Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year C, December 9, 2012
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The Road Construction Season
When I lived in the Chicago area I was told that there are exactly two seasons: winter, and road construction season. Both are severely disconcerting and seem to last forever. I thought about the idea of a nearly perpetual need to fix the roads when I read our text from Luke. John the baptist was out there in the wilderness, getting the people ready for Jesus’ public ministry, and Luke says this was all about road construction.
Of course Luke was saying that John’s ministry of preparation was actually what “Isaiah” the prophet had spoken of many years earlier. Isaiah had said that one day, God was going to do a new thing, and it would be great. It would be so great that the things God had done before, like getting his people out of slavery in Egypt and setting them free, would be forgettable. Whatever the new thing was going to be, it would be awesome.
But, there was preparation needed. Nothing happens by itself; it takes planning and setting up. This is advent season – look at all the time and effort we spend getting ready for Christmas. And yes, we overdo it and get stressed out, (our bad) but we do all the preparation because Christmas is important to us.
The Babylonian New Year Parade Road
So why use the metaphor of road construction? How is that the right image of preparing the way for the new thing that God is going to do?
Well it has to do with the huge new year festival that they had in Babylon. The writer of this text in Isaiah 40 watched each year as the locals threw their New Year’s celebration. It included a festival, held just outside of the city. They would have a big processional, like our Mardi Gras parades, from the city out to the festival venue. Every year at the festival, Babylon’s king would be re-authorized by the priests of Marduk to reign for another year.
The patron god of the Babylonians, Marduk, needed to be there – he was, of course, a big statue – so they loaded him onto an ox-cart parade-float, nailed his feet to the floor so he wouldn’t fall over, and hauled him out there. The road, understandably, needed to be quite level, straight and smooth, lest poor Marduk, the great god of Babylon fall over – which would be an ancient version of buzz-kill if there ever was one.
The Longed for Return
The author of Isaiah 40 watched all of this going on, along with his fellow Israelites who were there in exile with him, year after year. In Babylon as exiles, they were longing to return home to Israel. But to get home they would have to make their way back across the vast
wilderness on camel-caravan trade routes; a rough journey for sure.
But even if they could make their way back to the land of Israel, it would all be for nothing unless there was another return to the land: the return of God, as their rightful King. Remember, when the Babylonians conquered the Jews, they had destroyed God’s holy temple. The people of Israel understood that God had abandoned his temple. They longed for his return too to Zion, as king.
So, the author of Isaiah 40 said, God was going to do something new and awesome, he was going to return to Zion as king, but preparation was needed. God would one day return, and put everything right that had gone wrong, but the people had some prep-work to do. They had to, so to speak, make a road for him to return by.
He was not talking about a literal road for an idol god on an ox-cart, like the Babylonians built. But he was talking about real prep-work that had to be done. It would be as challenging and difficult as pulling down mountains, filling in valleys, and taking the curves out of a long camel caravan roadway across the wilderness. It would be challenging and difficult, but it was absolutely necessary preparation.
And this is exactly what Luke tells us John was doing: calling the people to his challenging, difficult preparation task, so that all would be ready for the new, awesome thing that God was doing; returning to reign as king, finally and forever. We are being challenged to this difficult task of preparation today as well, as we will see in a moment.
“Metanoia” Mind Changing
If not literal road-building, then what was the nature of this challenging, difficult, necessary preparation work? The word for it in Greek is “metanoia,” literally meaning “changing our minds.” We could read the text this way:
“… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of changing minds for the forgiveness of sins,”
A “baptism (or cleansing) of changing minds” is the literal rendering of the way we are accustomed to hearing “a baptism of repentance.” To “repent,” is to “change our minds,” and therefore to live differently.
If you will permit a bit of word-study review, we will see this more clearly. “Forgiveness” is literally “being set free” – it refers to freedom from the guilt of having sinned.
“Sin” is originally from a word about “missing the mark, and so not winning the prize.” It comes to mean “missing the moral mark.” Sometimes we hear people confessing that they really “messed up this time” which is pretty close to the meaning of sin; missing the moral mark; messing up.
Preparing the Way
So, putting this together, this is how it goes: we are called to prepare ourselves for the awesome new thing that God is doing by undergoing the cleansing baptism of changing our thinking about the ways we have messed up morally, and being set free by God from the guilt of that moral messing up.
