Scripture Readings: Zepaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-20
As we look around our nation and world, the headlines get fairly grim. Some of the headlines from the last few days were:
- McCain in Iraq: We need up to 30,000 more GIs here
- Teen killed, customers horrified in pizzeria shooting
- 7 dead in Missouri home
- Hamas accuses Fatah of attack on leader
- Another Colorado Megachurch Pastor Quits Over Gay Affairs
- Iraqi exodus could test Bush policy
- Pope wants ethical limits to wars on terrorism (which in my opinion would be a vey good thing)
We often wonder what kind of world we live in, and if there is anything that can be done. John the Baptist might have wondered the same thing. Some of the headlines of his day included:
- More “Messiahs” crucified by Rome
- Herod Swipes Brother’s Wife
- King Goes on Baby-killing Frenzy to Insure Throne
John himself would make headlines:
- Prophet Thrown in Jail for Defying Herod
- Herod Beheads Upstart Prophet to Please Stepdaughter
In a day when brothers were stabbing each other in the back to get more territory in their kingdoms and priests were working with the Roman government to insure their positions. When the poor didn’t know where their next meal was coming from and the rich made sure they stayed that way, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Luke sets his account very much in history. These aren’t philosophical abstractions given in a timeless vacuum. John’s ministry happened at a particular time in a particular place, and he had very particular things to say about what was going on. His ministry of proclaiming the word of God did not happen in a vacuum but in a world of Roman politics, Jewish politics, and religious politics and practices.
“The word of God came to John in the wilderness.” The wilderness is a significant symbol for Israel. It is the sight of Mt. Sinai, the covenant and receiving the Ten Commandments. It also signified their wanderings as a result from sin. It signified the hope in the exiles had when God promised that he would bring them through the wilderness back to the land safely. It is the sight of prophets, such as Elijah meeting with God, and it would be the place where Jesus would fast and pray for forty days in preparation for his ministry as well as his triumph over the temptations Satan would hurl at him. The wilderness was a place of hardship, but it was a hardship that would make them dependent on God alone whether it was the people being supplied with manna or Elijah being fed by the ravens. In the wilderness one had to depend on God and God alone for life.
And the truth that we must depend on God and God alone is what John preached in the region of the Jordan. He proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”As Isaiah before him, he called for the people to get ready for God to once again act among them. In anticipation of God once again breaking into history and revealing himself the people needed to get ready: 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.'”
In the Greek the verbs “prepare” and “make” are both commands and they are both in the second person plural form. The literal reading of this verse is: “All of you prepare the way of the Lord, all of you make his paths straight!” The people were called to get ready for the coming of their God by filling in valleys, leveling mountains, straightening the crooked, and smoothing all the rough places.
For centuries it had been the tradition when a king traveled, a road was built for the occasion. Literally valleys would be filled, literal mountains would be leveled–the road was straight and smooth. Our modern term would be rolling out the red carpet. The king was to have no problems or any obstacles when he traveled. The same was to happen for the coming of God. The people were to get rid of any obstacles in their lives that would hamper God’s coming and working in their lives as king. In “every valley shall be filled,” the word for “filled” is the same word that is used any time people are “filled” with the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. The empty places in their lives were to be filled with God’s coming and presence. In “every mountain and hill shall be made low,” “made low” is the Greek word for “humble.” Anytime in the New Testament when Christians are told to humble themselves before God, this is the word. Any pride, self-sufficient thought, anything that made one think they didn’t need God had to be leveled; the people needed to acknowledge that their lives depended on God; they needed to be humble. “The crooked ways shall be made straight.” The other times the word for “crooked” is used, it to refers to the perverseness and corruption of the world, which lives as though they don’t need God. In response those who are Christians are to be light in that world showing there is a different way to live and being beacons for those who live in the darkness to come to God. So the people are commanded to fill their lives with God’s coming–to get rid of the things that would hamper God from working in their lives, and to get rid of anything that would make their lives crooked and corrupt. And as they were doing this then everyone would see the salvation of God–those who were living for themselves and in crooked and perverse way would see that there was a different way to live if they, too, would come to this God and let him work in their lives.
