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Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-5; Psalm 126; 1 Corinthians 4:8-21; Luke 3:1-6
God is not without witnesses. In every age, in every place, under every circumstance, there have been those who bear witness to the work of God that is and is to come. John the Baptist was one such person, one who was the witness to the closing of an age and the opening of another.
These grand historical transitions are understandable to us through our experience of personal transitions, changing from one period of life to another. When one graduates from high school, it is momentous; they are now legal adults, freed from compulsory education, set loose to seek their own fortunes and ambitions. When one moves from one city or state or country to another, it often marks a significant change; they are now in a new place, putting roots into new soil, forging into a time of life unlike that which came before. Changing jobs, buying a house, getting married, or having children. I remember when my children were born, the memory etched into my mind, burned there, a moment when everything changed in an irreversible way, as a new life, a new power, a new reality interrupted the world as it was and made it into something else.
In other words, there are some things that occur that irreversibly change the way things are. And that is what John the Baptist was the spokesman, the witness to: the coming of the Lord.
Kids, what John the Baptist called people to do is repent. Repenting is when we see that we sin and do wrong, and when we choose to turn away from our sin and seek God and his love instead. See that’s what the word for repent means, is to turn around. When I was young we liked to go to these caves up north. They were, many years ago, caves used by Native people to live or celebrate in. They even have old cave drawings. Well once when we went, we were trying to find the right trail to get to the caves. But the trail seemed to keep going, and what’s more, it kept getting steeper and harder. It seemed like we had found the wrong thing, but my dad kept going, so I followed. It got to where we were having to use our hands to climb, and after about an hour, we figured out what we did: we found the trail that led to the TOP of the caves. That’s what sin is like sometimes; we know we’re going the wrong way, but we just keep going and end up where we never wanted to be. On that trail, we should have turned around and gone back, found the right path, and ended up where we meant to go in the first place. That is repentance. John was calling people to turn from sin, and find the right path, the path of God, because when we go to God and love him like he loves us, turning from sin, then he takes us where we really want to go, where we should go, to be with him in his kingdom.
This passage begins with a characteristic move by St. Luke, which is to set it squarely into historical context. He begins by taking two verses to give us a list of the people in charge of various aspects of life. Luke is concerned to make sure we know that our faith, and the things we believe, aren’t just abstractions, but are concrete historical events secured in specific times and places. God works in history for his people.
It then tells us that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This seems to leave out some bits that would help us make sense of what is happening. How do baptism and forgiveness of sins come together? In this period, baptisms were signs of purification. John’s message is not just “get baptized!” as an arbitrary act, but what it means is that one turns from their sin and then receives this as a public sign of their purification before God. But why then?
Luke tells us that this fulfills the following from Isaiah 40: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” In Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to the Jews in exile, and speaking for God to say that God would bring them out of exile and back home, to abundance and rest. But, the whole reason they were in exile is that they rejected God, denied him and his ways, and so he did not protect them. Their return from exile would be preceded by their repentance, and culminate in their receiving the promise of God in a New Age.
For Luke, what John was doing was laying out that this age, the new epoch of time where God’s people come into the place of peace and rest, was here. God’s people, living under Roman oppression, were still in exile. John’s message is the final witness of the final prophet of the Old Age, telling the people that the New Age was upon them. John’s baptism is not Christian baptism, but rather a mark of the final days before the people of God would receive the promise: a land of plenty, of peace, and of rest. The time of radical transition, of a new irreversible way of being, was there, is here in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus changed and changes and is changing everything. John was laying out the path, and Jesus was the conclusion.
Jesus changes everything. The radical love of God-taken-on-flesh ought to baffle us in its mystery. Jesus Christ utterly emptied himself to save all who would call upon him. He gives freedom in this new age, for when we repent and turn to him, he sets us free. When we relinquish our own agency to place our fates in the hands of God, then we come to realize how little our own desires have gotten us. We realize that nothing is more freeing than letting go and admitting we took the wrong path and are struggling up a mountainside, because then we can turn back.
What does it mean to make the Lord’s way straight now, for us, today?
It is, simply put, to get over ourselves. When we busy our lives with whatever we can distract ourselves with, or throw our energies into gaining money or power, or try to fulfill whatever lust we most enjoy, or even, in our good intentions, try to build the kingdom of God ourselves, with big churches and fancy decorations and slick programs and public ministries, then we are not announcing Jesus but glorying in ourselves. To make Christ known, to proclaim his kingdom, to show people that the Lord is good, to make the Salvation and Glory of God known looks like this: humility, generosity, sincerity, peace-making, empathy, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice, to name a few. For us, making the Lord’s way straight is to let ourselves be free, to live as those who know that the New Age is now, in the life of everyone who repents and turns to God. This Advent, make the Lord’s ways straight by getting out of the way; be joyful in the love of God, and so embrace the character of this New Age that others with you will grow in eager anticipation for Jesus to come and complete his work. Amen.
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