Luke 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)
“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.’’”
John the Baptist might be someone whom we look at with a curious look if we saw them sitting next to us in the pew on Sunday morning. In the Gospel According to Matthew, John is described as wearing clothes made out of camel hair and someone who ate locust and wild honey. However, unlike Matthew, Luke chooses to not focus on John's appearance. Instead, the writer of the Gospel of Luke decides to remind us of the time and place of John the Baptist's ministry.
John wasn't called to lead a congregation or a synagogue in a quiet town somewhere in a faraway place that wasn't touched by the troubles of life. John was instead called to be a voice, a voice in a real and symbolic wilderness… A wilderness that bumped up and rubbed against the powers and principalities of the world and asked the hard questions of them… A dessert that challenged those powers and principalities to rethink, reform, to reimagine who they were as people created in the image of God.
I don't know if it was a conscious decision on the writer of Luke's part to not include a description of John the Baptist's appearance, but I do know that they wanted to make one thing very clear. That John the Baptist wasn't preaching his message of salvation and repentance during some religious "Golden Era," but instead preaching his word during a time of trial and tribulation. John was not only up against people like you and me who tend to get stuck in old ways of doing things, but John was also up against the people who made the rules and had the power to silence him.
If the gospel writer were sitting with us this morning, I believe that they would say that they chose to depict John the Baptist in the manner that they did, because they are asking us a question. They are asking us, "Are you going to do the work of God? Are you going to do the work of preparing the way of the Lord even if that means that you have to go against the powers of this world?" It's work that isn't popular… It's work that occasionally makes you friends and work that drives friends away… It's work that is hard because it asks that we smooth out the hills and straighten the crooked paths in our lives to make way for God to act in our lives.
While it feels like a long time ago, I remember the adventure my family took one summer as we traveled across the country. During the trip we visited multiple National Parks, one of which was the Great Sand Dunes National Park located in Colorado. From a distance, you can see the dunes that can reach up to 750 ft, and beyond them, you can see the 13,000 ft peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It's a breathtaking sight because while you are surrounded by the mountains of Colorado, you find yourself in a desert setting with rolling dunes, flowing streams, and the wind blowing against your face.
The day that my family visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park things started out okay… It was a little overcast and windy, but nothing we couldn't handle… Pretty soon however the winds started picking up, and it felt like the 40 mph winds that occasionally blow through the National Park. The sand was blasting up against our faces, and we were wrapping whatever pieces of clothing we could around us. And through it all, we had to find our way somehow back to the entrance of the National Park. We were literally walking through the wilderness, zigging and zagging, trying to make a clear path to where it was we needed to go. It wasn't an easy task.
Making hills flat and crooked paths straight is not safe work, it isn't easy work when you are trying to navigate the storms of life… If you come to church thinking that Jesus is only asking you to take the easy way, then you might have some leveling out and straightening to do. John the Baptist's work, the work that God called him to do, cost him his life. Discipleship, the heaven building work of leveling hills and straightening paths, has a cost that at times can seem demanding, and that's because it is demanding. Our souls may be filled on Sunday morning, but God asks that our souls be filled and poured out in the days in between as well… Preparing the way of the Lord is not just about discovering how we can be satisfied, but how we can bind up the hurting world that exists around us as well.
The reshaping of the world around us and the reshaping our hearts is work that occurs not only during this Season of Advent but throughout the entire year. We'll soon remember a time that the little Christ child, would come to know what happens when you challenge the powers of this world. Because even as an infant Christ knew what it is like to have to flee and to be threatened by the forces of evil in this world that don't like opposition… The powers that oppress people and put them into bondage. The forces that place selfish wants and needs above the well being of other people. The forces that tempt us to believe that global powers will fix both our bodies and souls while neglecting to remind us that Christ sits as the king over all creation.
As we prepare the way of the Lord this Advent, we look forward to the time where the words of the prophet Isaiah are made a reality and fulfilled and a time where "all flesh shall see the salvation of God." Desert highways will be made straight, valleys will be filled, and great high mountains will be made low, and rough places smoothed, and obstacles will be removed from the face of the earth. As John the Baptist uses the words of the prophet Isaiah, we look to towards the future seeking peace and anticipating a time when no one will be left behind. We seek out peace and are filled with excitement as stumbling blocks are taken away, and the barriers we have erected, the obstacles that keep others out are torn down, and the gift of salvation that flows from the throne of God becomes obtainable to all people who come and seek it out.
In our own community, we look for the areas where God is calling us to act, to level out the playing field, to make straight the paths and smooth out rough terrain. Perhaps it's making sure that children have fair access to quality education, maybe it is making sure that thing such as housing and health care are treated as things that we should all have access to instead of privilege or an amenity. Perhaps it's time that we start talking about what kind of church God is calling us to be… Maybe now more than ever we need to start thinking about this new beginning, this new work because our faith family has reached a point where it should be asking the kind of questions that will determine our future task and ministry together.
In our own lives, in my own life, I pray that God will make our hearts gentle and that God will smooth out the rough edges of anger, frustration, self-centeredness, and greed. Our perception of ourselves often gets in the way of what God is calling us to do. Sometimes it's not just our ego, but our ability to get caught up in our own thoughts, the wilderness that exists within our minds. Yet if we take time to stop, to listen, we might hear the voice of John the Baptist calling out to us to make straight a path in the wilderness. Are we willing to listen to the voice of John the Baptist? Are we ready to submit ourselves to God this Advent so that we may be refined and liberated from the things that hold us down? Have we prepared the way for the Lord to come into our hearts and offer that radical transformation that will fill us with peace and hope for the things to happen?
This Sunday during the Season of Advent we remember peace. Now peace might not be an apparent theme in this mornings passage, but I believe it's there waiting for us to discover it among the rubble and weeds along the crooked paths that are becoming straight. And I think that in this passage is the freedom that we obtain when we begin and continue the work of making mountains low and rough paths smooth. There is freedom to be found in that work, there is freedom to be seen and peace that is waiting to be seized when we don't let the things that lead us astray take us captive and harden our hearts. There is peace to be found, peace to be had if we prepare the way of the Lord knowing that it is in God where we have the freedom to be who we have been created to be.
So what hills are there in your life? What crooked paths need to be made straight for you to walk in the light of God? The voice of John the Baptist still rings out to us today as we try to make our way through the wilderness, but will we hear and respond to what John the Baptist has to say? Who are the Pontius Pilates, the King Herods, who try to intimidate us and keep us down? Do you hear the voice of John the Baptist when you rub up against or bump up against them? Are you willing to confront them like John the Baptist did to make sure that all of the children of God are free to be who they were created to be?
These are questions we ask ourselves this Advent season. These are questions we need to be asking ourselves each and every day so that we don't become complacent, so that the hills that we thought were lowered are actually mountains, that the places that we thought were smooth are actually jagged and rocky, and that the paths that we thought were straight and led to the throne of God are actually winding and complex and prohibitive. But Christ knows all of this already, and Christ waits with hope and with peace, just as we are this Advent season, for the time when we do the work we have been asked to do and submit ourselves to the refiner's fire so that we may then come out from the wilderness to present our gifts to God and one another. Amen.