Advent 2: Luke 3:1-6
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of
Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, 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.” ’ (Luke 3:1–6, NIVUK)
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Each Advent and Christmas time, I’ve become aware, just naturally aware of one of the protagonists of the Christmas story. I often just think and mull upon one of those characters. Often there’s been a character who stands out to me, and I ponder upon them. Last year, I think it was the work of the angels visiting Mary, then Joseph, and then appearing to the shepherds in the field at night when Jesus was born. This year it’s been somewhat different.
A couple of weeks ago during the evening Bible study, we somehow got around talking about John the Baptist. We talked about how he was somehow related to Jesus, possibly a cousin. When Mary was told about the baby growing inside her being the Messiah, she went to visit Elizabeth who was pregnant in her old age, and who was carrying who was to become John the Baptist. As Bible study progressed, we wondered what John and Jesus were like as children. Were they pretentious? Did they know everything?
What about spots and girls? We don’t know much about their childhood really, either of John or Jesus. Until then, I never really considered that John the Baptist was part of the Christmas story at all, but in a way, he is. Well, perhaps to be a little bit more accurate, he’s part of the Advent story. He prepares us for the coming of the Messiah, as we read here in Luke Chapter 3, which is the lectionary gospel reading for today. In the season of Advent then, preparation is key, and that was the role of John the Baptist, to prepare the way of the ministry of the coming King, Jesus.
Actually, when we get to think of John the Baptist, if we know anything about his personality, we get to meet a character who might really irritate us. When it comes to people’s lists of favourite saints, if there is such a thing, I don’t think that John the Baptist would come near the top of anybody’s. Saint Francis of Assisi may be, with the love of the animals and creation. Peter who’s hard-heartedness is endearing or can make us feel like spiritual geniuses in comparison. But John the Baptist, he’s an unsettling Old Testament character who comes on the scene proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He spoils the Christmas mood.
We wouldn’t want to invite John the Baptist to any holiday parties, if they’re allowed or not. He would seem an obnoxious, self-righteous intruder in the midst of our holiday cheer. Besides, who would have locusts on the Christmas menu? Yet we need to hear John the Baptist’s message because the season of Advent isn’t the season of Christmas. It doesn’t matter that in our culture we often start celebrating Christmas whenever the Christmas lights go up in October. Relentless marketing and endless soundtracks of Christmas songs on TV and radio.
In the church year, it’s Advent. That means we’re confronted by John the Baptist, the humbug. Here’s the point, as irritating as John the Baptist may be, as much as he might get under our skin, he’s got an important message for us in the context of preparing for Christmas. He’s saying that before the rush to get to the joy of Christmas, before we receive the great mystery of God With Us, we have to prepare for this event through maybe times of self-examination, maybe penitence, a sobering time because Advent to so many has become a countdown to the big day.
Advent in the more traditional sense has always been a time to sit and reflect awhile. Monks and nuns I think do it especially well in their rhythms of life. I know it’s not always easy just to have a routine for four weeks of the year just to stop for a while. Although we are part way through Advent now, why not try to set aside some time to examine your spiritual lives? Perhaps once a day if you can, to look with utmost honesty at where we are with our lives. To look at any ways that we are involved in any unhelpful activities.
To try to clear out maybe that spiritual rubbish, to try to bring out some harmony in our lives. As John says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding road shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” In Advent, we hear John’s message as an invitation to spiritual reflection. Last week I spoke on the problem of kilter.
How Advent could be a time when we reflect, and how my life might be out of balance, and what I can do about it to put things back on an even keel, to see how our lives might be put back into kilter if you see what I mean. Here’s the good news, here’s the hope, we can get our lives back on kilter, back into harmony and balance. It’s even better news that it doesn’t call for extraordinary feats of spiritual gymnastics. Have you ever wondered this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be? If you’ve ever felt this way, then there’s a biblical concept of sin within that.
Two things perhaps might be going on when we say, “This isn’t the way that it’s supposed to be.” First, we’ve got a sense that something isn’t right. Second, in order to say that something isn’t right, we need an idea, a notion, a vision of what things are meant to be like. First, you have to have a sense of what’s right, and only then can we have a sense of what’s wrong. In the biblical tradition, the vision of how things ought to be is called shalom. It’s a word we’ve mentioned a number of times because it’s really important in the Christian vocabulary, shalom.
We often translate this word as peace, but it’s much more than an absence of war, or a calm state of mind. Shalom or peace in the Bible means universal flourishing, wholeness, harmony, delight. The prophet spoke of a time when crookedness would be made straight, when rough places would be made smooth, or when flowers will bloom in the desert, when weeping would cease, and lions would lay down with lambs. When the foolish would be made wise, when the wise would be made humble, when humans would beat their swords into ploughshares.
