Theme: Preparing for God
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, in this season of Advent we prepare for your coming; keep us focused on your word and help us see how we fulfill your work in the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Last month, an elderly Australian man went out to fetch a morning newspaper. Eighty-one year old Eric Steward drove to get the paper. He seemed to take a wrong turn and kept on driving. It is important to note in this story that Eric is a male.
Apparently because of that wrong turn, Eric drove 400 miles before thinking that maybe he should stop and ask for directions. This was nine hours later. The news he was seeking was probably not as fresh as it was earlier in the day.
He started in the town of Yass in New South Wales. When getting gas at a station in Geelong in the southern Victoria state, Eric decided to ask a police officer for directions. The officer said, “This little old man came up to me saying he was lost. He handed me his mobile and asked if I could speak to his wife.”
Eric later told reporters, “I just went out on the road to have a drive, a nice peaceful drive.” When asked if he needed a satellite navigation device, Eric indicated that this was only the second time he’s gotten lost, so why would he need one of those things. He sounds like my father.
What if Eric Steward decided to level the hills and fill the valleys and straighten the roads before he left to pick up a newspaper? A navigation device might fit that bill. Admitting he gets lost might fit that bill. Maybe even not driving might fit that bill. All these alternatives and others require Eric to do some self examination.
That is what John the Baptist did. John was a conscience of entire nation. Luke introduces John in chapter three of his gospel.
Luke is fond of using events to date his gospel settings. Unfortunately, the events often don’t jive, leaving us scratching our heads trying to figure out Luke’s dating. The one he uses in the third chapter of his gospel is pretty accurate. All he needs to do is say the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius. We know that that year is 29 AD. Luke gives us the names of local rulers; the most significant being the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.
Luke does seem to be unsure of just when Caiaphas was High Priest and when Annas was High Priest, so he lists them both even though there is only one high priest in office at a time. The office of the high priest was also a political one. The high priest is responsible to the Roman governor for the payment of tribute and for keeping order.
So, it was at this particular time in history that God spoke to a man named John, son of Zechariah. The word of God does not come to rulers or the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The word of God comes to John, an ordinary guy. We already know that John, son of Zechariah, is a cousin of Jesus, son of Joseph. John was a traveling preacher, a circuit rider. He traveled all around the Jordan River valley.
John was in the business of ritual cleansing, a common Jewish custom. In order to do this cleansing or washing, he needed a source of water. The Jordan River provided a constant source of water, all year round. John was limited to the area from the Galilee lake to the Dead Sea, a deep and hot depression. It is in the Jordan River Valley that John set up shop.
John told people to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. The Greek word baptized literally means to bathe. John was saying that if people wanted their sins forgiven, they are to wash in a baptism of repentance. To repent is to literally turn around. People being baptized needed to turn from their own ways and turn toward God’s ways.
In order to repent, we need to change. We need to change the way we think and the way we act. If we continue to sin, our repentance is incomplete. We need more change in our lives. The washing is merely a sign of the intention of repentance and of God’s forgiveness. John challenges us to repent and prepare.
John’s baptism of a forgiveness of sins was a direct assault on the power of the temple priests. Only through the sacrificial system of the temple was forgiveness offered. Now this nobody John is doing that far from Jerusalem.
Luke then quotes the prophet Isaiah (40:3-5) to justify what John was doing – to give John theological validity, to show that John wasn’t crazy. This is what Isaiah said, “A voice is crying in the wilderness.” It is a depressing statement. There is only one voice and since it is in the wilderness, no one can hear it.
Still, the voice persists, “Get ready for God’s arrival. Make the road smooth and straight.” To make the road smooth and straight is difficult in a hilly countryside as we all know so well. A big effort should be made to welcome God. Isaiah says what is required: fill every valley with dirt, level the mountains which will give you the fill dirt, making level ground, and take out all curves in the road making it straight as an arrow. When this is done, the people will see God’s salvation.
Isaiah was talking to a people in exile, a people far from home. Isaiah was giving this people hope. Hope that their exile will soon end and they will be allowed to return home, home to Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah is calling the people to work to make the way home easy for God’s return, too. Then God’s salvation will be known to the world.
Luke is implying that John is doing the very thing that Isaiah talked about. Isaiah is telling us what a transformation that forgiveness of sins looks like. He is telling people to make the necessary preparations, no matter how hard or how expensive, for God’s arrival. And God’s arrival will happen soon – when Jesus enters the scene. John is getting people ready for that arrival.
Of course, several verses later, Luke introduces the grown-up Jesus. We, too, can use this Advent season for preparation. Advent, John reminds us, is a time to prepare, to welcome Jesus and not simply our invited Christmas guests. What changes do we need to make in our lives? How can we communicate a vision of forgiveness of sins? Will our vision of a world of forgiveness of sins look like Isaiah’s? No matter what it looks like, we can only begin with ourselves.
A parable is told of a farmer who owned an old mule. The mule fell into the farmer's well. The farmer heard the mule braying and went to the site. After assessing the situation the farmer sympathized with the mule but decided that neither the mule nor the well was worth the trouble of saving. Instead he called his neighbors and asked them to bring their shovels and bury the poor mule and put him out of his misery.
The mule seemed hysterical. When the dirt struck his back he shook it off. As the farmer and his friends continued to shovel a thought struck the farmer. After each shovel of dirt was thrown onto the mule he said, "Shake it off and step up." The mule did what he asked, after every shovel of dirt. After a time the old mule stepped triumphantly out of the well. What seemed to bury him actually became his road to freedom.
There is an alternative to every impossible situation. The way is not always visible to us. But our task is not to work miracles, that is up to God. Our responsibility is to prepare the way, committing every ounce of energy we have to the possibility of the transforming power of God, remembering that a single act of kindness can bring hope to generations yet to come.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of wisdom, through which we may prepare your way and your kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[THE TIMES contributed to this sermon.]
Text: Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was rulera of Galilee, and his brother Philip rulerb of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias rulerc 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.’ ”