Dec. 5, 2021 Second Sunday of Advent The text is Luke 3:1-6.
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
All four of the gospel writers introduce John the Baptizer and name him as the prophetic messenger who heralds the coming of the Messiah, the One who is to bring God’s people out of the darkness into the light of salvation. But there are decidedly different approaches taken by the four writers. In John’s gospel, John the Baptist is shown to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of Jesus as the light into the world. Matthew and Mark also note John’s proclamation of the coming of Jesus as the Son of God, but only these two include the description of the Baptizer’s clothing and diet in the wilderness; that of camel hair and locusts and wild honey. Luke isn’t concerned with John’s mode of dress or his dietary preferences; he takes great pains to lay out for us the timetable of John’s arrival and he notes those persons who were in authority when John appeared.
Luke is very specific as he lists those who were in power in the Roman world including the local authorities in occupied Israel. He starts at the very top and then outlines all the earthly powers ruling the lives of the people in first-century Jerusalem. One Roman emperor, Tiberius; one governor in Pilate; two tetrarchs, Herod and Philip; and a pair of Temple priests, Annas and Caiaphas. These people held sway over every aspect of the lives of the Jewish people in John the Baptist’s time; from the administration of civil laws to the enforcement of the Jewish religious decrees overseen by the temple authorities. All the earthly governance, power, and authority were centered within this group of rulers, yet God chose to send his word not to any of them, but instead to a scruffy, camel hair-clothed, locust and wild honey-eating, wilderness-dwelling prophet. God’s proclamation of the coming of the Messiah-Savior to the people is made to the son of Zechariah, living not in the temple city, but on the outskirts, well removed from the seat of supposed power in the world.
It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the manner in which God chose to announce Christ’s arrival to John, is rather a precursor to the way in which Jesus’ entire ministry was to unfold. Just as Jesus’ message of grace and salvation was opposite of the way the world operated, and his actions turned just about everything upside-down, it’s no wonder that God set the stage for this by announcing Jesus’ coming to a wilderness prophet while ignoring the powerful rulers of the day.
So, what does John do in response to perceiving the word that God sent to him about the coming of Jesus? He preaches baptism and repentance, these as preparation for the coming of Christ. And, as he submerges the repentant who come to him in the river Jordan, it’s understood that this is intended as a personal change, an individual metanoia in Greek, or “turning around” of a person’s thoughts and actions. In this way people would be ready to hear Christ’s word when he preached it to them. But what of the quoting of Isaiah, and this ancient prophet’s command to make the path straight so that all people might receive salvation? “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth”. Straightening out a path seems easy enough, but the filling in of valleys and the levelling of mountains?
What would that look like, if that which was high was made low, and the deep areas were to be raised to meet the smoothed mountains and hills? Sounds a bit like things in the world being turned upside-down yet again, doesn’t it? Would we even recognize such a smooth, even, level world? Are Isaiah and our friend the Baptist simply suggesting that we do our best to make the way smooth for Jesus to proclaim his message, or are we expected to take part in this upturning of the earthly kingdom, the transformation that makes this world more like the one that is to come? And is this individual or are we challenged to participate in, or even initiate wider changes in preparation for Christ’s coming? Are we expected to turn things upside-down, and if we do, are we really equipped for the task? “Prepare the way of the Lord”, Isaiah commands, and the Baptist echoes this.
Well, unless any of us are heavy equipment operators, there’s not much chance of us being able to flatten hills and fill in the low spots in an effort to make the way smooth for Christ’s coming. Yet, the command for individual and corporate efforts for preparation remain; and even without bulldozers it is possible that we might be able to prepare the way for Jesus to reach those he seeks. By being here in worship we acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son and that we have searched our hearts to find this truth, and have placed our trust in him as Savior. That said, it’s still really good practice to intentionally remind ourselves of our faith and to continually work toward keeping ourselves open to hearing the Word of God. That should pretty much take care of the individual call to repent and be prepared for Christ’s dwelling within us.
But we’re still faced with the larger job of making a straight, smooth path for Jesus to bring salvation to “all flesh”, to all of humankind. And that’s best accomplished in two ways; by communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet live into it; and just as importantly, by straightening the path for those who need to hear this truth. And the best way to do this is in providing for the needs of others; it can be difficult to be open to preparation for the coming of Christ if one finds themselves without food, clothing, or shelter. No matter how straight or smooth the way, underfed people will stumble from the pangs of hunger, the unclothed will find themselves too cold to focus on the Word, and those without a roof over their heads may wander aimlessly, without a home to anchor their lives to.
“Prepare the way of the Lord” should include, “by doing your best to provide God’s people with basic needs so that they might be unhindered as they await the coming of Christ”. Each of us has the opportunity to participate collectively in providing at least a portion of these needs. If not with actual shelter, “We Care” kits for our homeless neighbors may at least provide some basic necessities. Along with our partner, the Quinsigamond Village Community Center, over 70 shopping carts filled with food have been provided for those in our community who might otherwise not be able to send their children to bed with full stomachs. And through the efforts of Emanuel’s Closet, fewer of our neighbors will feel the sting of cold winds this winter. These are some of the ways that Emanuel’s people are preparing the way for the Lord’s coming; in what other ways might the church respond to the call from Isaiah and John the Baptist? Not only during Advent, while we all await Christ’s incarnation, but all through the year. The needs of God’s people never seem to lessen, and the yearning for salvation continues no matter the season. This isn’t a rhetorical question, this asking for additional means to answer the call to serve. If Emanuel is to thrive into the future it is imperative that we continue to expand the scope of our ministry. The missional work that we do brings us together under a common purpose, that of preparing the way for the Lord. And when we serve the needs of others our own sense of purpose, faith, and service is magnified. As you prepare your own hearts for the coming of Christ, you are invited to give thought to how we might expand our mission to better prepare God’s people to share in the abundant life we have been granted through Jesus. The next Emanuel Ministry Team meeting is at 6:30 on December 14. All members of the congregation are invited; we’d love to hear your ideas on how we might better, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” It’s what we have been called to do.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, be with us as we wait the coming of your Son, to once again bring your light into this dark world. Inspire us by your Spirit to find more ways to serve those of your children who yearn to hear your Word of truth. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who brings Good News to all the world.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.