Baruch 5:1-9, Luke 3:1-6
Last Sunday marked the beginning of the church’s new year. And this year we will be reading mainly from the Gospel of Luke. The first chapter is about the birth of John, the second is about the birth of Jesus, and today we begin with the third chapter, when John appears in the wilderness.
The opening sentence sets the time and place of John’s appearance – in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, Emperor of Rome, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, etc. Thanks to my husband who knows Roman history, this translates to 29 CE.
This opening carries much more weight for Luke’s audience than it might for us and it serves multiple purposes. It puts John in a particular historical context, both for them and for us.
But for them it also makes a direct connection to the past and clearly marks John as another in a long line of prophets. If you check out the opening of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Zepheniah, and Micah, they all start in this way and most of them also say “the Word of God came to ________.”
The other purpose served by this list of who was in charge at the time, including the names of the high priests, was to contrast their high status to the very low status of John, who was wandering around in the wilderness. Why didn’t the word of God come to Caiaphas or Annas, the high priests? Like the prophets before him, John is here to speak the truth to power, and the priests of this time were hand in glove with the Roman rulers who were oppressing the people of Israel.
The fact that John was preaching near the Jordan was not just because he was baptizing, but also because it suggests connection to the Exodus. The people entered the Holy Land by crossing the Jordan, and by baptizing in the Jordan, John is giving them another chance to straighten up and fly right.
The very concept of wilderness is always suggestive, certainly as a contrast to civilization. Sometimes it stands for danger and chaos, but in the gospel of Luke it is a place of testing, withdrawal, prayer and miracles, perhaps a place removed from a civilization that was not what God wanted for his people.
So John appears in the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Then we hear a direct quote from Isaiah 40, the beginning words of the 2nd Isaiah, who lived and preached in Babylon during the Exile.
This quote was originally talking about the return of the people to Jerusalem, much as we heard it in the reading from Baruch this morning. The image is of a highway through the wilderness making it easy for the people to walk home to Jerusalem.
But John’s cry to prepare, while it echoes the return from Exile, is also a cry to prepare for the coming of Jesus. It’s a warning that God is coming into the world and we’d better be ready. The first step is repentance.
To repent is to turn around, to change direction, to forego our usual behavior and create new ones directed by or to God. This is the reason that Advent is supposed to be a time of quiet reflection and personal assessment. Most of us have been baptized, but the need for self-reflection, confession, and repentence is an on-going process. It takes center stage at this time of year when we await the return of Jesus, the coming of God to dwell among us.
One of the commentators on this passage shared a wonderful story of her mother. Whenever company was coming to the house, she got down on her hands and knees to straighten out the fringe on the rugs in her house. The daughter pointed out that just one brush from a shoe would mess it up again, but Mom was unmoved.
Think about your own preparations for the holidays. How much care do you take to clean, cook lovely food, bake goodies? How many little things do you fix, like light bulbs, doors that squeak, or outlets that don’t work? How much special decorating do you do?
What I notice in this season is how much stuff I have to pick up and put away when company is coming. You know, books, newspapers, ingredients that are for next week’s baking, batteries for the Christmas presents, CD’s, tapes, cat toys, etc. that just haven’t been put away and ironing that hasn’t gotten done.
These are mostly our secular activities and duties. What about our spiritual ones? I think that clearing a path through the wilderness is a wonderful image for the great task we are asked to take up in this season: looking at our lives, asking where we are falling short, what in our lives is blocking our spiritual growth or our relationship with God. Just as I stand in the doorway and look at a room to see if all is in order, so should I look at my soul. What is or is not in order?
Christmas planning always involves to-do lists, more so with each passing year. Self-examination should also include a to-do list, one we should write down and refer to often as a reminder of what we need to do to be prepared spiritually and to stay prepared.
And as the story of John suggests, we should also examine our culture, our institutions and our communities. What is there about our life at Holy Trinity that aids our spiritual growth? What is there that stands in the way?
Assessment of this sort must be the beginning of repentance. And why does this reading say we should repent? Because “the Lord is coming and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
When God comes to dwell with us, what might he save us from: oppression, fear, worry, injustice, war, famine, pestilence, and spiritual death, to name only a few. Part of our self-examination this season might be to ask what we personally need to be saved from: jealousy, self-centeredness, pettiness, gossiping, hurtful or hateful talk, whatever keeps you from living life abundantly as God would wish you to do.
So as you go about your many preparations for Christmas, be mindful always of the inner preparation that goes along with it and that deserves at least as much close attention as having a clean house. Repentance creates a clean soul to go along with your clean house. Never forget that amongst your holiday guests, God will also be present, and she might be wearing white gloves!