Luke 3:1-6 12.10.18
In volleyball, each side is allowed three touches on the ball. Good volleyball players make use of all three touches if they can. The first touch keeps it in the air, and the second touch sets it up for the third touch to drive the point home. The second touch is the setter, a crucial step in any play. The setter does not make the point, doesn’t get all the cheers from the crowd, but the point would definitely not be made without the setter.
John is like the setter on the volleyball team. He sets up the ball so that Jesus can drive home his point. He sets up the crowd so they will be ready to hear and truly follow what Jesus has to say. He is paving the way for Jesus. Think about it– if Jesus had simply shown up one day and people had not been prepared, they likely would not have received his message. John told them to repent, which means to literally turn around and operate differently. Their current lifestyle, their current way of thinking, would have closed them off from Jesus’ message of love and grace.
John is often viewed as the last of the Old Testament prophets, or maybe more like a bridge between the old testament and the new testament, as he is the one to finally usher in the good news of the long-awaited Messiah. The description given by Luke is so characteristic of the introduction of many of the prophets in the Old Testament: first identifying the time and place in history when the prophet was called by God, and then being very clear that it was the word of the Lord which came to him. The same pattern is used again and again, pointing out that, although not bound by human history, our God is a God who works in human history. We follow the same pattern in the familiar Apostle’s Creed, where we mention one of the names of the Roman rulers, Pontius Pilate, to make it clear this life and death of Jesus had a specific time and place.
When John talks poetically about valleys being lifted up and rough places being made smooth he picks up the words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, creating an even stronger connection with the stream of prophets who brought the word of the Lord to the people. Let’s take a moment to go back and read Isaiah’s words to his people in exile, offering hope and encouragement for their return home: (read Isaiah 40:3-5). Isaiah talks about changing the landscape to create a highway in the desert for God. Did Isaiah ever really imagine a major construction project? I don’t think so. I think he was more trying to paint a picture in the minds of the people, to instill in them some hope for their future.
John picks up the same words, calling his contemporaries to remember that this is the same God he is pointing to—the God whose highway in the wilderness will make a way for the young, the old, the tired, the disabled, the ones who might otherwise be excluded. He makes it clear the road will be smoothed and the rough places made plain, the valleys will be lifted up, and all will be able to travel.
Changing the landscape was a creative way to make the route both fit for a king and accessible to all. In our day and time we are pretty accustomed to changing the landscape as desired– that is what we do when we construct bridges and tunnels and ramps so we can travel a more direct route by train, by car or on foot. This morning I want to focus on the work of building a ramp into the home of a person who uses a wheelchair. A ramp lifts the rough places, like steps, which were barriers for the wheels of a wheelchair. A ramp creates a smooth path so that the wheels can easily travel up and down from the street level into the home and back again. I remember hearing stories of the great joy on the faces of a wheelchair bound individual and her family when she suddenly was no longer a prisoner in her own home but could easily enter and exit with a ramp built by hands of a group of volunteers from a church. A ramp is a life changer, bringing hope and change for the person in need and for the people he or she relates to on a regular basis. When I read John’s words, I imagine a parade of wheelchairs traveling a smooth road, making possible what had previously been impossible.
Isn’t that what the coming kindom of God is all about? Making a place for everyone, no matter what their ability? God’s kindom is not just for the physically beautiful or the athletically inclined or the mature adults. God’s kindom includes us all, beautiful or not, athletic or not, old or young, independently mobile or not. John is describing a vision of the kin-dom where anyone can travel the roads, not just the able bodied or able minded. Jesus is coming as the one who will make a new way, a way of accessibility for all.
We already heard this morning that it was the humble shepherds from the fields who were the first to be told about the birth of this child. They were the first visitors, gathering around a baby who was laid in an animals’ feeding trough. Yes, well educated travelers from afar with riches and treasure to give were on their way to see him, but it was the shepherds, the trash collectors, the miners, the people who clean your hotel room, the cashier at the Dollar Store, the mail carrier, the every day person in the community, who is welcome at this manger. This kindom of God is wide and inclusive, and it is a message that is important to carry with us as we travel through these days of Advent. This getting ready should not just focus on you and your shopping lists and your “to do” lists, but should include the needs of others. As we add activities to this season and try to meet expectations at home and work and church, let us remember to take some time to de-stress, to reflect, to pray. I encourage you to use your Advent devotional, to join us on Thursday evenings as we discuss the stories and the scripture readings, to find a way to give attention to someone who faces barriers, whether of mobility, cognition, employment, overwhelming grief, or illness. Perhaps there is something you can do or say that can create a smoother road for someone else. John calls us to prepare so that all will see the salvation of our God. Not just the able, but the differently-abled.
We need the voice of John, not just because he baptizes Jesus, but because he calls us all to prepare, to build the ramps, to make the path smooth for someone else. Next week we will look more closely at the suggestions John has for his listeners, who were clearly impacted by his challenging words and wanted to know what they could do to bear the fruit of their repentance. They knew that they needed to show a change of behavior to go along with their change of heart. I hope to see you next Sunday!
I want to share with you a portion of a poem by Steve Garnass Haas, a pastor who writes a poem with the text for each Sunday… he talks more about emptying than building. Something to consider:
Rough made smooth, crooked made straight,
busy made empty.
Empty it all.
Silence the noise, the chorus, the committee,
The empty place is not long, stretching away.
It’s just right there, around you,
a circle of light,
silence—not what you hear,
but how you listen,
what you practice.
Now there’s a way.
For the Coming One,
who speaks silence,
who blesses the emptiness,
who is the negative space itself
where you’ve made room
for a little friendliness.