Sunday, December 06, 2015

Sermon; Advent 2C; Baruch 5:1-9 and Luke 3:1-6

Today we are given an image of God calling his people back from exile and wandering.  In Baruch we hear the end of a consolation poem written to the city of Jerusalem in anticipation of the return of the Babylonian exiles.  And in Luke we hear John calling the people of God who have gone astray back into a right relationship with God.  Both readings are about return and restoration.

Baruch, you may or may not know, is found in the Apocrypha, that collection of writings between the two Testaments with names like Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, the Prayer of Azariah and Bel and the Dragon.  Baruch has three distinct sections – a prose prayer, a wisdom poem, and a poem of consolation.  The reading today is from that last section.

The poem, as I said, was written to the people of Jerusalem who were left behind after the Exile.  The poem tells of a coming day when those who were forcibly removed will freely come back.  It instructs the citizens to remove their sorrow and affliction and clothe themselves in the glory of God.  Look – God is doing a new thing!  Look – the people who left in sorrow are returning in joy!

And in order to make their return as peaceful as possible, God orders every hill and mountain to be made low and the valleys to be lifted up, to make level ground so that those returning may walk safely in the glory of the Lord.  In other words, the trauma of the Exile was enough, the return of the exiled should be as joyful and peaceful as possible.  Smoothing out mountains and valleys is a start.

Whereas Baruch waxed poetically about the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, Luke gives us a different picture.  In today's gospel, Luke tells us of a man sent by God to not only call back those who have wandered away, but to proclaim that God is trying to get to them.

John traveled around the Jordan proclaiming baptism, repentance and forgiveness.  The idea was that through the sacramental act of baptism, your sins would be washed away.  For a person to submit to baptism meant a recognition and repudiation of sins committed.  And once they had repented and been washed clean through baptism, they would be forgiven by God.  In short, John was providing a way for God's people to return from their self-imposed exile and be reunited with God.

But that's not all Luke and John are doing.  Luke writes that John is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy as the one who cries out in the wilderness.  That voice of the prophet cries out: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley will be filled, every hill and mountain made low.  And all flesh will see the salvation of God.”

When I was in seminary, I had a job as the Director of Children's Chapel for a local parish.  When the reading for John the Baptist came up, I dressed up as John (wild clothes) and offered the kids something unusual to eat (sadly, I couldn't find any honey-covered grasshoppers).  But I also laid down pieces of paper in the hall that had them jumping from place to place.

“What John the Baptist did,” I said, “was to put all this in order.  He made the path straight.”  The implication, both physically and theologically, was that we now had a straight path on which to get to God, thanks to the work of John the Baptist.

Maybe you've thought of John's work this way – as a straightening of the path that brings us to God.  If you have, you and I had the same thought.  And you and I were both wrong.

Look again at the words of Isaiah restated in Luke:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

John isn't preparing our pathway to God, John is preparing God's pathway to us.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make HIS pathways straight.

John is announcing the coming of the Lord and is letting us know that we are to continue to do the work of John in announcing and preparing for that coming.  And when will that coming take place?  For John it was imminent, as Jesus would appear on the scene in about 15 verses.

For us, though, the time is unknown.  My personal opinion is that the Lord will return when his way has been prepared.  When the valleys of despair, loneliness, and poverty have been filled over, when the mountainous barriers that divide people are made low, when crooked ways are made straight and true, when the rough has been smoothed down, then we shall see the coming of the Lord.  And not only us, but all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

In that day we will be like the people of Jerusalem who saw the return of their people from exile.  We will be like the people of Jerusalem who saw the exiled return in joy.  The people of Jerusalem prepared the way of the return and were rewarded.  We, too, are asked to prepare the way of the return and we shall be rewarded.

These two readings are the perfect Advent pairing because one looks back and the other looks forward.  In this season of active waiting, we look both back and forward to the return and restoration of God and people.  And we are also reminded that some of that work is left to us.

This Advent, what valleys are you helping fill?  What mountain barriers are you helping make low?

Prepare the way, O people, your Christ is drawing near.



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