Prepare ye the way- within yourself

Dec 9, 2018 by

Sermon – December 9, 2018 by Garry Blinch

Luke 3:1-6

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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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.

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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

 

Our passage today begins with a list of the people “in charge’ at the time when John the Baptiser started his ministry. There is:

  • Emperor Tiberius
  • Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea
  • Herod (the great) ruler of Galilee
  • Philip (Herod’s brother) ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis
  • Ly-see-nee-as, ruler of Abilene
  • During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas

 

In the immediate, these names anchor the beginning of John’s ministry in a specific time frame. That’s seven seats of wealth, power, and influence in just one sentence.  Seven centers of authority, both political and religious.  Seven Very Important People occupying seven Very Important Positions.  But God’s word doesn’t come to any of them.  It provides an incredible juxtaposition, a notable contrast between the “who’s who” and a nobody; between the lifestyles of the rich and famous and a some nutjob living in the wilderness by the river (in a box under a bridge, maybe?!?!).

It’s a little like listing President Donald Trump, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, Rudolph Giuliani, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York, and Pope Francis alongside of… some homeless guy. I can’t help but feel some divine humor going on here. I mean, there is nothing funny about the trajectory of John’s life, or Jesus’ life, or the seriousness of John’s message- but when you step back and just look at the opening tableau that is about to play out- it’s hilarious!

And I suspect that a lot more people in the world know the name of John the Baptiser that would know of Emperor Tiberius, ruler of the mighty Roman Empire.

Our eyes deceive us; what looks so solid and permanent is not, and what seems impossible comes to pass.

And so, Advent begins in the wilderness…

Perhaps the first wilderness lesson, then, is a lesson about power.

In the wilderness, there’s no safety net.  No Plan B.  No Uber or distractions. For John in the wilderness, life was raw and risky. He had no choice but to wait and watch as if his life depended on God showing up. Like Jesus’ experience of the wilderness.  And into this environment — an environment so far removed from power as to as to be laughable — that the word of God comes.

“John went into all the region around the Jordan,” Luke tells us, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Elsewhere in the Gospels, we read that crowds streamed into the wilderness to hear John and submit to this baptism.  They took a risk and responded to the heart’s call for…what? Peace? Hunger for the prophetic word of God that had been absent for hundreds of years, a memory passed down by ancestors long dead?  There in the wilderness, where all other distractions fall away, they were moved by what they heard.

Like Jesus, John’s message had none of the uncertainties or appeals to other authorities that people were used to. It is truly the prophetic lightning bolt that strikes the heart where it stands with simplicity and truth: repent and be baptised, repent and publicly display your repentance as a member of a community not as a private intellectual exercise.

For 21st century people, “sin” and “repentance” are loaded words we try to avoid. Those who grew up in fundamentalist circles may actively dislike the word “sin,” associating it with guilt and the fear of an eternal hell, rather than God’s abundant supply of grace and mercy.

We may also distrust the word because of how the church has categorized sins, rating them as to which are worse and which can be laughed off. In some circles  abortion and homosexuality are the big, bad sins, while our rape of this planet and our disregard for the poor are not. And gluttony and materialism, well, that’s just part of life in this comfortable part of the world.

And yet, Advent begins with an honest, wilderness-style reckoning with sin.  We can’t get to the manger unless we go through John, and John is all about repentance.

Is it possible that this might become an occasion for relief?  Maybe, if we can take time away from all that keeps us busy at this time of year and use that time to follow John out into the wilderness, we will find comfort and peace in the act of repenting.

What is sin?  Growing up, I was taught that sin is “breaking God’s laws.”  Or “missing the mark,” as an archer misses his target.  Or “committing immoral acts.”  These definitions aren’t wrong, but they present  sin as a problem primarily because it offends God.  But God’s sensibilities are not what’s at stake.  Sin is a problem because it kills.  It kills us. Sin is estrangement, disconnection, disharmony, with God and with our own soul, our self.  It’s the slow spread of poison, making the soul septic and killing the owner.

Sin is apathy.  Care-less-ness. Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing. And this kind of dried-up lifelessness and soul-sickness is easier to spot in the wilderness than it is in the places where we remain distracted.

 

[Debie Thomas]

“Finally, Luke suggests that the wilderness is a place where we can see the landscape whole, and participate in God’s great work of leveling inequality and oppression.  Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Luke predicts a day when “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”

Unless we’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see our own privilege, and even harder to imagine giving it up.  No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain to be flattened.  But when we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction, we’re able to see what  privileged locations obscure.  Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet.  We experience what it’s like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths.  We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape.  A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables “all flesh” to see the salvation of God.”

By Debie Thomas. Posted 02 December 2018.

https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2023-from-the-wilderness

 

It’s an inner journey. The trek to the manger is an inner journey where distractions and noises that keep us over-busy are quieted- by whatever means it takes to quiet them. Isn’t it ironic that this is one of the busiest and noisiest and most dazzling times of the year? When what we need is to quiet our hearts to once again take inventory of where the mountains and valleys and crooked paths have found a home in us, obscuring and complicating a straight, level and smooth path to the Christ within. In the midst of conflicting desires and siren calls, we long for– and truly need- peace.

Let us make time and space for journeys into the wilderness this Advent season. Amen.

Rev. Garry Blinch, RP, M.A.

 

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