Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
When I looked at the reading from Luke for the first time on Monday, I thought to myself, “Wow, I feel sorry for the poor soul who is going to have read all those Greek names on Sunday.” Then I remembered, that poor soul was me!
It seems rather important to Luke to set the record straight. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea ...” It is vital for Luke to give a time, place, and context for the greatest story ever told. He is giving us history, the times of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. But what happens when history runs counter to the story that the winners want to be told? When those who are in a position of power wish to sweep the dirty parts of history under the rug, some parts of the story get altered or eliminated altogether. Take the history of slavery, for instance. I heard a story recently that at some Confederate war memorials, tour guides are still telling the myth that slaves were better off in bondage. They were too simple, too ignorant, too helpless to take care of the themselves. Even more the history of segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and the like.
But the thing is, the truth will always have its way, in the end, and this Sunday, we have a voice crying out in the wilderness, out of the wilderness and into our own world and lives crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make His paths straight!” John is our great prophet of Advent, who we will explore in some way over the next two Sundays. He cries out that all flesh will see the salvation of God. In this new history of the Kingdom of God that is now being written, it is acknowledged and proclaimed that all people will be brought into the scope of God’s mercy.
But what is involved in preparing the way for a spiritual apocalypse? There is the word again. Remember apocalypse is to unveil or to reveal. So, what is being laid bare is the reality of God’s salvation in Christ wedded with an urgency, a need for humanity to live more fully into a place of spiritual awareness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. And we cannot write the new history of the world with God at the center without taking a risk or two. John boldly locates the territory for the story of Jesus among us, now, in our space, not just in the wilderness.
John speaks with God’s voice, calling us to a new side of the Jordan, a new shore, with new possibilities to prepare ourselves for encounter with God. Advent reminds us that meeting God in the pathways of our lives is supposed to change us, to alter us, and to move us out into the world as God’s messengers of grace, goodwill, redemption and love. Advent is a call for change. And our willingness to be actors in the history that Christ would write in the world now takes some risk and courage.
First, let’s be honest. We really struggle to take risks in our faith. Remember a number of weeks ago we talked about God loving us just the way we are. We are God’s and we should know it and understand and accept it. At the same time, the reality is that all who encountered Jesus and came to Him, opened themselves up to Him, were transformed. Not immediately most of the time and not without the ebb and flow of doubt and hardship but, when meeting Christ, they were changed.
The challenge of Advent is that most of us are comfortable where we are and resist seeking a deeper faith that would take us on a closer walk with God. We seek to be comforted, reassured, and fed – all laudable and wonderful in their own right. But coming into real, strong contact with the love and redemption of God will change us. And that can be scary. That can be risky and shake us out of the place where we most comfortably reside. The great theologian, pastor, preacher and writer Frederick Buechner once wrote, “No prophet was ever asked home for dinner more than once.” Ain’t it the truth! We don’t want to be shaken or stirred (forgive the Bond reference) nor be the ones to shake things up. It can be a thankless job.
But the great figures of scripture were risk-takers. Noah built his ark in a desert place, far from rising waters, ridiculed by all. Abraham followed God from his land to “…a place that I will show you,” as God said. David fought the giant and led Israel against powerful enemies. Daniel refused to bow down to the Persian king, who would have made himself a god. And now John, the Baptizer, is the ultimate risk taker, leaving his desert existence to speak of the need for the nation to repent of its hypocrisy, lack of faith, betrayal of their basic values, etc. and to be Baptized in water to symbolize that turning and repentance. He spoke truth to power and was ultimately imprisoned and then beheaded for it. We could talk about many other great risk takers, outside of scripture, from St. Nicholas to Martin Luther King, Jr. The voice crying out in the wilderness implores us to step out into the world and make the world ready for the Lord who WILL return to complete the work of salvation. Christ has come. Christ, in glory, fury, and hope, will come again. What kind of world are we preparing for our Lord? How are we preparing? What history do we want to write, for ourselves and our children and grandchildren? How can our faith help us?
I think it is important to remind each other that John ends his call today by saying, “Every valley shall be filled…every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Jesus will do the final work of completion, as heaven and earth passes away, when He shall return. But he calls for us to fill in the valleys of hatred and separation, so that people can walk together. We must bring ourselves from the ivory-towered peaks where we can so easily reside, and come into contact with the folks pushed down into the valley. Let us bring the pathways close, so that those who are wandering in the backroads of the world can come to us, those who are lost can be brought home to God.
John the Baptist is calling God’s shy people to come forth to be baptized, to repent, and to turn fully to God. Our preparation is actually the work of bringing our will into alignment with Almighty God’s; it need not be Herculean acts of justice but a simple beginning of some sort. God in Christ promises that all flesh will see the salvation of God. So, we have in Christ. But the world is still embroiled in inequality, prejudice, and violence. The first coming of Christ has not erased our human desire to be in control and to exercise that control over others.
So, what is the history that we want to write, in our relationship to God? How can we be instruments of God’s healing light? Christ shall come and all will be made level. God calls us to fire up the backhoes of justice and light and begin to fill in the valleys and level the mountains that separate us from each other. When we find ourselves standing face to face with each other, we will, suddenly, find ourselves eye to eye with the One who made us all.