GOSPEL: Luke 3:1-6
….the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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.
Some of the moments that stick out the most from my childhood were the boredom and impatience of getting ready for a special day or event. Whether it was putting on fancy and uncomfortable church clothes, packing for family vacation, cleaning the house when company was on the way over… these were all moments when the world became painfully slow and uninteresting, with lots of wondering why we we had to do this thing in the first place.
Now as an adult and parent myself… I see the stress and pain from the other side. Frantic clean-ups as those anticipated guests arrived a little too early. Getting kids dressed, packed and out the door taking all the willpower in my body. And packing for holidays begins with mental checklists long before a suitcase is pulled out from the back of the closet.
Getting ready. Waiting to be ready. Living in that liminal time, that in-between time of anticipation is hard, no matter how we experience it.
Today is the second week of Advent, the Sunday that always introduces us to John the Baptist and his message preached in the wilderness. His message of preparation and getting ready for what is coming next.
It is probably not too difficult to recall our own moments of board waiting or frantic making ready for that anticipated and special moment.
But for the people of Israel, the people listening to John’s message, their anticipating was more than boredom or frantic last minute chores.
John’s audience was a desperate one. They were a people waiting for something different, people looking for hope. They were living under oppression by a powerful foreign empire in the Romans. They were people taxed to the gills by every level of government, often by corrupt tax collectors also skimming off the top for themselves. They were constricted by a religious system that demanded a kind of expensive and burdensome faithfulness that few could afford, and therefore salvation and mercy were just out of reach.
And there was no escaping any of it. No United Nations refugee programs or social media resistance movements. There were no relatives waiting to welcome them in prosperous nations on the other side of oceans, no kind church groups wanting to sponsor new lives elsewhere. There was virtually no hope for a better life found anywhere, not even in risky options like fleeing their homeland for a the chance of a better life in a new land.
The people coming to hear John were desperate for some kind of hope, something at all. And so they flocked out into the wilderness to hear the wild prophet, to hear about this coming Messiah that John was preaching about, to have something to hold onto in the midst of their struggle and hardship filled world.
John’s words weren’t exactly good news in and of themselves. There wasn’t mention of God’s love, there wasn’t a kingdom coming near, there wasn’t the welcome of the Heavenly Father. But John was talking about something important.
Our world is desperate to hold on too these days. In the Advents of the before time, letting in those thoughts that reminded us that there is still suffering in the world somewhere, was an interruption to our Holiday Season making ready. But these past two years we have been experiencing a desperation much more similar to the people of 1st century Israel.
Even this week, as the world seemed to be inching towards equilibrium and finding its way to something new, this seemingly never ending crisis hit us again with Omicron. Travel bans and increased restrictions immediately followed. Booster shots for privileged nations that can afford them and fewer vaccines for peoples that cannot. And of course volatile stock market reactions ensued. Not to mention the devastating floods that have book ended our country, forcing people to flee their homes and livelihoods, stranding several and even causing the loss of life. Restoring roads, rebuilding bridges and homes, re-creating supply chains are reminders that this world has changed under our feet.
We arrive at this second Sunday of Advent desperate for good news, wanting something to hold onto, seeking out hope.
With John it is easy to get focused on the preparing, the slow waiting for the new thing to arrive or the frantic activity of making ready for a world struck by change. The realization that there is no escape, no leaving these crises behind, no waiting for the news cycle to move on or burying our heads in the sand to pretend it isn’t happening.
The people of first century Israel were constantly reminded of the things that made their lives a struggle: the Roman coins in their pockets, the tax collectors on every street corner, and the religious laws that governed nearly every aspect of life.
And we are constantly reminded of the things that are making our lives a struggle: the masks in our pockets, and the news alerts on our phones, and the careful consideration needed to navigate every sojourn outside of our homes,.
John declares that the paths will be made straight, the valleys filled in, the mountains levelled, rough ways made smooth which sound like fixes to problems… yet these things are not quite the good news because John implores us to do the work. Prepare the way of the Lord, he says.
John isn’t describing the good news, but rather pointing to it.
Or pointing to the one who will bring the good news.
Like a frantic parent stressed about cleaning the house for company and getting angry at toys still left on the floor… John is focused on the moment of preparation. Something that we can be guilty of too… holding on to the preparations that are before hope and salvation.
But still John points, John makes ready, John precedes the one that we truly need.
It isn’t John’s words that are central, but who John is and what John is doing. The people of Israel don’t hear the hope of Messiah, but see it when they come out to John. They are reminded of the song that John’s father, Zechariah, a priest of the temple, sang after John’s birth. They see another miracle child promised by God, they see one called by the most high to herald the Messiah, the see a prophet who presence in and of itself is a sign of Messiah’s imminent arrival… like a servant announcing the arrival of royal, seeing John means that Messiah is right around the corner.
John’s presence means Messiah is close.
Our desperation wants to know what the fixes to our problems will look like, but John points to the one who will do the fixing.
And the promised Messiah… well, it is not John but Zechariah who tells us what Messiah is going to. As Zechariah looked at his newborn son John, he sang the song we sung this morning, he sang of God’s promised Messiah:
Messiah will save God’s people.
Messiah will save us from our enemies.
Messiah will show mercy.
Messiah will free us and make us God’s children.
And it is this Messiah that John will be a herald of.
John the Baptist’s message for us is not about how our problems will be fixed, John isn’t the one who knows God’s plans for God’s people. But John points us to the one who does. John helps us to make ourselves ready, but it is Messiah who brings good news to our desperate world.
And John’s strange and curious desert preaching announces for us the imminence of Messiah here too. As we seek something or someone to give us hope, Messiah comes to us again.
Again in the gathering of God’s people,
in siblings in faith sitting next to one another in the pew,
commenting next to one another in the comment section.
Messiah comes in the waters of new life that we are washed with,
in the confessions of hearts,
in the words of forgiveness and mercy that we hear,
in absolution and blessing that we receive.
Messiah comes in the bread and the wine,
in the body and blood of Christ that we share.
The body of Christ we receive transforms us into the Body of Christ to which we belong.
Messiah comes in the Word of promise,
the Advent word that tells the story of God’s coming into our world,
in the prophetic word spoken by a wildness preacher long ago.
For people desperately waiting for the good news to arrive, today, we receive a sign that Messiah is around the corner. John the Baptist telling to us to “Prepare!” means that Messiah is nearly here.
And on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, as we seek salvation in our struggling and suffering world, seeing and hearing John the Baptist again is the sign we need,
to know that our salvation is on the way.