“Prepare the Way”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 6, 2015 – The Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 3:1-14

 

All four gospels quote it, so you know it must be important. The prophecy from Isaiah that is included in today’s reading is put in the mouth of John the Baptist by all four of the gospel-writers, so it bears repeating. Each version is slightly different, but the overall meaning is the same. The original version, from Isaiah 40, goes like this:

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 the time of the prophet Isaiah, anyone who heard that proclamation would have known to what it referred. At that time, more than five centuries before the time of Jesus, the people of what is now Israel/Palestine lived in scattered towns and cities. These communities were more or less independent in day-to-day governance and year-to-year subsistence, but they pledged their allegiance to a regional ruler, a power who promised to protect their city in exchange for the payment of tribute—servants, or crops, or natural resources, or animals, or other valuable goods.

Most of the time, these communities were essentially isolated from one another. There were some people who traveled—a few merchants, a few soldiers, and perhaps a few other wanderers—but for the most part, you stayed in the place where your people had roots, and you rarely encountered anyone from outside, anyone whom you didn’t already know. This was due in no small part to the fact that travel was both difficult and dangerous. There were no flat, straight, paved interstate highways. There were just rough, winding trails through the wilderness. And having been in that part of the world last spring, I can tell you that the landscape we’re talking about is stony, arid, inhospitable—the kind of landscape where you are inescapably aware of how small you are, how vulnerable your body is, and how little it would take for you to simply disappear.

When that regional ruler was planning a visit to one of his tributary cities, he would send a messenger ahead of him to tell the people he was on his way. The messenger would pick his way through the wilderness to visit the city and announce the king’s impending arrival. And when they heard the news, the people of that city would go out to the road over which the king would travel, and they would rebuild it before he came.

They would straighten out the hairpin turns so that the royal chariot wouldn’t fall into the ditch. They would fill in the potholes so that the royal axles wouldn’t break. They would raise up the low places and dry out the wet places so that the royal entourage wouldn’t get stuck in the mud. They would quite literally move mountains so that the royal horses wouldn’t tire and stumble on a steep and treacherous path. They would go to great lengths to prepare the way, to make their city more accessible, to connect themselves to the outside world. It was this kind of preparation Isaiah referenced when he urged his people to be ready to receive the Lord when God came.

 

In the time of John the Baptist, who quoted this passage from the prophet Isaiah, things weren’t too much different. The infrastructure was a bit more well-developed than it had been centuries earlier. There was more trade, more travel, more interchange among cities and regions. But still, for the majority of ordinary people the majority of the time, you stayed in the place where your people had roots, and you rarely encountered anyone from outside. There was no reason to venture beyond the familiar, no reason to brave the dangers of the roads—thieves and highwaymen and wild animals, not to mention potholes and rockslides and washouts and windstorms and heatstroke and hunger and thirst.

But John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and cousin of Jesus—John went out into that very wilderness and he quoted Isaiah. Luke says:

[John] 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 God’s 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.’”

Like Isaiah before him, John was not talking about an earthly ruler—he was talking about preparing the way for God’s own presence, now made known in Jesus. And like Isaiah before him, John knew that an essential part of this preparation was about connection. When he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” he was talking about overcoming the things that divide us, restoring the unity that God intended.

For at its root, sin is about separation—separation from one another, separation from our truest selves, separation from God. And just as in the time of John the Baptist, we don’t have to look far to see the consequences of this separation in our world.

When a person is convinced that he has nothing whatsoever in common with his neighbors, it becomes possible for him to walk into a social service center or a medical clinic or a movie theater or a school and pull the trigger.

When a person is convinced that her welfare is completely unaffected by the welfare of others, it becomes possible for her to proclaim that her state will not welcome refugees fleeing desperate violence at home in search of a better life.

When a person is convinced that his worth depends on accumulating money and possessions and visible symbols of status, it becomes possible for him to spend all his time and all his resources on material things that do not actually bring him or anyone else happiness.

When a person is convinced that her value is based on comparison with those around her, it becomes possible for her to bully others, thinking that tearing them down will somehow build her up.

When a person is convinced that his future is independent of the future of the planet, it becomes possible for him to consume fossil fuels and generate greenhouse gases without a second thought for his contributions to climate change.

 

When, on the other hand, a person braves the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, when she makes the paths straight and the rough places plain, when he opens himself to connection with those who are different from him, when she begins to believe that she is God’s beloved child, just as she is, when he learns to accept his truest self as a beautiful expression of God’s image, when she builds bridges and fords rivers and moves mountains, all in the name of connection with others, with herself, and with God—it is then that this world starts to turn toward the world God intended. It is then that we learn to lay down our weapons and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is then that the wolf lies down with the lamb. It is then that we learn to walk in the ways of peace.

In this Advent season, the messenger has picked his way across the wilderness to announce the impending arrival of the One for whom we wait, the One who comes to make all things new. May you brave the wilderness to prepare the way. May you be bridge-builders. May you restore broken connections and forge new ones. And may we be truly united in the good news that Isaiah and John the Baptist proclaimed, the good news that God has promised will come true—that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

 


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