Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
The timing for John the Baptist to emerge from the wilderness came in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod ruling Galilee. Annas and Caiaphas served as high priests. Luke details the rulers, secular and religious, placing John and his call to prepare the way for the Lord squarely in the middle of worldly events and places, reminding us that God sends messengers smack dab in the center of our earthly activities, too. Preparation for the coming of Jesus happened not only when Tiberius was emperor but also now, in the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump when Nancy Pelosi vies to be Speaker of the House and Pope Francis occupies the Vatican. No time is God forsaken, all time subject to God’s inbreaking. Are we getting ready?
The second Sunday of Advent asks us to anticipate the drawing close of the holy in our midst. The texts for this week invite us to listen to the voices of those calling us to be prepared to see and welcome the Messiah. John the Baptist still speaks in all the regions around us, proclaiming the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. How will we respond to him? Will we submit to the fire and soap, the straightening and smoothing? The water that marks our submission to the will and work of God?
Luke quotes Isaiah’s prophecy detailing what is required if all flesh is to see the salvation of God. Make straight desert highways. Valleys will be lifted up, mountains made low. A great leveling will occur. Rough places smoothed. Obstacles obliterated. Nothing will stand in the way, obscure or create a stumbling block for the coming of the Lord, for the gift of salvation. No one will be left behind, sacrificed because they are slow or infirm. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. Reading Isaiah quoted in Luke reminded me of Jesus’ teaching on a level place. Matthew has Jesus on a mountain, but Luke places Jesus on a plain, a level place, face to face with his hearers. The proscribed preparation apparently fulfilled. Nothing separates the crowd from the Messiah.
In this second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, the seventh year of the Syrian Civil War, weeks after the migrant caravan reached the United States border and just a month after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the proclamation that the way is being made for the coming of the Prince of Peace offers hope and challenge. The Lord we seek will suddenly appear. God lifts up the valleys and brings the mountains low, but we are the ones subject to the fire, the soap, the water, the great leveling that removes any hinderance to all flesh seeing salvation and enables us to stand with heads held high when Jesus arrives. What, then, in me will need to be refined, cleansed, smoothed or removed in order to be able to stand with the Messiah on that level plain?
In the 27th year of my marriage, the 20th anniversary of my ordination, the 49th year of my life, with John the Baptist in my front yard calling me to repent and make ready for the coming of the Lord, what must I do to make ready? Whatever it takes will not be painless or without loss. Transformation requires radical change and change entails discomfort. That’s the truth we must reckon with this Advent season. Heeding John’s call means relinquishing our contentment or apathy or ambivalence or security or fear and submitting to the reformation of God.
What such reshaping looks like differs from person to person, congregation to congregation, community to community, but will inevitably include repentance, turning, pruning and upheaval as the earth is reordered.
In my own community I know I must pray that God will show me how to help level the playing field for access to education, housing and health care and so much more. I have spent much of this year reading, trying to educate myself on issues that I should long ago have been engaged in addressing. I am tired of remaining mute when people of privilege like me complain of those who “work the system.” I want to be prepared to use straight talk straight away and respond with examples of how the systems are set up to work for the few at the expense of the many. Time after time policies are enacted by those for whom the systems work: gerrymandering, voter suppression, redlining, zoning laws, school redistricting, tax codes, loan requirements, court fees, public transportation routes. Those truly working the system are the one putting those systems in place. A great leveling needs to occur if all flesh is to stand with Jesus on the plain. Valleys need to be lifted and mountains brought low. Am I prepared to participate in the roiling that will come with such earth-shaking change?
In my own life, I know I must pray that God will soften and mold me, smooth out the rough edges of bitterness, pettiness, resentment and selfishness. My ego gets in the way of God’s working through me. My fear prevents me from seeing straight, from moving forward, from taking risks for the sake of the Gospel. This Advent, with John the Baptist knocking on my door, telling me to repent and receive the great gift of forgiveness, I know there are amends I need to make, apologies I need to extend, estrangements that must be healed. There are mountains of pride that need to go and valleys of regret that need to be abandoned if I am ever going to get on the way that leads to life. Am I prepared to submit to the refining fire and fuller’s soap in order to better reflect the light of the coming Christ?
In whatever time and place we find ourselves this second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist is emerging from the wilderness telling us to get ready, to prepare for the Lord to appear. If we are to stand on a level plain with Jesus, we must be willing to endure the unsettling, tumultuous movement of valleys and mountains in our communities and world and in our own lives. Such radical transformation challenges and tests, pushes, pulls and hurts, but in the end, brings us face to face with the salvation of God.
- What rough edges do you need to ask God to smooth in you this Advent?
- Look up other biblical passages with images of refining fire or fuller’s soap. What do you discover and how do they relate to the reading from Malachi? Luke?
- Are there places in your community that need to be leveled in order for everyone to have equal access to resources?
- Why do you think the writer of Luke’s Gospel takes the time to list the names of those in power? What’s the significance of doing so?
- Who are God’s messengers today? How do you know who they are?
- How are you preparing for the coming Messiah this Advent?
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