable, dangerous, and where the “nobodies” lived.
That’s who John was sent to rally. That’s who John was sent to preach a message of forgiveness and peace. The nobodies of society. The cast offs.
First, it says that John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” Back in those days, if you wanted to repent how did you do it? [You had to go into the city of Jerusalem, go to the temple, and sacrifice an animal.]
Instead, John proclaims a new way to be cleansed. A cleansing in a river, out in the wilderness, a hosing off in the burgerville parking lot. Something anybody can do, if they want to. Preparation for Jesus’ birth is something for “All Flesh,” everyone, no matter how long you have been in the wilderness, no matter how much of a “nobody” you think you are, forgiveness is yours for the taking – if you want it.
This is the first part of preparation. Being turned towards God and being cleansed, being forgiven and forgiving those who have hurt you.
The second, follows a receiving of shalom. John’s dad, Zechariah — the old guy in Luke 1 — say:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.””(Luke 1:78–79 NRSV)
This is what Dad foresees son doing (a high call!?). God’s tender mercy will break upon us, and give light to those who are literally shut out, cast aside, and sit in darkness, they will be included, and they will be taught the way of shalom.
One of the words for peace, as you know, is shalom, and that means harmony, wholeness, well being, completion and fulfillment.
This is the second part of preparation, it is a moving towards a peace that involves our wholeness and well-being and is directed by the Spirit of God.
In other words, in the wilderness times, in the parking lots of life, God’s work is to draw all people close, especially those in the “no places.” God’s tender mercy is for “all flesh,” and God’s light reveals just how accessible forgiveness for ourselves and others is – no matter who you are. And preparation means opening ourselves up to healing and wholeness that comes through the shalom of God.
If there is any kind of master plan for you and for me, if there is any blueprint that reflects God’s desire for you and I it is that God wishes that we know shalom in our deepest heart of hearts. That we know it for all our relationships. That we know it for ourselves. And that our society knows it. John making the crooked straight and the rough smooth is Luke’s way of saying even in the dangerous places God is with you, guiding you towards healing, and forgiveness. Rescue is at hand.
Open Unto Me
As I spent this week in study and reflection I wondered what I would have to say about healing that might help you and I as we think about preparation and healing this advent. I realize that many of us are in need of healing. For some of us there are new hurts, new fears, new obstacles, but for many of us have been in need of healing for a long time. We have been lost in the wilderness, camping out in the parking lot for a long time. It’s possible that some of us have lost our way. The fact is that I don’t know any magic words that can change your situation, but I do know that God wants you to find healing. I know that God’s desire is that we are all made whole, that we all are moving towards forgiveness, peace and completeness.
This is different from being about God making us happy — often becoming whole involves suffering and pain. This is different from God somehow magically “tying up all our loose ends” and providing a happy ending for us, because often we can be content, resolute and well in the face of a less than desirable storyline.
I know that healing involves grieving. I know that there are some of us who have not allowed ourselves to grieve. Healing cannot come until we do this.
I know that healing always involves powerlessness. Admitting that we need and want God’s help, that we don’t know the way, but we are willing.
I know that healing often includes patience – something we Westerners have little of. We want our fixes now. But healing is truly a life-long process, that involves our whole being.
I also know that healing involves forgiveness. It means that we forgive ourselves, that we “let go” of others that we have been holding captive by our own unforgiveness. It may be time that we forgive God for that “holy disappointment” Stan talked about awhile back. So that we might accept God’s love for us, so that we have a deep love to give to others.
Healing also involves an act. It may involve an act of prayer and quiet with God, working out with God the details your new arrangement, it may involve a conversation you’ve long been avoiding, it may involve asking for more help from others, it may involve accepting a new story about yourself and refusing to play the same roles, engage in the same habits, or use the same words about yourself that have been so destructive in the past.
Whatever healing looks like for you it will involve God making straight your paths, and making safe the wilderness of our lives. John’s preparation is a preparation of opening our hearts to healing and the possibility that healing may come in the middle of a parking lot on a dark and dreary night.