Sermon for December 5, 2021 – The Second Sunday of Advent
Being a prophet has never been a fun ride. Most of the prophets in the Bible were rejected, ignored, or worse. Some were beaten and a few were murdered, including John the Baptist, whose ministry begins in today’s Gospel lesson.
And yet, the call from God was inescapable, although many tried to talk God out of it.
Moses said he couldn’t speak well – so God told him his brother Aaron would be the mouthpiece for him. Jonah hated what God wanted him to say, so he tried to run away, rather than do what God commanded. We all know how that turned out. When Jezebel planned to kill him, Elijah headed for the hills to hide. Jeremiah protested that he was too young to be a prophet – no one would listen to him. Even Jesus wrestled with his calling, that night in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But ultimately, all of them had to answer God’s call, and we are blessed that they did so.
And the job of a prophet was complicated.
First, they had to hear and understand what God wanted them to say. Then, they had to muster up the courage to go to whomever the prophecy was for – be that the king, the priests, or the whole population – and get their attention. Then, they had to speak the words that, most often, nobody wanted to hear. The message from God was almost always a criticism or demand to change, and it was often accompanied by threats of terrible things if the people ignored the prophecy.
And reliably, there was push-back. The target of the prophecy rarely said, “Oh, I get it. Sure, I’ll do what God wants.” There was often a back-and-forth while the people tried to worm out of whatever God was asking, or to make it less demanding. Prophets certainly had it hard.
Thinking back over that sequence of tasks, one stands out today: getting the attention of the people to whom the prophet has been told to speak. That often meant speaking in the midst of other – usually much more powerful – voices, and getting people to listen.
Luke gives us a long list of such powerful voices today: Emperor Tiberias in Rome, Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, Herod in Galilee, along with Philip and Lysanias in other major cities. All of them spoke from positions of power, and their authority was backed up by the Roman legions or their own armies. None of them took too kindly to prophets who criticized them or called on them to behave differently. They loved being in power, so yielding to a nobody from nowhere just wasn’t something they were eager to do.
That may explain why, unlike the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptizer didn’t try to speak truth to power. Instead, he chose an out-of-the-way location, along the banks of the River Jordan, and he spoke to the everyday people living there.
His message can be summed up in two simple words: “Get ready.” In fact, he got their attention by quoting directly from a much earlier prophet – Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
In the Middle East of that time, kings and rulers usually stayed put in their capital cities where they were safe and comfortable. But sometimes, they needed to travel around their territory, or visit a more important ruler in another kingdom. Roads in those days were frequently little more than dirt tracks, and the traveler riding in a chariot or coach had difficulty navigating around potholes or detours – where the road had been washed away or buried in a landslide.
So, rulers who needed to travel sent an advance party out ahead of them. It was the job of those teams of laborers and overseers to fix the roads in advance of the ruler. And that picture was familiar to Isaiah’s audience, and also John’s. Straighten out the detours. Fill in the holes and clear away the piles of dirt and debris. For the entire length of the ruler’s journey, anything that was crooked had to be made straight, and any rough places had to be smoothed over. And John saw it as his job as the messenger announcing the coming of the most powerful ruler of all – the Messiah – to tell people to start doing those things.
With one difference. The ruler who John said was coming wouldn’t ride in a chariot or coach – he would be walking the same rough roads as everybody else.
The straightening and smoothing wasn’t about the roads at all. It was about the hearts and minds – the spirits of the people. “Get ready – make yourselves ready for the coming of God’s Kingdom.”
And that’s good advice for us today.
We need to ask ourselves:
Is the way to my heart – my soul – clear for God to come in?
Or are there potholes and piles of debris, left over from my sins and mistakes?
Would God be willing to take detours around those inconvenient aspects of how I’ve lived my life, or does God expect me to straighten myself out, to repent, to commit to a better way of living?
John’s answer was clear. He didn’t simply announce the coming of the One who would follow him. He helped everybody ready themselves by offering them a baptism of repentance.
Jewish men in John’s day always bathed before entering the Temple or synagogue. They not only washed their hands and feet – there was actually a bathhouse outside where they went completely under water to cleanse themselves and make themselves pure enough to worship God.
And John offered a symbolic repetition of that ritual – not in order to enter a holy place, but to make ourselves a holy place where God can enter and be at home and guide our lives.
As we all know, baptism does not cause us to stop sinning. It eliminates the stain of being human and readies us to receive the Holy Spirit. But we all keep right on sinning, right on placing ourselves and our desires before God’s.
So the message of this Second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace, is that we need to find our peace in the fact that God’s love is UNdeserved, UNconditional, and UNlimited.
With the offer – the promise – of that kind of love, which of us would prefer to keep God out?
To make the path to our heart and soul so difficult that God will have trouble getting there?
Advent is all about preparation. John talked about preparing for the first coming of Christ. We need to turn our attention to his coming again, which has already begun – in us.
Let us pray.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.
Make your way into our hearts.
Help us to clear the path to welcome you – at Christmas and every day of our lives. Amen.