Luke 3: 1-6
If you were here last week, you heard Pastor Mike describe Advent in his sermon, as “the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious… the season that makes us look for God in all the wrong people and in all the unlikely places”.
I love this description, because while Advent is most often described as the season of waiting while we prepare for the birth of the Christ Child, we rarely emphasize enough, that what we wait for, ultimately does appear in the most unexpected place and way. The Messiah, is not born to a king and a queen, surrounded by a royal court, and under the protection of a royal guard, but to young girl and a carpenter, not yet married, in a manger, and under the threat of execution by order of King Herod. Beyond the obvious… and in all the unlikely places…
In our assigned readings for this week, this description of the Advent season is portrayed in a way where the “preparation” for such, becomes the Good News of the text and for us today, as it places our participation, hand in hand with God in Christ.
In our Old Testament reading from the book of Malachi we hear these words; “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple;.” And from our Gospel text, quoting from the book of Isaiah, some of scriptures most well known words, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.”
So if Advent is the season of preparation, of anticipation and of waiting for the coming of the Lord, the question becomes; how do we live out Advent today? How do we prepare for the coming of the Lord and the birth of the baby in a manger in our world, both here at church, and maybe more importantly, outside of these walls in our daily lives?
Luther writes this of the preparation to which the prophet Isaiah is quoted in today’s Gospel; “To prepare the way of the Lord is to take up a new life, the divine life… to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s activity in us, so that God may help us and our life may be the life of Christ. To prepare is to clear out of the way whatever will be an obstruction… to walk in the grace of God alone.” To prepare, is to clear out of the way whatever will be an obstruction… to walk in the grace of God alone…
For the community to which the prophet Isaiah spoke, life was surrounded by turmoil. The world they knew was made up of persecution under the invasion of hostile rulers and exile to foreign lands. A people forced out of their homes, torn away from family, and killed should they seek anything but… Certainly nothing we have in our world today…
With this reality, for Isaiah, and for the voice of our Gospel text, “preparing the way of the Lord”, preparing a royal highway as the hymn proclaims, meant a total transformation of the world. Those in exile would return home, the harsh and sterile wilderness would become a fertile garden, and the glory of God would be made accessible to all, leaving behind any doubt of God’s steadfast presence and abounding grace. Sounds pretty good, hmm?
In addition to being the second Sunday in Advent, today also marks the day, in which the church commemorates the life of arguably, our most famous saint, St. Nicholas. And while Toy’s R Us and Hallmark, along with centuries of traditions have turned Santa Claus into what he is today, his core, I think, remains the same.
A fourth century bishop, in what we know as modern day Turkey, St. Nicholas, became known for his love for God and for neighbor through giving all that he had, both in time and in talent, in order to help those in need, especially young children. For St. Nicholas, preparing for the way of the Lord, making crooked roads straight and rough ways smooth, happened through giving everything to those who had none, and caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves.
In being here at St. James with all of you for just four months, it’s fair to say that we work to prepare the way in some pretty significant ways. And as we welcome a total of 23 new members throughout this weekend’s services I know I’m not the only one who has witnessed it. But the reality is, as it always has been and always will be, the work is far from done, and the path is far from straight.
Pastor/Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses his understanding about preparing the way for Christ in his book on Ethics. Here’s what he has to say. “This making ready for the way is not merely an inward process; it is a formative activity on the greatest visible scale. That which has been cast down into the depths of human wretchedness, that which has been abased and humbled, is now to be raised up… The hungry man needs bread and the homeless man needs a roof; the dispossessed need justice and the lonely need fellowship; the undisciplined need order and the slave needs freedom.”
Much like the world to which the prophet Isaiah spoke, and that which Christ was born into, the world around us is one made up of hardship and uneasy roads. Where death and darkness too often appear to win the battle over life and light, where the word cancer is uttered way too often, where relationships fall apart, and where families struggle to get along… where God’s presence can be difficult for us to see and is challenged even on the best of days…
The Good News is, as Bonhoeffer goes on, that “Christ comes indeed, and opens up His own way, no matter whether man (or woman) is ready beforehand or not. No one can hinder His coming…. Christ is coming, of His own will, by His own strength, and out of his own love; He has the power and the desire to overcome all obstacles, even the greatest.”
In today’s Gospel text, we heard of how John the Baptist prepared the way by preaching of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and directing those he meets to the One to come, the Messiah. It is through this baptismal identity that we are to continue to prepare the way regardless of what form it may take, regardless of the obstacles we may encounter, and regardless of how hard it may be.
So in this Second week of Advent, it is our reason for joy and rejoicing… that in a world so often filled with mountains too big to climb, and made up of obstacles seemingly too difficult to get around, that God gives us the way… Jesus, our Savior… the true light…
May this light shine through you as it did in St. Nicholas and John the Baptist, and all the witnesses before us… and may it guide your path to the endless love and grace found only in the One for whom we wait and prepare… The One born in a manger… in the midst of a broken world, beyond the obvious, in an unlikely place… so that we may know peace… AMEN.