The baptismal cleansing that John was doing out in the wilderness, was for people who came, admitting they had missed the moral mark, and messed up. And admitting that, meant that they were changing their minds about how they had justified their former lives, and so determined to live differently, free at last, or forgiven for the guilt of that former, self-destructive and other-destructive lifestyle.
We know we have all morally messed up. We have missed the moral mark time and time again, and this is what we change our minds about, as we prepare for Christmas, the birth of King Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God.
We have got to get practical. There are all kinds of things that we think about wrongly that hurt us and hurt others. The road we are on is
uneven, and crooked. Only by changing our thinking will we make the road level and straight.
What does repentance or changing our minds look like today? Usually it involves the hard work of resisting the messages our culture constantly sends us.
Where does our personal value come from?
We have got to change our minds about what makes us worthy of love and belonging. Women: it is not about bodies or beauty. Men, it is not about being strong all the time. Men and women: it is not about what we do, what we accomplish, what we produce. This what our culture says, but these are so ephemeral, so temporary, so external. No. Rather, we are worthy of love and belonging because we have been made in the image of God. We are precious in God’s sight. We are loved and we do belong to God.
Whether we are rich or poor, caucasian or not, gay or straight, clever, able-bodied, or beautiful, or not, we are all worthy of dignity and respect, because we are made in the image of God. To think any differently is to need to repent: to change our thinking, and so prepare for the radically new Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim.
Security and Happiness
We need to change our thinking about the source of our security and happiness. In spite of the messages we receive from our culture, we will
never be rich enough to feel rich enough. We will never have enough protection to feel invulnerable. The truth is that we are mortal. We will all die. We know this in our deepest heart, which makes all of our quest for deep happiness and security in the physical world ultimately futile. We may be happy or not, but it has little to do with our net worth or camera-ready homes.
We may feel secure or not, but the truth is we are always vulnerable, and we know it. Nothing in the physical world will solve this for us. Either we will be people of trust in the goodness and loving care of our Father in heaven, as Jesus taught us, or we will be fearful and frustrated our whole lives long. Our culture has this one wrong, and it seduces us to think it’s way about happiness and security. Preparing the way for the Lord’s reign means repentance: changing our thinking.
Us and Them
We need to change our thinking about sameness and differentness in order to prepare the way for the return of the King. Our culture teaches us that those who are like us are the ones we should care about. Those who are different from us do not need to concern us.
But to think this way is certainly to miss the moral mark. Think of it this way. You are walking by a shallow pool of water and in it a child floating face down. What should you do? We all know the answer to this question. Only a moral monster would leave the child unassisted.
But what if the child were Hispanic, or black? We all know that would make no difference at all; a child’s life is at stake. Who could justify withholding care for that reason? What if the child were Jewish, or Hindu, or Muslim? Again, what difference would that make? None at all. What if that child’s mother was a prostitute and father was a gang member? Who cares?! That precious life is sacred in God’s sight, and in ours too.
So, in our hearts, we know that the differences between us are really trivial, not substantial. But our culture teaches us to take care of “our own,” that “other people” are not our concern, that somehow we deserve what we got since we were clever enough to be born into Caucasian Christian families, in these days, in this country. But of course these were the accidents of birth. The human family is one.
Helplessness and Hopelessness
We need to change our thinking about being stuck in the status quo and not being able to change. We can change. We can change our thinking, we can change our reactions, our habits, our diets, our daily routine, our entire lifestyles, if we think we need to. We are not helpless and things are not hopeless.
Sometimes it is our doctors who motivate us to make changes. Sometimes it’s a personal moment of clarity. Sometimes we just hit bottom and
the pain itself forces changes. Sometimes, maybe it’s hearing the voice of the Spirit of God, and we recognize it, and respond by repenting; making changes in our thinking, and therefore in our behavior.
Neurologists speak of “neural plasticity” – the amazing capacity for our brains to change and adapt to new conditions, even those that come
from new thoughts. It has been demonstrated that meditative prayer, or what some call mindfulness meditation can be of enormous help to us in making positive changes. This will be part of the subject of the new course I’ll be teaching this winter.
An Advent Challenge
This is the season of Advent. I want to challenge all of us to take time out for quiet, prayerful reflection about our lives. How am I living? Is my life today part of my preparation for the new things God wants to do in and through me as I live in the reality of his Kingdom? Or are there ways in which I’ve bought into the cultural messages that encourage me to mess up, to miss the mark? What do I need to get set free of in order to live the peaceful, kind, compassionate, life of hopefulness that God has made me for? This is Advent. Let us prepare the way of the Lord.