“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.”
When I read these particular words, originally from the prophet Isaiah, my mind translates them into music and I can almost hear a luscious contralto voice bringing the Handel Messiah to life. Of course it is in the King James’ English…”every valley will be exalted and every mountain and hill made low…the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” For thousands of years the words of this poetry have been a song of promise and inspired hope in even the most world-weary and burdened of hearts. I don’t know about you all but in these increasingly dark days I find myself greatly in need of a little hope.
All around us there is sorrow and hardship. Each day we receive news of some new horror and it seems that no one is safe from the effects of societal unrest and violence. Greed is rampant and the powerful in our country have completely lost touch with the people they are supposed to serve. Those who claim to follow the Prince of Peace lock and load their guns and stare with suspicion through the gates around their communities certain that everyone with brown skin or who follows a different religion is waiting outside to kill them and take their piles of accumulated stuff. Everywhere we turn, the voices of reason are shouted down by those whose political or social agendas are advanced in a culture of fear and anger.
All that said, it should be sobering to realize that as awful as things seem to be the truth is this is nothing new. Humans have been killing and oppressing one another since long before recorded history. The only thing that changes is the ideology or rationale we concoct for legitimizing our inhumane behavior. As a species we seem intent on our own destruction the collateral damage of a destroyed planet seems a small price for being the last man standing.
In light of our troubled past and present persons of good heart and good intention have only two choices…to admit defeat and eke out a sad and helpless existence on the fringes of the society that has become too hateful to be tolerated…or to look East for the rising of the sun and rekindle the hope in one another that we can learn from our mistakes… we can be better….we can rise from the rubble of war and once again seek to create peace.
Every so often into these dark times God sends a messenger to encourage God’s people and to breathe life into the dying coals of faith and hope. Today our lectionary gives us the opportunity to reflect on the words of two of those voices. The Prophet Isaiah was not always a voice of light and hope but he did have moments when he looked up from the war and pestilence that surrounded him and spoke hopefully of days to come. He reminded those ancient peoples that God had not forgotten them…that always a remnant would remain to begin again…and that at some point in the future a Messiah, a Deliverer would be sent to bring them out of oppression and war and into the way of peace.
In our Gospel reading today Luke quotes from Isaiah’s predictions about the forerunner…the one who was to come before the Messiah to prepare the people to hear his words and follow him. In our Christian tradition, as recounted in Luke, we believe that prophecy to have been fulfilled in John the Baptist…the cousin of Jesus who came striding out of the wilderness, a fierce and strange man on a mission. He must have been a peculiar sight, standing there in his camel’s hair clothing, rail thin from his ascetic diet, hair and beard long and wooly sweating under the desert sun, his eyes glowing with the fire of the Spirit. Here was the voice crying in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repentance.
Luke’s account of the beginning of John’s public ministry places it in historical context. He tells us who is governing Rome, the Emperor Tiberius in his 15th year. He also records that Pontius Pilate is the governor of Judea and Herod rules Galilee. These details are given to add credibility to his account of events. You will remember I am sure that it is this same Herod who will eventually have John the Baptist executed and Pontius Pilate who will order Jesus’ crucifixion.
But at this moment Jesus has yet to begin his public ministry and John is the new attraction for the people of Judea. I am sure that many people came out just to catch a glimpse of him, but they then stayed and in many cases were convicted and converted by his message. He obviously had power in his presence and in his words and he spoke clearly and plainly with no attempt to avoid insult or injury.
In Malachi’s prophecy of the forerunner he says that “he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness”…Malachi 3:2-3. John didn’t come to play nice, but rather to draw attention to the spiritual corruption that afflicted God’s people, especially their leaders, and to call them to repentance.
John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Anointed One of God who was to come after him. He wasn’t some sort of agent for Jesus, setting up venues for him to speak, or running some sort of first century public relations campaign to make sure Jesus had good media coverage. Rather, John was the last of the great Prophets. His role was to draw the attention of the people to the sorry state of their faith lives and to share with them the opportunity to make their lives and their souls right with God before the Messiah arrived.
John had no idea that the one for whom he waited was in fact his cousin Jesus, and he had no idea what the Messiah’s message would be when he came. All he knew was his own call, his own ministry. God gave him the words and he gave them to the people…that is what he knew. He didn’t sugar coat his diagnosis of their spiritual illness and he loudly and emphatically called them to repent and be baptized as a sign of that repentance. He called them to change their attitudes and their lives and to seek righteousness rather than public approval.
The path that John was called to make straight was the path of the heart. The rough places were in the minds and souls of God’s people. The mountains were the internal barriers that the people had built up inside to wall themselves off from God. If the people were going to be able to hear what would be a brand new message from the Chosen One they needed to have clean hearts and open minds. God was getting ready to do something completely new and John’s job was to make sure the people were ready for it when it came.
There was an urgency to John’s preaching, almost a desperation. Some of the things he said to the people were shocking and insulting but he wanted to shake them out of their complacency…their self-perceived helplessness. Oppressed peoples can become broken down and lose hope and faith. John wanted to break them out of that psychological bondage so they could hear the message of liberation that would be coming to them.
So, how is the life and witness of John the Baptist relevant to us 21st century Christians? Considering the state of the world I think his relevance is obvious. While. in our understanding the Messiah has already come and we have been given Jesus’ message of the liberation of love and the promise of eternal life made real in his Crucifixion and Resurrection, like the people of John’s day we have become weary with oppression. While in this country we consider ourselves to be free people and in many ways we are, there are those who seek to and succeed in oppressing the people with fear…fear of the other, fear of the enemy, fear of the wrath of God.
We have become so used to this climate of suspicion and fear that we aren’t even aware of how it has affected our behavior. We treat the poor with disdain because we question their worthiness. We treat the stranger with suspicion rather than welcome because he or she doesn’t look or speak as we do. We believe those who profit from the machines of violence when they tell us there is no way to peace. We believe the preachers who proclaim a perverted gospel that claims God rewards the faithful with wealth and afflicts the sinner with disaster and illness. We have left the faith of Christ and have followed after the foreign idols of uncontrolled capitalism, unfettered nationalism and the narcissistic cult of self.
I think there is a desperate need for us to hear again the words of John the Baptist, calling us to repent of our misguided ways, to renounce our sinful lives and to become the way by which the Messiah is made flesh again. The promise of the Incarnation, of God with us, is that even now when the light of love has grown dark, Christ can and will be born in us again…can and will be born into this world again. The first coming was the beginning of a continuous renewal, a reoccurring birth of God through the Holy Spirit.
I believe that in every moment…in every second of our lives God offers us the opportunity of a do-over. All of the pain and suffering that we have caused to others and that we have endured at the hands of others can be forgiven and healed. We can find hope and the strength to defy the powers that be to bring love once more into our own lives and into the society we create.
When Zechariah, John’s father, looked into the face of his son, the miracle baby born to aged parents, he gave him both prophecy and blessing.
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Let us pray for the Grace of God to make ourselves ready to be the highway for the Lord…to not only walk the path of righteousness but to become that path to bring the love of God in Jesus Christ into the world anew. Come quickly Lord Christ, your people wait.