But John doesn’t leave the people with generalizations; he wants them to know what is required of them. When the people come to hear him preach he challenges them to look at their own lives: do their lives reflect repentance? Do they show they have changed and aren’t living as if God didn’t matter. Do their lives reflect the fact that their God works in their world and in their lives and expect his people to depend on him for everything? Or are they depending on their heritage? Are they depending on geneology? Or the fact that they live in God’s land? Those things don’t matter John tells them–God can raise a people from stones if he wants to. God’s people are those who have chosen to obey him and live their lives in dependence on him. And we see here that with the proclamation of good news comes judgment. When people don’t respond to God’s call to fill their lives with him and get rid of the things that draw them away from him, then there will be judgment. After all fruit trees that don’t bear fruit aren’t good for much, other than fire wood. There is grace extended and hope given, but there also needs to be a response. Proclamation always demands a response–the only question is: what will our response be?
In the next set of verses we find out the people’s response to John’s proclamation. The crowds wanted to know what to do. How should they respond to this proclamation of the imminent arrival of God? The answer is simple: Take care of each other. If you have more than you need share the excess with those who don’t have enough. You have an extra loaf of bread? Give it to your neighbor who hasn’t eaten today. You have two cloaks? Give one to your coworker who doesn’t have one. Then the conversation gets even more specific. Two of the most hated groups in Judah want to know how to follow God. Tax collectors were Jews who collected money for Rome, and usually took more than the tax to keep for themselves. They are usually equated with sinners in the Gospels. The soldiers would have also been Jews who were used to maintain law and order in Judah. They would have been seen as traitors too. Both groups were seen as untouchable and beyond hope. How could God even want either group? And yet, they came and heard John. The responded positively to John’s proclamation of God who was coming and wanted them to make room in their lives for him, and they wanted to know what to do so that their lives would be ready for God’s coming. John didn’t tell them to leave their jobs, which were full of corruption. He didn’t tell them to leave their lives. He just told them to live them differently: to be honest in their dealings; to only take the tax that was due. He told the soldiers to be content with what little they made and not to use violence and extortion to make more. Their lives were to reflect that they trusted God to provide for them, and out of that faith they were to treat the people they had power over with fairness and compassion. They were not to live crooked lives anymore. They were to show by their changed actions the God who had straightened them out.
In verse 15 we see the people’s response to John’s preaching. With the authority and power John preached with, the people were waiting in suspense and expectation of whether or not he was the Messiah. John answered their questioning by showing the difference between his ministry and that of the Messiah–the Messiah would be more powerful than John. Whereas John baptized with water, the Messiah would baptize with the Spirit and fire. And as with the proclamation of the coming God, the proclamation of the coming Messiah also holds an element of judgment. When the Messiah came he would gather those who had changed their lives to receive him like wheat to be stored, but for those who would not receive him and his baptism, they would be burned like chaff. Again we see proclamation demands a response, and whether or not blessing or judgment came would depend on the people’s response. And John continued to proclaim the good news of both the coming God and his Messiah and the judgment that would come without repentance to the people.
Now we know the rest of the story–in the next few verses Jesus will appear on the scene and begin his ministry of proclaiming the good news; no longer was that news “God is coming;” it is now “God is here.”
This is the time of the year that we remember the proclamation of the news: Jesus has come. But Advent isn’t just remembering the first coming of Christ. It is also remembering the proclamation: “He will come again.” As we celebrate the first coming of our Lord to earth, we anticipate his return. The same is true with celebrating communion. When we celebrate communion, we remember his first coming and the price our salvation cost him. But we also eat of the bread and drink of the cup anticipating the day he will return, and we will eat and drink with him. We live with the joint proclamation: “He has come! He will come again!” And as we celebrate both Advent and the communion, we must remember that proclamation demands a response. As we live between the comings of Christ, how are we responding to him and his call to follow him? Are we filling the empty places in our lives with him? Are we leveling the mountains that get in our way? Are the crooked places being made straight in our lives and the rough places smooth? Are people seeing the salvation of our God by how we are living? Do they see we treat other people with compassion? Do they see we live different than the crooked and perverse world that does not acknowledge the proclamation? Proclamation demands a response. That response is repentance that leads to us living lives of love toward those around us, providing for needs when we have extra, and not taking of advantage of people we have the power to take advantage of. As we partake of communion, examine your life and see how you need to respond to the proclamation: “He has come! He will come again!”