Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Prepare the Way." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent


"Prepare the Way"

Luke 3:1-6


The time for John the Baptist to come out of the wilderness came in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.  Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruling Galilee. Annas and Caiaphas were serving as high priests in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Luke places John in historical context, much like how the Old Testament prophets were introduced, placing him and his call to prepare the way for the Lord in the middle of worldly events and places.
He reminds us that God sends messengers in the center of our earthly life, too. In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Rick Snyder is Governor of Michigan, when Francis is the Pope in Rome, when J. Herbert Nelson is Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we are reminded that no time is forsaken by God. All time is subject to God’s inbreaking. Prepare the way of the Lord!
Luke’s litany of government and religious authorities does more than date John’s ministry to 28 or 29 CE. It also contrasts human kingdoms with God’s reign. The claims to any authority that Tiberius or Herod or the high priest make are not ultimate.  God’s people owe allegiance first and foremost to God. And it is God’s word that sets John’s ministry in motion. John has been commissioned to prepare the way not for Caesar or any earthly authority, but for the one true Lord.
           The major focus for Luke is salvation, but it’s important for Luke that we understand the messy reality of the day-- to understand the world into which God is bringing salvation.  The word of God came to John in the wilderness, and spoke through John to a wounded and unjust world. 
            John proclaims a baptism of repentance that leads to release from sins.  The word that’s translated as “release” is the same word that Jesus uses twice in Luke 4 to describe his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free….” 
The release that follows repentance doesn’t un-do past sins, but it does unbind people from them. It opens the way for a life lived in God’s service.  When John proclaims this release, he’s fulfilling his father Zechariah’s prophecy:  “You, child…will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness / release of their sins.”[1]
I agree with Judith Jones when she says that this salvation “looks like a new dawn for those trapped in darkness and death’s shadow. It is light that reveals a new path, the way toward peace.[2]         
The second Sunday of Advent invites us to anticipate the drawing close of the holy in our midst. The scripture texts invite us to listen to the voices of those calling us to be prepared to welcome the Messiah.  John the Baptist comes to us, proclaiming the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
            God chooses a nobody—an itinerant preacher to call people to repent and to prepare the way.  John went into all the region around the Jordan River, proclaiming a baptism of repentance.  Luke quotes 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.’”[1]
            “All flesh.”  All people.  All humanity. 
Luke quotes Isaiah’s prophecy detailing what is required if all flesh is to see the salvation of God. Make straight desert highways. Valleys will be lifted up, and mountains made low.  
I like the way Jill Duffield describes this:  “A great leveling will occur. Rough places smoothed. Obstacles obliterated. Nothing will stand in the way, obscure or create a stumbling block for the coming of the Lord, for the gift of salvation. No one will be left behind, sacrificed because they are slow or infirm. All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[3]
            On this second Sunday of Advent in 2018, John the Baptist calls to us to repent…to prepare the way of the Lord. What do we need to do to get ready?
            Whatever it takes will not be easy or painless. Transformation requires radical change, and change brings discomfort. Heeding John’s call means giving up our self-satisfaction or apathy or ambivalence. It means pushing past our fears and resistances, whatever gets in the way of submitting to the re-formation of God.
            Preparing the Lord’s path toward peace requires overturning the world as we know it. Luke’s gospel is full of images that help us envision what that means. Mary sings of the God who has looked upon her humble state, the One who saves by de-throning the powerful and exalting the humble…sending the rich away empty-handed and filling up the hungry.[4] Jesus blesses the poor and the hungry and those who mourn but announces woe for the rich and well-fed.[5]  On the Day of Pentecost Peter warns the people, “Be saved from this crooked generation.”[6] The word that’s translated as “crooked” is the same word that Isaiah uses for the things that need to be straightened out.
            Preparing for God’s arrival means re-thinking systems and structures that we see as normal—but that God judges as oppressive and crooked.  It means preparing to have God humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied in us, and letting God heal and lift up what is broken and beaten down. The claims that the world’s authorities make often conflict with God’s claims. God’s ways are not our ways. But God’s ways lead to salvation.
            What this re-shaping looks like is different from person to person, from congregation to congregation, from community to community, but it does require repentance…turning.  It can shake things up.
            John’s preaching of repentance will literally turn people away from the powers that be to God and it’s a threat to those invested in the present order. When we read further on in the story, we hear that John’s preaching will ultimately lead to his beheading, and later Jesus will be crucified by the empire. Those who are threatened by repentance and forgiveness and newness will not go without a fight.
            In the season of Advent, Christians prepare to celebrate a deep mystery of our faith, the Incarnation, how God came to live among us, full of grace and truth, in the person of Jesus.  Part of what Incarnation means is that God is with humanity and works in and through us. 
            I believe in a God who works in and with and through us, through the work of those who are learning to love as God loves, those who are learning to love peace as God does, those who love justice and mercy as God does.  Through those who are learning to reject violence in their own lives… and who work in small and large ways to end violence and hunger and injustice in our world…. 
            God isn’t finished with us yet. 
            Preparing the Lord’s path toward peace and justice requires changing the world as we know it.  Preparing for God’s arrival means re-thinking systems and structures that we may see as normal but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked.  It means letting God humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied in us,  and letting God heal and lift up what is broken and beaten down. 
            John’s call to repent reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways.[7]  John and Isaiah call us to open ourselves to let God work in our minds and hearts   and to let God work through us to re-shape the world’s social systems. 
            The good news is that God’s ways lead to salvation.  God’s glory will be revealed in Jesus, who comes to save us.  This is good news for us and for the whole world:   all flesh will see God’s salvation.  All humanity will see God’s salvation. 
            Thanks be to God!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
December 9, 2018





[1] Luke 1:77
[2] Luke 1:78-79
[3] Jill Duffield, in “Looking Into the Lectionary, 2nd Sunday of Advent – December 9, 2018” at Presbyterian Outlook.  https://pres-outlook.org/2018/12/2nd-sunday-of-advent-december-9-2018/


[4] Luke 1:52-53
[5] Luke 6:20-26
[6] Acts 2:40
[7] Isaiah 55:8