Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prepare the Way...

Thanks to Gideon Addington for the Tillich quote I mangle below, and to G. Kevin Baker for the big ol' chunk of text attributed to him below.

Weeks like this make me wish I had more opportunities to write and preach. Much could be written about the Uganda death-to-gays bill and about the continuing silence of certain Christian leaders on the matter. Then there's the ongoing struggle that a family in my church is having with addiction and its consequences.

But the beauty of serving a congregation is that there's always another week, another opportunity.

Luke 3:1-6
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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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.
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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
This is the Word of the Lord.

By whatever name it's called – the Christmas season, or the Holiday season, or the season of Advent – these weeks leading up to Christmas are something of a paradox. This season is, in theory, a time of preparation, yet is in practice a time of distraction. Speaking about today's readings, Pastor G. Kevin Baker says, “While we are rummaging around in the closet for the silver tinsel, the prophet Malachi is warning of a refiner’s fire where silver and gold will be purified and refined. While we are raising a tree to anticipate the gifts that will appear beneath its branches, Zechariah speaks of a mighty savior raised up with the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, peace and redemption. While the malls overflow with people trying to find the best gift for Christmas day, Paul prays that the people in Philippi will be overflowing with love so that they may be found pure and blameless on the day of Christ. While the world announces preparation for a holiday, John [the Baptist] announces preparation for a way.”

And what a preparation, what a way! And, in John the Baptist, what a strange vessel God chose to proclaim that preparation. Luke provides a list of dignitaries and rulers as a way of pinpointing in history when John appeared: Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome, and by extension ruler of most of the known world.

Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, controlling armies and tax collection and holding the lives of every human being in Palestine in his grasp. Herod ruled Galilee, Philip ruled region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, where Cesaeria Phillipi was located, and Lysanias ruled of Abilene, where Damascus is located. The high priests of the Jewish faith were Annas and Caiaphas. These were men of power. Men who commanded authority. Men who got attention. Men who everyone knew. Men who could have changed everything with a single word!

Yet the word of God came to none of them. Rather, that word came to a strange man living in the wilderness, wearing animal skins and eating bugs and honey to survive.

So John went to the banks of the Jordan. Even today, the Jordan River symbolizes a boundary, the border between the nation of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. Hundreds of years before John the Baptist, the river stood as the last barrier between a tribe of runaway slaves and the land of promise they had dreamed of. That day, so long ago, the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the Jordan and the waters parted. But times had changed: the Ark was lost to history, and the priests were part of the problem.

John went to the banks of the Jordan. On the one side was the established world: Jerusalem, with its gleaming temple, the highways and towns of Judea, vineyards and olive groves and farms. On the other side was the wilderness, where John had lived, where so much was unknown and unexplored. John, in effect, invited people to leave the known and the comfortable, and to journey into the unknown, the frightening, the place of preparation.

Through the prophet Malachi, God had promised to send a messenger, one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Yet God did not choose the powerful, the famous, or the wealthy to announce the preparation, and for good reason.

Because however much people talk about change, however often politicians promise it, TV preachers proclaim it, and singers sing about it, it's generally true that anyone who has power or influence or authority does not want anything to change. Their power, their wealth, their influence and their fame is based on things being the way they are. It's true today, just as it was on that day when John went to the banks of the Jordan and began to proclaim the words of the prophet Isaiah: the mountains of the absolute power of Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate must be, would be brought down, the valleys of the absolute debauchery of Herod would be filled in, the crooked ways of false piety and worship of power of the high priests Annas and Caiaphas would be straightened out. Change was coming, and it was not man's feeble attempts at modifying the status quo, this was God's kind of change!

No longer would humans be forced to search for God in temples and on mountaintops and at the sacrificial altars or behind the curtains of the Holy of Holies. Try as we might, humankind couldn't go to God... so God would come to us. “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John went to the banks of the Jordan and began to proclaim the words of the prophet Isaiah: the mountains of our personal idols – greed and lust and jealousy – would be brought down, the pitiful valleys of self-loathing and jealousy and petty hatred would be filled in, the crooked ways of our own false piety and worship of power would be straightened out. God's change was coming, and part of the preparation for that advent was something more powerful than political upheaval or the ouster of the religious establishment: personal repentance.

This season of Advent and the season of Lent are opposite sides of the same coin: times where we who call ourselves by the name of Christ make time and effort to consciously and intentionally repent of sin. Note that I didn't say “repent of your sins,” or even “repent of our sins.”
There is no plural there, because, as the late theologian Paul Tillich put it, “sin does not mean an immoral act..."sin" should never be used in the plural, [it is] not our sins, but rather our sin [that] is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.”

I mentioned last week that, in Scripture, repentance isn't feeling sorry for the stuff we've done, sackcloth and ashes and all of that. To repent means to change – change one's mind, change one's ways, change one's direction. In the context of “sin,” it means to remove the obstacles separating us from a closer walk with God.

Like John on the banks of the Jordan so long ago, God calls us to pull down the mountain-sized altars in our life – altars to gods of ambition and jealousy and harbored grudges. God calls us to fill in the holes where we hide the embarrassing stuff, the things we dare not admit to, and hope that somehow God doesn't notice. To straighten out the crooked paths we've beaten in the way we deal with people and issues and conflict...

...And on and on and on the analogy could go, and it could include things like altars to celebrities and to possessions and sports teams, valleys of how we use our money and our free time, paths of how we speak out for the oppressed and treat our family and pray and study Scripture, but the point is made, isn't it?

The word of God came to John, and John went down to the banks of the Jordan to prepare the way of the Lord. The Word of God, made flesh, has come to you and to me. What shall we do this Advent season to prepare the way for God in our lives, and in our world?

Let us pray.

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