All of nature would be fruitful again. All nations sit down together for a sumptuous feast. All creation would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God. That sounds like a pretty good vision of spiritual wholeness and balance. I think Advent is a season for spiritual reflection, perhaps to see how we can get that rightness back into our worlds. I know a number of friends who have struggled with faith, and so often having a rhythm of activity such as celebrating a daily act of worship, a daily service, or having a routine of daily prayer for them helps them, to bring them into God’s presence.
It’s perhaps a different approach to just reading Bible notes and having a quiet time because that’s the way that they were growing up into, and as they’ve grown older, different things have become more important to them. The flow has become different, their spiritual reflection is deeper. As they engage in this process of seeking wholeness and balance in their lives, I guess they’re also preparing for the greatest of all spiritual gifts. The gift of God coming into their lives once again, and the gift of Jesus coming into our lives once again at Christmas. The way that things aren’t supposed to be is the violation story of shalom.
Sin is an affront to God, but it is an affront to God because it breaks God’s peace. What breaks God’s peace while twisting the good things of creation so that they serve unworthy ends, splitting apart things that belong together, putting together things that ought to be kept apart? A moment’s reflection or a look at the news can easily supply a number of examples.
We go through the process of reflection, maybe doing something differently during Advent, so that we make ourselves ready for the gifts of Christ. Piecing our world back together, reuniting that peace with God once more. Repairing, repenting, recharging those spiritual batteries. John the Baptist is described as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord’s, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. It’s, I think, what biblical scholars call an emphatic message. All flesh will see the salvation of God.
This is good news, the good news. Yes, things aren’t the way that they should be, but we already know God’s vision of shalom. We can choose to turn our hearts and minds to God’s purposes, and we can trust that one day all things will be put to rights, as Tom Wright would say. All tears will be wiped away, all swords will be beaten into those ploughshares, and everyone will see the salvation of God. God and God’s peace will triumph in the end. We know this because in the birth of Jesus, those eyes of ours have seen the saviour who is Christ the Lord. As John said earlier, he shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.
Things aren’t the way that they are supposed to be yet. Maybe as we reflect upon our own selves, how we can become better versions of our own selves, maybe we start to change the world just one life at a time. As Advent continues, we have the opportunity to draw near to God, perhaps in a different way, in the run-up to this Christmas. Maybe we ponder, maybe we take, if we can, a slower pace somehow. Amongst all the preparations that weren’t available this time last year, maybe we can take some time out this year. John announces the opportunity for personal and cultural, religious and societal changes and calls for a change of nature as much as Paul does in his letters. Paths must be made straight, valleys must be filled, mountains and hills shall be made low or flattened, crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways will be made smooth.
As we come to close our time this morning, maybe we can spend some time in reflection. A friend of mine who I’ve quoted two or three times over the years is a lady called Jill Rowe. Jill works for the charity that I used to work for, Oasis. On her Facebook, she’s doing a daily reflection. I thought it might be helpful for us to perhaps do as she suggests. Take a deep breath right now, and another one.
As you breathed out, I wonder if you let out a big sigh, like you are exhaling some of the weariness or burden you’ve been carrying. The pace of life, the workload, the wanting to make sure that everyone around you is okay, but knowing you’ve not really thought about yourself, the longing of the day when life will not be navigated around a very unwelcome virus, the relentless news cycle that feels way beyond invasive. The losses, uncertainties, frustration, and the anger. Injustices that run too deep. It’s no wonder we’re weary, but we’re still here.
An Advent begins with a soothing whisper, the whisper of hope and peace that a different future and a different way of life is possible. A gentle whisper that doesn’t barge or crash or bring us violence. It simply tells us that there is one who is coming, who is love. Breathe deeply again, and again. As you exhale, gently whisper the words hope, and peace, hope, and peace. And today may your soul be soothed.
Father God, I do pray that we would keep life in perspective. I pray that we would be able to acknowledge those mountains, and that we would trust you to flatten them and make them low. I pray that as we prepare, we would hear that voice of one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. I pray for each one of us, that we would reunite peace with you once more, that we would be able to repair, repent, and recharge this Advent. Help us to make space, not just this Christmas, but this Advent, for the coming King, I pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
References and sources
Rohr, Richard. Preparing for Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent. Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008.
Jill Rowe’s Facebook page, including blog: https://www.facebook.com/jill.rowe.9
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.