Making a Level Playing field
1In 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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3And John 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 straight the paths of the Lord.
5Every 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;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Over these four weeks of Advent, as part of our Advent wreath lighting, we will be praying for peace. Each week takes a different focus on the peace that we long for during this season of waiting, watching, hoping, and wondering. This week, we pray for peace within creation and the natural world that has been entrusted to our care. Fitting I think, since today is also the day that we hear from the voice crying in the wilderness, John the Baptist. The first messages of our redemption come from this wild wilderness place. And the scripture that John quotes, is full of natural images, of valleys and mountains, of highways in the desert – a scene that unfolds next to the Jordan River as John baptizes the crowds that come to hear the message of this prophet in the wilderness.
John the Baptist is often THE central character of Advent. As we watch and wait each year, we hear the message of John in the wilderness calling the people to prepare the way for the messiah, to know that one is coming after him that is more powerful, who will do more than baptize with water, but indeed will baptize with fire and the Spirit. John is also the one who proclaims with firey language, “who warned you to flee you brood of vipers…” – which is perhaps why you will never see John the Baptist on a Christmas card, “merry Christmas, you brood of vipers.”
John’s role of waking people up to see what God is doing out there in the wilderness is central to our story of Christmas though, in preparing our hearts and our minds to receive the gift of Christ we should be mindful of the way in which John instructs us to prepare, “Prepare the way of the Lord, Make straight the paths of the Lord.” In other words, prepare your lives for God, make a path straight into your heart for the arrival of this Good News, for here is how our God will build the Kingdom of God, “every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth.” For God is in the business of creating a level playing field for all of creation.
“For all flesh shall see the salvation of our God,” is so much bigger than just all those who believe shall see salvation, but indeed all flesh – or all that is created shall see the salvation of our God! The flesh of birds, and fish, animals are also part of this unfolding story of salvation. What the Messiah is coming to do is more than just reconcile believers, but indeed all of creation into the love of God.
John’s message of repentance strikes me differently each Advent, and this year I hear the call to repent of our overuse of those wilderness places. I know that environmental care is one of those taboo subjects, but I do believe that there are ways that we can live in our environment in more sustainable ways. John’s message of salvation calls us to create an equal playing field for rainforests and grass lands, tundra and forests, for the birds of the air and fish in the seas – just as much as it calls us to make a level playing field between peoples.
Wilderness throughout scripture has been used to refer to many things – in Hebrew scriptures, wilderness was where the Israelites wondered awaiting the promised land, where prophets went to be alone and encounter God. In the gospels it’s where Jesus goes to be tempted, where the Ethopian Eunich is baptized by Phillip. Wilderness places were places of danger and mystery, often places that lacked safety, food and water – they are indeed not places you wanted to be caught in the middle of the night alone. And while they are difficult and dangerous places, they are also places of transformation and transition – of an old way, to a new way, of a valley and mountain, of rough being made smooth – they are highways to encounter God.
I think John’s message in the wilderness calls into question our own wilderness places, where are those places that we experience as “wilderness”? You don’t have to look very far, the headlines in the news remind us that wilderness places are all around us – war in the middle east, gun violence in our streets, political grid lock, disease in developing countries; it’s enough to keep any of locked indoors for fear of the world outside.
Because God can be found here, in this community of wilderness wanderers, from the youngest to the oldest, from the wisest to the silliest, from the biggest to the smallest, from the most saintly to the most sinful. God is here, calling us together and calling us forward in our Advent journey out of the wilderness into the kingdom of God. Making our rough places smooth, our valley’s exalted and our mountains made low. For God, in Christ Jesus is equaling the playing field, so that all of creation might experience salvation. The great work begins my friends, John calls us to make a highway straight into our hearts to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, to experience God who comes to us in the middle of the wilderness. For though we might find ourselves in the wilderness, God will not let us stay there, for Christ is coming to bring salvation for us and all of creation – to show us the way into the safety of the kingdom of God. So take heart my friends, God is here and Christ is coming soon, for we are on our way to see the salvation of all flesh. Amen.