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Second Sunday of Advent Cycle C (1)
I am told there’s such a thing as a Lipitor brain and I suppose I use that as an excuse for my growing inability to recall dates, names, and facts. Often it’s like I’m rummaging around inside my head, knocking on mental doors, trying to find out the information that I want. “I know it’s in there,” I’m thinking, but it just won’t come out. So I greatly admire those folks who have a great command of data, history, details. I know people who can not only tell me about Ancient figures in obscure lands, but details of generals from World War II. How do they do that? How do they master all that information?
It might feel like Luke is showing off all he knows in the first part of the Gospel reading. He lists prominent figures, and the realms they governed, with names that challenge anyone reading the Gospel. What’s he doing here? Is he giving us a history lesson? It has to be more than that.
Luke is elaborating here something that is essential to his view of the Gospel. For him, Jesus did not come just for some small chosen nation in the Middle East. For him, Jesus came to change all of world history. Jesus came for every nation, for every culture.
I guess everyone has his or her own concept of what is important in life. There’s a tombstone in Wisconsin that leaves no doubt about the priority of the person who lies in that particular grave. Under a certain man’s name and the dates of his birth and death is carved this inscription: “Bowled 300 in 1982.”
Well, that was what was important to this man. He once bowled 300 and he wanted the world to know it. Some of you bowlers can relate to that.
A woman was taking her time browsing through a yard sale. She said to the homeowner, “My husband is going to be very angry when he finds out I stopped at your yard sale.”
The homeowner sought to reassure her: “I’m sure he’ll understand when you tell him about all the bargains you found,” she replied.
“Normally, yes,” the woman said. “But he just broke his leg, and he’s waiting for me to take him to the emergency room to have it set.”
I believe we can guess this woman’s priority. It wasn’t her husband.
A teenager named Buck was walking home one day when he suddenly realized that two men were flanking him. “Give us your wallet,” one of the men insisted. “I have a gun. Give us your wallet or I’ll shoot.”
“No,” Buck said.
“Hey, man,” said the man holding the gun, “you don’t understand. We’re robbing you. Give us your wallet.”
“No,” Buck said again.
“Give us your wallet, or I’ll knife you,” said the other hold-up man. By now the robbers were pleading more than they were demanding.
“No,” Buck said once again. He kept walking, and a few steps later, he realized that the two men had disappeared.
As he related this story to a friend, the friend asked, “Weren’t you scared?”
Buck replied, “Of course I was scared!”
“Then why didn’t you give them your wallet?” asked his friend.
“Because,” Buck answered matter?of?factly, “My learners permit is in it.” (1)
Everyone has his or her own concept of what is important in life.
Our lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent takes us to a man who believed he had one mission in life and that was to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus. His name was John. We know him as John the Baptist. Listen as the Gospel of Luke describes John’s ministry: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
Central to John’s life was this one mission: to prepare the world for the coming of Christ. That is also our task–to prepare the world for Christ. It is easy for us to forget that sometimes.
A young woman tells about her fiancé who had been sent to basic training in the Coast Guard at Cape May, N.J., soon after their engagement. She visited him when he was given his first liberty. That evening they had a wonderful, quiet dinner, and then they took a romantic, moonlit walk toward the ocean. However, at the sidewalk’s end, the young soldier stopped. His fiancée wasn’t ready to stop. “Let’s go on down to the water,” she suggested.
“What?” he replied. “And have the sand ruin the shine on my shoes?” (2)
Those of you who have been in the military understand. It takes labor to have a lustrous shine on your shoes. But that young man needed to decide in a hurry which was more important to him–his fiancée or his shoes.
It’s easy for us as followers of Jesus to take our eyes off the target, to forget what’s really important. There are so many priorities, particularly during the Advent and Christmas seasons. For example, our choirs are working on special music. Good music is always a priority, but especially at Christmas.
I read recently that singing Christmas carols is good for your health, especially singing in a choir. According to this report singing can reduce stress as well as boost hormones that promote feelings of trust and bonding. Just as important, says this research, singing in a group can improve self-esteem and increase feelings of social belonging, which can ward off loneliness. So, joining a choir is always a good idea.
