A sermon for the second Sunday in Advent. Gospel of Luke, ch 3:1-18.
Grace and peace to all!
The writer of the Gospel of Luke begins his story today by saying that in a specific time and place in history, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. John is described as the voice crying out in the desert, announcing the coming, “soon and very soon”, of the Lord. The Old Testament reference is to Isaiah chapter 40 , a chapter that contains so much of Handel’s Messiah that it makes you want to start singing . It begins, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” It was written to the people living in exile in Babylon and it says God is preparing a way in the wilderness. For what was this highway in the desert? It was to bring the people home from exile to the promised land. The chapter ends with the famous verse, “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” The way home from exile will be made easy for those who wait upon the Lord.
But what did the voice crying in the wilderness say? We’re told John preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And how did he begin his sermon? Did he begin with “Comfort ye?” No. Actually, he began it like this: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth the fruits of repentance!”
Is it just me or is there a little disconnect there?
Now aside from the drama, you have to wonder what kept people coming to listen to this sort of sermon. Didn’t those people have any kind of self-esteem? I mean, I can see him standing there in his camel hair pointing his finger and shouting. In Luke’s gospel, the whole congregation is called a brood of vipers. The judgment wasn’t reserved for a few hale and hearty sinners. No, it was a blanket statement about everyone there. If I started out like that today, well it would be downright embarrassing. Probably wouldn’t boost membership, either. You would think that they would walk off in a huff. And I’m sure some of them did. After all, John did eventually get his head cut off for making blunt, accusatory, socially embarrassing and politically incorrect remarks. That is, for telling the truth.
On the other hand, whole groups of people came up to John for advice. “What must we do?” And his advice, given in a specific time and place, is as good now as it was then. If you have stuff, share with people who need stuff. If you are in power, don’t abuse the people. This is how the people were to bring forth the fruits of repentance.
In the Gospel of Luke, the Good News is that God is coming to us. God is other than what we are. When we look upon the goodness and the love and the righteousness of God, the difference between us and God is obvious. That is a true judgment. The good news is that sins are being forgiven; the gap is breached! Breached by none other than the Son of God, Jesus, whose name means God-With-US. And therefore the right response on our part is metanoia, turning around and moving in God’s direction. We’ve been invited to walk on God’s road and to go home.
Road building sounds like work, doesn’t it. Well, it is work. Leveling mountains, raising up valleys to make a highway is definitely work. John would have seen that happening as Rome built the roads through Palestine that would give easy passage for the occupying army and the flood of taxes coming out of the country to Rome.
The Good News is that when it comes to building a road home for us, God is doing the work. God is doing it right now. The Old Testament says, “And He shall purify the sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” God is building up and tearing down. God is making the highway so that we may walk, even run on it. God is purifying us so that we may offer ourselves as righteous people. And the New Testament says God will complete what God has started. How? What do both Jesus and John say? “Repent and believe the Good News.” We get to participate in God’s life, and God’s life is loving us and bringing us home. Just as it was then, that is a call to turn around and go with God right here, right now.
“Yallah.” Let’s go then. As humble people, not huffy ones, we must listen and hear and do it. The Word of God continues to come as a voice calling in the wilderness. Right here. Right now. What wilderness is that? It is the wilderness of each of our lives. We all have in us some desert places. Some places of emptiness. Some places of hunger and thirst. Maybe places where the map of meaning and purpose has been lost. Memories from the past or realities of the present or fears of the future which make us feel cold and alone like nights in the desert. There the Word of God cries, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” God is coming to those places.
And we all have places that are wildernesses of sin. Taking what we don’t need and failing to share. Nursing grudges and resentments. Failing to trust God to meet us at the point of our need, and instead responding by making little gods out of eating or shopping or drinking or any number of other addictions. And there the Word of God cries like a voice in the wilderness, Repent and believe in the Good News. Turn around and your life will bring forth the fruits of repentance. Healed relationships. Thanksgiving shared among all the people. Inner peace. Right here. Right now.
Every year about this time I get a wake-up call from John the Baptist in this word of his, repentance. And he and I, well, we have a little talk about what I need to change. Where I need to turn around. See things differently. Make a new plan. Get a fresh start on the road home. He helps me do a kind of spiritual inventory. Taking stock. Oh, I don’t mean I see him sitting in a rocking chair in my living room. It’s not spooky. It means I take a little time to listen for the call of God in his words to me for right here and right now.
But these words were not addressed only to individuals, to be heard in the secret depth of the soul. We know that confronting greed and unlove and fear and power aren’t only problems inside individuals. We must also see where they are at work within society. There is sinfulness in social structures that keep people in need and that create pockets of unjustly administered power. And we must speak truth to power.
John the Baptist’s day is past but his message is for us today. We are God’s voice crying in that wilderness now. We are the church, entrusted with the Word of God coming to us in the wilderness of our time. We must preach it. God has shared God’s work with us so that we might help to bring about the reign of God.
And we don’t want to. We want our emotional distance. We are busy people. We have enough trouble. It takes so much time to become informed. The problems are enormous. Our little voice can’t make a difference. What’s the use?
And to this also God’s voice cries in the wilderness: turn around, Repent and believe. We’re not called to save the world. That’s Gods job. But we are invited to participate in God’s life of compassion for the world, to do what is given to us to do in our place and time. And we have been given a precious gift, a representative form of government with free speech. It is our gift and our task.
Apathy is how the souls of representative governments die, when people do not raise their voices to speak their moral convictions, because they have lost belief in the process. But if not here, where? If not now, when? God comes now with the invitation and the challenge of the Gospel life. Individually we may each be one small voice, but together we are the Church, speaking the Word of God.
Right now there are people being unjustly evicted from their homes. An Apartheid wall is being constructed, a wall that separates families from each other and from their livelihoods and which institutionalizes racial prejudice. It is being constructed with the help of our tax dollars. The Church is leading us to speak out through the Peace, not Walls initiative. And Right now there are people without coats and food and health care in this country. And Right now all over the world there are families without water and children without schools. We know what needs to be done.
We will never have utopia here; that is a promise for the end of all things. But it is our call to work for peace and justice in our context, to speak truth to power, so that all can see the coming salvation of our God.
What is the balance? We need, each of us, to find the inner peace and healing that come from our inner journey with God. And we need to work for a more just society for all. If we only look inward, we fail to minister to the real needs of our world. If we are only social activists, we either fail to discern properly and act compassionately, or we burn out. We are called to find a balance of both, and participate in God’s work of bringing both inner and outer peace to everyone. Such a life calls us ever more fully into God’s life as we walk on the road through the wilderness toward our true home. Our gift. Where? Here. Our task. When? Right now.
Every valley will be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, not for the oppressive power of empire, but so that the Glory of the Lord will be revealed. That’s God’s vision. That’s God’s plan. And ALL flesh will see it together. Yallah! Let’s go! Amen.