Preached by Lesley McCormack on 6th December 2015
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
Today marks the halfway point in our journey through Advent, that time of year when we are to be actively watching and waiting, called to wake up and be alert! It is a time when we prepare to celebrate once more a particular moment in history that marked the first Advent, the first coming of God among his people as a tiny, vulnerable baby. But it is also a time when we are preparing for the promised moment when Christ will come again. It is both a time of warning but also of hope. And so I wonder how am I, how are we as God’s children doing in terms of preparation. If Jesus were to appear in London or Manchester, Edinburgh or Glasgow, Kettering or Corby today, what would he find – what would he see – a people who would recognise and welcome him or a people who were so wrapped up in political, economic or personal ideologies they would fail even to note his presence.
So today it is timely perhaps that we reach that point in our journey when we come face to face with John the Baptist, whose strident voice should be as much of a challenge to us today as it was to the people who first heard him. But our Gospel this morning begins not with that familiar voice crying out in the wilderness, but with a long and detailed list of rulers.
Luke moves rapidly from the Emperor Tiberius in Rome through a cascade of governors, tetrarchs and high priests – not just one or two historical figures to anchor his story, but seven both secular and religious. The gospel, the good news that Luke proclaims is a gospel of love and grace, forgiveness and hope for all the world. But he is writing in the context of Roman occupation and is very well aware that for many Romans, it will be hard if not impossible for them to believe that the ultimate truth about human destiny is to be sought in a member of a despised race, who was executed on a criminal charge at the order of a Roman Governor in an outlying province of the empire. And so Luke sets God’s saving work firmly in the context of world history. Like Paul standing before Festus – a moment recalled by Luke in his other book, The Acts of the Apostles – he is saying to his readers ‘I am certain that none of these things have escaped your notice, this was not done in a corner’ (Acts 26:26). The events I recall happened at a particular time in a particular place when certain people were alive and in positions of power and authority – pay attention!
Luke is doing something else as well. In listing the various rulers, he is throwing in to sharp relief the forces that will oppose John and the one whom he foretells for behind the list of names and places is a story of occupation, invasion, oppression and misery that was building to explosion point. Things couldn’t continue as they were and something had to happen, but what? The prophets of old had spoken of a time of renewal, through which God himself would come back to them. So when a fiery young prophet appeared in the Judean wilderness, in the towns and villages telling people that the time had come, they were ready to listen.
John challenges the people to remember that God is always calling his people back into relationship with Him and with each other. God is calling, as he called the people of Israel in Egypt to join an exodus out of slavery to a promised land, to a new beginning. And John tells the people that the first step on this journey towards freedom is a baptism of repentance. His hearers would have been familiar with baptism, for it was the ritual through which Gentile converts became Jews and so embarked on a whole new way of life.
But significantly, baptism called for a change in behaviour and this is what John draws upon when he calls the people to a baptism of repentance. Not simply regret for past misdeeds; it means far more than simply saying ‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me’. Repentance comes from the Greek ‘Metanoia’ which means a change of mind and heart, a complete turning around, facing another direction, a kind of inner transformation that bears visible fruit. And when the people ask John what this means, he spells it out for them:
Those who are well provided for are to share their resources
Tax Collectors are not to abuse their legitimate authority
Soldiers are not to abuse their powers
Contentment with their wages
Preparing the Lord’s path toward peace and justice requires a complete transformation, an overturning of the world as we know it and as John quotes from the prophet Isaiah, we hear described the earthshaking transformation that must take place. God is in the business of road construction! But there are richer associations here: valleys filled full, mountains and hills humbled, everything crooked made straight and true. In her wonderful hymn of praise, Mary had sung of the God who dethrones the powerful and exalts the humble, sending the rich away empty-handed and filling the hungry. Preparing for God’s arrival means rethinking systems and structures that we see as normal but that God sees as oppressive and dehumanising.
Malachi has equally dramatic ideas of what God’s coming means for here God is in the precious-metals business, refining and purifying gold and silver and putting it through fire to reveal its pure state – God is a consuming fire. And another image of God as a washer-woman armed with fullers soap – not soft perfumed soap, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours. When Jesus was transfigured, Mark borrowed Malachi’s image to describe Jesus’s clothes becoming dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth – no washer woman, could bleach them. In this moment, the disciples were given a glimpse in Jesus of the sheer beauty and purity that is the benchmark for all humanity created in God’s image, the holiness that God made us to share. God challenges us to be what we were created to be and in Advent these images describe what it is like to prepare for the coming of Christ in our midst. Clearly the preparation that God has in mind is uncomfortable stuff requiring the kind of stripping of ways of thinking, ways of living that many of us would rather put off or avoid.
We don’t have to look far to realise just how much work we have to do. In the latter part of this week alone, we have seen our government agree to sanction bombing in Syria
San Barnadino in California saw 14 of its residents killedin another mass shooting. In Paris, governments from across the world are meeting for the UN Climate Change Conference with a marked reluctance among some nations to commit to and honour realistic targets to reduce global warming, arguably the greatest threat to our planet and its people and wildlife.
Meanwhile, millions are displaced by war and oppression and the gaps between rich and poor, people across the world grow ever wider. As we hear afresh the voice calling us to turn around and begin again it is clear that there remain many valleys to be filled, mountains of ideology and self importance to be made low, crooked paths to straighten and an urgent need to reshape the world’s systems and structures; to reshape the landscapes of our own minds and hearts, reshape them so that they fit if you like with God’s plan, God’s vision for all his children.
100 years ago this week Brother Roger, the Founder of the Taize Community was born. His vision lived out in the community at Taize is one of joy, simplicity and love, the marks of those who follow Christ.
Yet, in every act of love, kindness and compassion, in every act of forgiveness and generosity no matter how small, we glimpse that vision and the reshaping of landscapes, hearts and minds.
A voice calls, urging us to turn around. A voice that came to prepare God’s people for God himself born as a fragile, human baby. But Luke sees the somewhat forbidding figure of John in a greater light. Luke and only Luke gives us the prophetic vision in all its fullness. All that impedes God’s purposes for humanity’s total good will be swept away. The road Luke looks down is the way to glory. The stumbling blocks on that path will be levelled and ‘all shall see God’s salvation’. This is Luke’s joy and hope, it is the Advent joy and hope, the Christian joy and hope, it is our hope grounded in the all embracing, incomprehensible love of God who will never cease to call us into that love. Amen