"COLLABORATIVE" - Isaiah 40:1-5; Luke 3:1-6
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, December 9, 2018
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-5; Luke 3:1-6
It is Advent time. And whenever it is Advent time, we get John – John the Baptist.
It is not yet time for Jesus. It is time for getting ready for Jesus. And getting ready does not mean busy activities, entertaining, and parties. John’s getting ready message is about something more, something bigger. Listen today to the text from Luke 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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It says that John is the son of Zechariah. It says something else about him – “he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Then we have the echo of the words that were read a moment ago from the prophet Isaiah: “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 places smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
John’s message is about a re-calibration of life in preparation for the coming of God. John, son of Zachariah, comes to “prepare the way.” The coming of God, the Advent of God, will bring about a major overhaul of all things: paths made straight, the rough places made smooth, the valleys filled, mountains and hills made low. This is John’s message. And it is not about earth-moving; it is about heart moving and life moving.
So John is a loud voice announcing the coming of God. And he does so with Baptism – inviting those who are open to God’s coming, to gather with him in the river Jordan – to be baptized. Baptism is about cleansing – symbolic washing away the old, the mis-guided, the inappropriate, all the things that lead away from God, and then living into a new way: the ways of God. Baptism means dead to the old, and re-emergence in the new – the ways of God. John’s whole purpose – his whole reason for being – is to announce the coming of God and the “Great Clean-Up” that is needed with the coming of God. John quotes the prophet Isaiah’s words – which had been known and spoken for many centuries: “prepare the way, make straight the paths.” Every valley will be lifted up, the rough places made smooth.
John, son of Zechariah, is known as an “apocalyptic eschatologist.” (Hang with me, on this) John has had “a revelation” – an apocalypse is a revelation, a sense, a vision, an understanding from God. And his revelation – apocalypse - concerns God’s coming and the end of the world – the eschaton. “Eschaton” means “last things. So he is an apocalyptic eschatologist: one who speaks about a vision of last things.
As we can see from this passage, John’s message is set in a very big context: “in the 15th year of Emperor Tiberias, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” and he names other rulers . . . and leaders, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”
This little region of the world, around the Jordan, and the Sea of Galilee, is a microcosm of the larger world. What is happening with John, this unknown prophet, son of Zechariah, applies to the whole world. There is going to be a crashing of Teutonic plates.
Basically, there are two Teutonic plates – so to speak – which are always at play in the world: the power of Caesar, carried out by governors and other leaders, and the power of God. John announces in that place and in that time, with those leaders, that those plates are crashing into each other. In these few verses, and this is going to be echoed later too, those who rule the world, those who seem to have all the power, will soon be encountering the True Power – the coming of God. The Teutonic plates will shift and crash – and life will be re-calibrated. John announces that this is happening. Prepare the way. John proclaims a baptism of repentance because the new ways of God will emerge soon – “get ready, the rough places will be made smooth, and everyone will see the salvation of God.”
We are still preparing for the coming of God. We keep preparing for the coming of God.
Here is another way to digest this message: In this second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when there was big division in the government between Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, with Bob Mueller doing his investigations, and when Francis was Pope, and Jerry Falwell, Jr and Joel Osteen were famous religious leaders in America, and in the seventh year of the Syrian Civil War, weeks after the migrant caravan reached the United States border, and just a month after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the people heard again about the coming of God. Prepare the way of the Lord. God comes. God lifts up the valleys and brings the mountains low. We are to turn from our crazy ways and find life with God, for God.
Or maybe it is like this: In the 173rd year of Second Presbyterian Church, when Levar Stoney was mayor of Richmond, when we are still trying to figure out the issues of gun violence, and racism, and the great economic disparities in the metro region, prepare the way of the Lord. In the situations of your own life, with whatever is happening to you, your parents, your children, your friends, do not miss the message – God comes to make straight the crooked places, to fill the valleys, so we can see the salvation of God.
What must we do to make ready?
Whatever it takes will not be painless or without loss.
