The Advance Team
3 In 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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
4 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. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Does anyone besides me get tired of what seems like endless road construction? Noisy machines hammering, grinding, paving, smoothing. Narrowed and grated roads and detours. Traffic jams and frustrated motorists. Believing that the end justifies the means is difficult when you are waiting for the flag person to change the sign from stop to go slow. Yet when the work is done and the road is freshly paved, driving on that smooth, unscathed pavement is a joy.
Often, though, we find ourselves traveling on roads that are so pock marked by potholes that it feels like we are driving over a washboard. Each bone-jarring bump increases makes us want to shake a fist at the decision-makers who haven’t made road repair enough of a priority. A quick fix – those roving pothole repairs – is cheaper and solves the problem for a while.
Now it’s the holiday season. All we want for Christmas is a smooth ride over the river and through the wood to grandma’s house. Oh, that it could be so…
Prepare the way! Blast away the mountainside. Lay the infrastructure. Straighten the curves. Grind the pavement. A new road is coming! It will be ready before you know it. Prepare for a new traffic pattern! God is coming!
Today’s text begins with a veritable who’s who in the political and religious power circles in the Mediterranean region in the 1st century. The Roman Empire had provided all the conveniences the people could want such as roads and aqueducts to carry water. And to support these conveniences the Empire had enacted strict laws and heavy taxation along with an army to ensure these were followed. The leaders oversaw all that the Roman Empire had done. All to maintain the Pax Romana.
It is into this time and place that John enters the picture. Into a world with strong leadership and a good economy. The people never had it so good from the Empire’s perspective.
John enters into the scene to repair the roads and prepare for the new road to come. This was his call from the beginning. Most would have thought he would have entered the family business – his father was a priest who had served in the temple. His mother’s family were priests, descendants in the line of the great priest, Aaron. John, though, was born to be a prophet. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, knew that John was to take a different path. God had told them and entrusted them to parent their son to prepare him for his calling. At the proper time, God’s time, John went out into the wilderness to complete his preparation.
It was there, in the wilderness, that God spoke. Now it would seem that God’s word would be spoken to those who had the power to make changes to get the kingdom ready for the One God was sending – for the new road to be laid. But they were focused on their own agenda of maintaining the status quo. The leadership already believed they had heard God’s word and were following God’s path. They would not have listened for a new word from God.
So, God spoke in the wilderness, a place those in power wouldn’t have expected God to be. Yet, in the history of the Hebrew people, the wilderness was where they had encountered God. As they wandered for 40 years, God had spoken the word to them through Moses.
At this time and place, God spoke in the wilderness to a man who was prepared to listen and follow. A man after God’s own heart. One who would understand his role in God’s plan for redemption of the people. God spoke to John.
God gave John a mission – to prepare the way. Smooth and straighten the road. Prepare the people to receive God’s promised Messiah, to be changed as they encountered him, and to become change agents in the world. To receive God’s promise, the people needed to repent. To recognize their sinful ways and turn their hearts a new direction. John’s ministry was to call people to examine their lives and receive a baptism of repentance. Their baptism signaled that the new had begun in them by God’s action and not by their own accord. This was the way God’s people would be prepared to walk God’s road and to receive the Messiah who was coming soon.
Looking again at this passage, we see a juxtaposition of power and powerlessness. The political and religious leaders on one side, and a prophet and the seemingly insignificant people on the other. The haves and the have nots we might say. Those who think they know God and follow God’s way and those who wonder how God fits into their lives or if God even knows they exist. John shows the people a God who has continued to be faithful, fulfilling the promises made to their ancestors. A God who has always, and continues to, change and renew lives.
God is still faithful, fulfilling promises, and changing lives. God continues to overcome obstacles we construct and walls we build to protect us from the challenges of the world and from God’s redeeming work through grace.
Just as John announced in his day that the time had come to walk the straight and smooth road, so it is today. Advent, the season of preparation, reminds us again that God continues to call God’s people to be changed and to be change agents in the world. To show people who God, the one who came into our world as a baby in a manger, is and is doing today. To be those who care for the have nots – the ones who don’t have enough, the ones who are spiritually poor, the ones who think they have it all together but don’t, the ones who are oppressed, persecuted, and weighed down by injustice. To be those who care for all of God’s creation.
Prepare the way! Prepare the way of the Lord rings true today. We are to be people who actively work to prepare people to receive the Messiah. What might this look like? Providing food and clothing for the needy is a start. The call to be change agents, however, requires us to go beyond these relatively easy acts. We prepare the way for the Messiah when we listen to the hurting and offer the comforting words of God’s love and compassion. We prepare the way for Jesus by standing up for the those who are subjected to oppression, persecution, and injustice, and when we challenge structures that create conditions that allow these evils to flourish. We prepare the way for God’s renewal of all creation when we address issues of climate change and stripping the earth of non-renewable resources.
Walking the smooth and straight road means continuing to fill valleys and lower mountains. We and others will always be building obstacles and walls that need to be overcome. God will continue to be faithful, overcoming the obstacles we create, and changing lives through God’s redeeming grace.