This is the message I shared on Sunday, 12/6 with St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church. At St. Timothy, two young men had their first communion. They are referenced in the message. The gospel is Luke 3:1-6.
Is it just me, or do you hear music in your head when you hear these words, "Prepare the way of the Lord?" For some of us, it's from Handel's Messiah. Others may think of Godspell or some other music. After hearing this list of names that are foreign, it's nice to land on a phrase that resonates with us.
We know some of these names--like Pontius Pilate and Herod. It seems Luke floods us with a list of the high and mighty of that day. There are a couple of reasons for that. Luke is careful to place John in secular history as well as religious history.
Luke supplies these names to set the time of Jesus' life and death in a historical framework. We know when John began his ministry and from that, when Jesus' ministry began. It was likely around 28 A. D.
Why is this important? Because we do not believe in a fairy tale, but in a Lord who came to earth, who lived for others and died for us all. As Peter wrote, "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16). This is real!
In this list of people, Luke contrasts human kingdoms with God's reign. The claims to authority that Tiberius or Herod or the high priest may make are not ultimate. God's people owe allegiance first and foremost to God. It is God who has the final word.
Did God reveal his plan through the Roman rulers? No. What about the learned, religious elite? Certainly they would recognize what God was doing, wouldn't they? No, they didn't know.
After the long list of movers and shakers, there is one little phrase that is easy to miss. "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah" (v. 2). This reminds us that this is not John's story as much as it is God's story. God is the primary actor around whose purpose the narrative develops.
John is a really different sort of person. I love the way our bishop, John Macholz describes his relationship to John:
John has always been an oddball character to me. If one reads through the first
chapter of Luke and the song of Zechariah which brings it to a close, one
discovers that after Zech is done singing, John disappears into the wilderness
and "he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel." Was
he alone? What was he doing? Did he have any physical contact with anyone?
How many years did he spend there? All questions without answers.
This is the person God reveals his plan to. John is a nobody by all other historical accounts. God did not reveal his will to the Emperor, the governor, or various rulers, or to the Jewish high priests, but to John, an itinerant prophet, a virtual nobody! But maybe that's the point, God did not speak through the wealthy, flashy people. In Luke's gospel, God regularly chooses people whom the world sees as insignificant. Through them he does marvelous things. We see John the Baptist, Mary the unwed teenage mother and no account shepherds at the very bottom of the economic ladder, who are the audience of the heavenly choir. We have example after example of God choosing people the world can easily ignore to participate in God's world-changing, world-saving activity.
Did God reveal himself to John in the noisy, hustle and bustle of the city? No, it was in the wilderness where the Word of God came to John. The wilderness was a place where no one went to willingly. It was very harsh. But it also lacked the distractions of city life. It was a quiet place where John could hear God's word to him. This word of preparation came to John in the style of the Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah.
We may not consider ourselves to be important. We may not be on anyone's who's who list of anything, but God may be eager to use us to do wonderful things. God wants us to remind each other that God is at work in and through our lives for the sake of the world God cares about so much.
Often Jesus comes to us in our wilderness, when we are struggling or grieving, when we are still enough to listen to hear God's word to us. Jesus, the Word comes to us in the bread and wine, which Tyler and Payton will receive today for the first time. This is how we stay filled with the Spirit and God's grace.
Luke describes John's proclamation in this way, "3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (v. 3). This is good news to sinners, those suffering from the consequences of their sin, those living with the guilt of hearts they have broken, those left to clean up the mess they've made of their lives. For those who have squandered countless opportunities to get it right, for those who have been told they're too bad to be redeemed, news of repentance and forgiveness is good news. It tells us that we are not hopeless. Repentance means we don't just stop the wrong we were doing, but we turn back, make restitution and by God's power never go down that road again. Martin Luther said that our entire lives should be one of repentance.
Luke quoted Isaiah, "all flesh will see God's salvation." We are all in the same boat, all called to baptism and repentance, no better than our enemies and no worse than our detractors.
God's voice may have started out in the wilderness with John, but it also comes to Jerusalem and proclaims God's grace for all humanity through the cross, the great leveler of high and low, of all people. That word goes beyond Jerusalem all over the world, including Bemus Point and Mayville. Seeing God's salvation means seeing Jesus, one who doesn't save himself from death on the cross.
We too are called to prepare the way of the Lord, by sharing God's love for all, by calling to account those in power who take advantage of others, by sharing God's work in us of repentance and forgiveness. Martin Luther defined John's message in these words, "To prepare the way of the Lord means to prepare ourselves for the Lord's activity in us, so that God may help us and our life may be the life of Christ" (Luther's Works, vol. 17, 9).
We don't live in a perfect world. There are still wars, mass shootings, diseases. There are still rough roads to travel. But we don't look to the world to see God's salvation. We look to Jesus--in scripture, in the manger, on the cross, in the sacraments, in our coming together in his name and in the lives of his people.
Bishop Macholz has another insight into what John's proclamation means to us today:
John is preparing a way for the Coming One by preparing our hearts to recognize
that we are desperately in need of this One promised long, long ago. And in that
moment of recognition, forgiveness, mercy and hope flood into the darkness of
life and bring with it the brightness of a new light and the hope we so desperately
Don't we sometimes need God to hit us over the head with a two by four? John is a little odd, but sometimes that is what we need for God to get our attention--so we can recognize our need for this Savior and his love and life for us. God uses ordinary people, like us, to do extraordinary things.
All flesh will see God's salvation. This is God's promise and our hope. Bring on the bulldozers. Prepare the way of the Lord!
Denise Anderson, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-11/december-6-second-sunday-advent
Mark Marius, http://www.crossings.org/theology/2013/theolo936.shtm