Even if you’re not apt to belt out Christmas tunes door-to-door with a group of carolers, says this report, sing along with your kids or your spouse to Christmas carols on the radio station while you run errands or drive to visit family. (3) Ignore what other drivers think–sing Christmas songs at full voice with a silly smile on your face. Have fun making other people on the road wonder what you’re up to.
Preparing music and other elements for our worship services are important. So are all the other activities of the church. As long as we remember our overall goal–that is to prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of Christ.
“In ancient times,” says Jeremy Myers, “when a king was going to visit a city, he would send before him someone to herald his coming . . . The herald would go around the city, and go before the leaders of the city, telling them, ‘The king is coming. He will be here any day. So clean up your lives. Make sure you are in obedience to the king’s commands so that you will not be punished when he arrives.’
“This herald also served as a city inspector. He would go around the city and make a list of things that needed to be fixed. He would tell them, ‘Clean up your city. Sweep your streets. Get rid of all the garbage lying around. Round up any criminals to make the city safe. Fix the roads; make them smooth and straight. Make sure the town is gleaming. Make sure the city is fit for a king to ride through.’
“It was an embarrassment for that city, and the people of the city, if they were not prepared when the king arrived. It was also an insult to the king if they had not prepared properly for his arrival . . .” (4)
In the same way John the Baptist came to announce the coming of a king, a different kind of king. “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’” What a wondrous way to depict the preparation of the world for Christ–straightening the curves, filling in the valleys, cutting away the high mountains that the road might be level and easy to travel upon.
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson tells about the effort it took to straighten a highway in Southern California years ago, the old highway, US 99. This treacherous piece of highway used to wind, dip, and climb as it crossed the rugged Tehachapi Mountains. At one point the road rises to an elevation of more than 4,000 feet.
An old deacon told Wilson that when he was young it took him two full days to drive a large truck only 110 miles from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, CA. As the road climbed the steep mountains he would have to shift to low gear and crawl up the slope. When the road descended into deep canyons on the other side he would have to shift into low gear again and ride the brakes in order to keep the heavy truck from careening off the narrow road.
Fortunately the government decided to do something about this dangerous piece of road. Between 1960 and 1972 highway US 99 was upgraded to Interstate highway I-5, one of the most impressive engineering projects in human history. Road cuts hundreds of feet deep were sliced through the mountains. The rock and dirt extracted from these slices were used to fill deep gorges and canyons. “Whenever I cross the [this stretch of] I-5,” Wilson continues, “I think of Isaiah’s words, of John’s mission of preparation, and of God’s working in my life to make me a fit disciple of Jesus. God is seeking to prepare you and me. To cut through the mountains of our pride, to fill up the valleys of our despair, to straighten our crooked moral rationalizations, and make us fit for the King himself to travel upon.” (5)
God is building a highway, a straight road; just as the ancient Jews would be able to return to Jerusalem after the exile, so in Jesus God will be able to touch all of humankind. Lower those mountains; fill in the valleys. There will be no obstacles, no moats, to keep God from touching human life. All are involved in the salvation God offers.
This is why each year on the Second Sunday of Advent we revisit John the Baptist preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. The leveling of the land is a word picture helping us understand the way John’s ministry prepared the way for the ministry of Christ. “And all people will see God’s salvation,” Luke says to us, quoting the words of Isaiah, This was the message of John, the voice in the desert–“salvation has come to all people.” This should challenge us in a big way because we now live in a culture that seems to resist the Gospel and faith. More and more, our modern world seems to want to rid itself of religious language, and focus itself on money, power and business. How do we speak faith there? Pope Benedict often uses the phrase, “desert,” to talk about modern life, a world without reference to God. How do we raise a voice in the middle of this desert?
How were the people to prepare themselves for the coming Christ according to John the Baptist? They were to repent of their sins. We read concerning John, “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance is a difficult word to tie to Christmas. After all, Christmas is a warm and fuzzy holy day. At Christmastime we think of God like a jolly old Santa Claus who forgives all and accepts all and would never hold us responsible for how we live our lives. The last thing we want to think about at Christmas is repentance.
