Sermon: Preparing the Way
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Baruch 5.1-9; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6
The Lectionary Readings for today have a great deal to say about our human frailty and the need to prepare for the birth and the return of our King, the Lord Jesus Christ. The readings also reveal various Advent themes.
Let’s begin with the Apocryphal book, Baruch, named for Jeremiah’s scribe. Tradition has it that Baruch wrote the book, but there is reason to question its authorship and date. The book opens with Baruch reading the book to King Jeconiah and the people of Judah, the captives of Babylon who were deported after the fall of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is personified; she utters the following confession and lament: “We did not listen to the voice of the Lord our God in all the words of the prophets he sent to us, but all of us followed the intent of our own wicked hearts by serving other gods and doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord our God” (1.21-22; NRSV). Jerusalem further observes inasmuch as the people have repented, the time for their return is drawing nigh. The people are to take courage and to cry to God; although sent out with sorrow and weeping, they are told they shall return to Jerusalem with joy! Jerusalem is then told, “Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God.” Babylon was directly east of Jerusalem, but a severe desert region lay in between. Jerusalem is further told, “Look, your children are coming whom you sent away; they are coming, gathered from the east and west, as the word of the Holy One, rejoicing in the glory of God” (Baruch 4.36-37; NRSV). Jerusalem is to remove the garment of sorrow and affliction and to put on the robe of righteousness, for God will return the people. In so doing, “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low, and the valleys filled up to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely to the glory of God. . . . For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him” (Baruch 5.7, 9; NRSV). As the hymn reminds us, Advent is a time to look east, and see the joy that is coming to us, for “Love the guest is on the way!” (Hymn: People Look East)
In the first chapter of Luke, we are told of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Zachariah, and the announcement that Elizabeth would bear a son who was to be named “John.” As Zachariah was old, and Elizabeth was “getting on in years,” Zachariah questioned Gabriel as to how this could happen. Gabriel told Zachariah that inasmuch as he had not believed, he would be struck mute until these things were accomplished. In Zachariah’s defense, if Gabriel were to come to Judy and me, I would ask the same question, perhaps a bit more forcefully!
You may remember the further details – how on the day of circumcision, the neighbors and relatives were going to name the child Zachariah after his father, but Elizabeth said he was to be named John. They then motioned to Zachariah to tell them what the child was to be named; he asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” Zachariah’s speech was then restored, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1.76-79; NRSV). We recognize these words as a portion of the Canticle, “The Song of Zachariah.”
Given our familiarity with the concept of salvation through the forgiveness of sins, it is hard for us to realize the radical nature of this prophecy! Prior to this, salvation was attained through observance of the Law and the offering of sacrifices for one’s sins, for one’s failure to keep the requirements of the Law. Salvation through the forgiveness of sins – what is the meaning of this?
In Luke 3 we read of John’s “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3.3; NRSV). Luke tells us this was to fulfill 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'" (Luke 3.4-6; NRSV). Yes, John was a voice crying out in the wilderness surrounding the River Jordan. There is a sense in which this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy, but there may be more to this prophecy than immediately meets the eye and the ear.
What if the voice crying in the wilderness is the voice of the Holy Spirit, and what if the wilderness is the wilderness of our own lives – a wilderness of unjust actions, impure thoughts and speech, the failure to love God and to love our neighbor. What if the mountains are the high-places we choose to visit to worship our idols rather than worship God? What if the valleys are our low places – the depths of despair, the anguish we experience? If we are honest, I think we would admit that our lives are generally filled with some rather crooked paths and rough places.
Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in Creation, so the Spirit hovers over the wilderness of our lives. The Spirit of God longs to make our paths straight, to fill in our valleys, to make our mountains and hills low, and our rough places smooth. The Spirit of God longs for all flesh to see the glory of God. The Spirit of God would grant us grace as experienced in the forgiveness of sins. The Spirit of God would have us experience the radical nature of God’s love revealed to us in the death of Jesus on the Cross. The Spirit of God would have us become a new creation in our Lord Jesus Christ.
In these scriptures we catch glimpses of the three main theological tenets of the Christian faith: Creation, Incarnation, and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Something new, something wonderful is being revealed!
If we but permit, God’s act of Creation continues in our personal lives; that Creation comes through the Incarnation wherein God takes human form and lives and dwells as one of us and, upon our invitation, lives within us; our salvation comes through the outpouring of God’s love; and our acceptance and belief leads to our Resurrection in the Flesh. We become a new creation in our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Paul’s letter to the Church of Philippi, we catch glimpses of the way these themes are lived out in Christian community – we pray for one another with joy, and there is the recognition that we all share in the gospel and in God’s grace. Having noted what we share, Paul writes, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1.9-11; NRSV).
May Advent help us to renew our understanding of the radical nature of God’s love and salvation through forgiveness. May we permit God to create within us, to prepare the way in the wilderness of our lives that we might more fully experience the Incarnation of Christ. And may we look forward to Christ’s ultimate return and to Resurrection in the Flesh.