Transformation requires radical change and change entails discomfort. That's the truth we must reckon with this Advent season. Heeding John's call means relinquishing our contentment . . . or apathy . . . . . or ambivalence . . . . .or security . . . . or fear . . . . .and submitting to God’s coming, the reformation of God. (see J. Duffield, Presbyterian Outlook, Second Advent, and Christian Century, 11/7/2018)
The message is so important – John announces that all the people who seem to be in power, all the circumstances that seem to dictate life, all that gets and keeps our attention, well, that is going to change – God comes, and God’s coming changes everything. The power shifts, because God is ultimately in charge and we are to live as God people – prepare the way, make changes. God comes to set things right. And what such re-shaping looks like differs from person to person, congregation to congregation, community to community, but will inevitably include turning, pruning, AND re-evaluating everything in light of God.
John’s message is super important. The ways of God are suspicious of those in power because those in power usually care more about power and influence than about God’s ways. The powers of the world – emperors and presidents – may seem like the backdrop of our lives. The institutions and their leaders may think they determine how life goes in the region. John’s role is to announce something different – God comes and God is the one who reigns. And God’s reign inclines toward the powerless, the forgotten, the less fortunate. God spends much more energy binding up the broken, caring for the wounded, comforting the sick, welcoming the stranger. God is NOT interested in building alliances for power, or building walls for security, or putting people down in order to be lifted up. No. God’s ways almost always crash with ways of the world.
So, John is crucial to every gospel. John is the prophet who opens the way for God’s coming. John sets the stage for Jesus. “Prepare the way! . . .And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” John wants to wake us up, and get us watching, working, preparing for God.
If you know a little bit more of the story, you know that JESUS comes on the scene right after John. Jesus even approaches John with so many others, asking to be baptized. John baptizes lots of people. And John baptizes Jesus.
But then, Herod, the most powerful person in the region, asks about John. He is causing such trouble. Herod has him arrested and . . . . . . . . beheaded. John drops off the scene.
It is the ministry of Jesus that continued . . . and continues today.
John said, picking up on Isaiah, “prepare the way, the kingdom of God is near.”
Jesus comes on the scene following John, and says, “the Kingdom of God is HERE!” Not near, HERE. And Jesus invites us to join him in promoting the coming of God’s reign – “follow me,” he says. “love God and love your neighbor,” he says. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” “Forgive, seven times seventy.” Do not hoard; give. Do not fight; turn the other cheek. It is not about violence and power but love and service of others. Do not hold grudges; offer grace. Do not be selfish; be sacrificial. Do not put others down; build them up.
If John was an apocalyptic eschatologist – one who had a revelation of the end of the world – and invited all to repent and be baptized – Jesus is a COLLABORATIVE eschatologist. Jesus announces that “the reign of God is here” – and then calls all of us to work TOGETHER to bring its fullness. “The reign of God is here” – in his person, in his work, in his teachings and actions of love and forgiveness, healing and light – and we are to re-calibrate our lives to align with the ways of God. (see John Dominic Crossan, Living the Questions, video)
So, TOGETHER, we COLLOBORATE for God’s reign.
The great Desmond Tutu says it like this: we have for so long been waiting for God. . . . . God has been for so long waiting for us! . . . We cannot do it on our own – bring about the reign of God for peace and light, joy and justice everywhere – without God. . . . .And God will not do it without us.
It is and has always been COLLABORATIVE – God and God’s people together.
My father was a Presbyterian minister who died almost 10 years ago. I am wearing this stole – from his days as a presbytery executive. I appreciate his life and his ministry so much. Among his many papers, his boxes of sermons, his countless papers (and I had to go through them all), remains one very cherished envelope that contains a very short letter. The letter came to my dad when he was a pastor in Auburn, AL and, among his pastoral duties, when he was working so hard against racism, taking such abuse, for the integration of Auburn University. The cherished letter came from Robert F. Kennedy, who served as Attorney General of the United States under his brother, President John F. Kennedy. The note is personal and brief, thanking my father for his sacrifices and devotion in the important and embattled challenges against racism.
In another place, this is what Robert Kennedy says: Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills. Yet many of the world’s great movements of thought and action have flowed from the work of a single person. . . . .It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (RFK. Day of Affirmation Speech, University of Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966)
John comes on the scene and announces God’s coming. Prepare. Jesus comes on the scene and says, “follow me.”
We keep preparing for God as we COLLABORATE with God in the small and daily acts of grace and compassion that move us and the world toward the promised coming and reign of God.
May God keep leading us and inspiring us in that way. Then we shall see the salvation of the God. Alleluia. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, we open our hearts to you; we seek to prepare and align our live for your coming reign. We believe; help our unbelief. And guide us always toward Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on December 9, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.