Even if it weren’t Christmastime, it is hard to combine a vision of a prophet out in the wilderness dressed in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey and calling people to repentance with a vision of our modern day society that doesn’t even acknowledge the concept of sin. “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,” trumpets the television commercial. We’re not even sure what sin is any more. It’s a word that has lost its sting, the punch line of a tired joke.
Meanwhile, domestic violence takes the lives of thousands of women each year, more than half the nation’s children live in single parent homes, addictions continue to soar, young people wander around without a moral compass, mass media spews out violence and obscenity and explicit portrayals of sexual impropriety. Could it be that we are in greater need of a baptism of repentance than we might imagine?
Actually, we’re not that much different from the people in Jesus’ time. Jews of John the Baptist’s time felt no need for a baptism of repentance. Jews believed that only Gentile converts to Judaism needed to be baptized. This was to wash away all their defilement from their past lives. Jews considered themselves children of Abraham. Why would they ever need to be washed clean from their past? They, like we, had no concept that they needed to prepare their lives for a new kind of reality–the coming of the King of Kings, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace who would establish a new reign of love and light.
“John the Baptist didn’t fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage-sale people wouldn’t have handled. When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time.
“The Kingdom was coming all right, he said, but if you thought it was going to be a pink tea, you’d better think again. If you didn’t shape up, God would give you the ax like an elm with the blight or toss you into the incinerator like chaff. He said being a Jew wouldn’t get you any more points than being a Hottentot, and one of his favorite ways of addressing his congregation was as a snake pit. Your only hope, he said, was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had. Some people thought he was Elijah come back from the grave, and some others thought he was the Messiah, but John would have none of either. ‘I’m the one yelling himself blue in the face in the wilderness,’ he said, quoting Isaiah. ‘I’m the one trying to knock some sense into your heads’ (Matthew 3:3).” (6)
Maybe we need a little head-knocking as we get closer to Christmas–all of us. We’re preparing our homes for Christmas, but not our hearts. We’re hanging up lights, but ignoring the darkness in our own lives–the darkness of strained relationships, the darkness of moral weakness, the darkness of anger, hopelessness and fear.
Many of you, I suspect, were at one time fans of a heart-warming television show called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Back in 2004, about this time of year, Time magazine carried the story of Alice Harris of South Central Los Angeles, who told how the good people of Extreme Makeover volunteered to demolish her house.
It seems that the year before, a flood had left Alice and her family, who had no insurance, living in one bedroom. Even worse, the flood had ruined a host of Christmas toys Harris, a community activist, had collected for poor kids. Harris said, “I figured no one was going to come to Watts and help us. No one had ever done that.”
But Extreme Makeover: Home Edition did. Their staff shipped Harris and her family off for a week’s vacation while a hundred workers and neighbors tore her home down and built a new, bigger one. They replaced the Christmas toys and other donated items and gave them to her flood-stricken and needy neighbors. They even threw in a basketball court for the neighborhood kids. (7) What a wonderful Christmas Alice Harris and her family and neighbors had, thanks to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
John the Baptist wanted people to understand that the coming of the Messiah would mean the coming of Extreme Makeover: World Edition. And that day is still to come–a day when the poor will no longer be oppressed, a day when the hungry will be fed, a day when the world will no longer take up arms, a day when children will no longer live in fear. And you and I are called to participate in that makeover.
How we prepare for Christmas, the religious attitude we take during this sacred time, is part of the prophetic voice that God would speak to our world. Our reception of the Word of God at Christmas, as individuals and as families, is part of the Word God would speak today. We can do that only if we let God’s voice penetrate us, let Advent hope seize us, during this season.
Are you willing to do your part? Or are you satisfied to participate only in that part of Christmas that feeds our desire for parties and presents and pleasant thoughts and cares little about the plight of our neighbors and our world? If so, then the prophet says it is time to repent. The King is coming. Prepare, ye, the way of the Lord.
1. God’s Little Devotional Book for the Class of 2000 (Tulsa: Honor Books, 2000), p. 297.
2. Bonnie Wright, America in Uniform, http://www.beliefnet.com/newsletter/step1.aspx.
3. Reader’s Digest (Reader’s Digest USA).
7. John A. Huffman, Jr., http://www.preaching.com/sermons/11549896/.