Prepare!, Luke 3:1-6
First United Methodist Church, December 9, 2018
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
A voice is heard, crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight…
It's a voice that perhaps you can hear off in the distance as you make your way through the crowds in the stores. Maybe you can hear it as you set up your Christmas decorations, or as you think through your "to do" list, as you listen to the radio on your way to work, or as you head out to exercise, living out the routine of your life.
Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.
Maybe you hear it as you sit down to look over and pay your monthly bills, when you're scrubbing your toilet so everything is clean and sparkly before company arrives, or while you're carrying those empty boxes back out into the garage until it's time to haul them back in again, when you take down all those decorations you've just put up.
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.
Are those the kinds of things John was talking about?
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.
The writer of the text wants us to put everything in perspective…wants us to see the politics and the personalities who are in charge during the opening years of Jesus' work. They're the big wigs. The ones who will impact history. Or so one might think.
Hear again how our lesson begins:
In the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod ruler of Galilee…and his brother Philip ruler of the world region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Let's talk just a bit about who these people are:
The Emperor Tiberius was the stepson of Augustus Caesar and he is the "Caesar" referred to whenever that Roman designation is used throughout the ministry of Jesus. Tiberius was very reluctantly accepted by the other Roman leaders and was designated the heir and a "Caesar" only when all hope of a true biological son of Augustus was abandoned. He was neither well loved nor was he respected.
Pilate rose from the obscurity of Roman "middle-management" to his position of procurator of Judea in 26 AD. From the moment he began his rule, Pilate seemed to have a gift for insulting and antagonizing his Jewish subjects. Knowing that his position in Judea was tenuous, Pilate made up for his weakness by periodically unleashing his soldiers on the citizenry. He was both despised and feared.
Herod was an unbalanced and dangerous ruler, designated "King of the Jews" by the authorities in Rome. Though he himself was a Jew of Edomite descent, he spent as much money and attention on establishing pagan temples around the region as he did on the temple in Jerusalem. Herod's personal paranoia—which was reinforced with the knowledge that people really didn't like him—finally led him to begin murdering all those around him whom he suspected of disloyalty, which ultimately included his own wife and son.
Less is known about the personal qualities of Herod's brother Philip and of Lysanias, the other two rulers that Luke specifies, but mentioning them does help us to see how fractured the politics were in the region. And naming both Annas and Caiaphas as high priests helps us to see that division existed even within the religious ranks. Caiaphas was Annas' son-in-law, and their energies were apparently most focused on their shared place in power, rather than demonstrating any true religious leadership.
We see Luke's listing of these proud and powerful (and limited) leaders, and how sharply John's introduction contrasts with theirs.
The word of God doesn't come to the high and esteemed, the royal and noble. The word of God comes to John, son of Zechariah, out somewhere in the middle of nowhere…in the wilderness.
So that's where we are today: out in the wilderness, wading in water up to our knees with this guy, who sports a shaggy heard, has locusts stuck in his teeth, who wears a camel-haired vest…who's talking about things we would prefer not talk about—ever, let alone, now! He's quoting Isaiah, talking about straightening out paths, filling in valleys, leveling mountains and hills. You'd think he was an excavator into heavy construction with that kind of talk. That after hearing him speak, people would be ready to sit down at their drawing boards to design backhoes, rough graders and dump trucks. But Luke makes it very clear to us—John's talk is focused on straightening out people's lives, about people turning away from sin, cleaning up their hearts and making their souls ready for the salvation of God.
He's a heavy equipment operator, all right—and the job he's signed up for is soul excavating.
Before Christ comes to us, John says, we need to prepare the way. We need to make our hearts ready.
He's talking about sin. That isn't something we like to talk about very much—unless it's somebody else's. Then, it's kind of interesting. But when you make it personal, it's not so interesting. If I told you to take out a piece of paper and start listing your sins, you'd go all thoughtful on me and write down one or two things, but you wouldn't write down those things that you know are a big deal, because #1. You don't want anyone else to see what they are, and #2. You'd really rather not see them yourself, written down in black and white like that. Besides, sin is something we can rationalize in a lot of ways.
We might say: it's my mom's fault, my dad's fault…I inherited that tendency, or I learned it because that's the way they did it, or I had to do that in order to survive…Maybe I never felt loved, I always felt inadequate, or everybody else did whatever it was. It's my brother's fault, my neighbor's fault. Kinda like what we see on TV when somebody gets arrested for drug possession. They have drugs in their pocket and say, "those aren't my pants." Okay. Whatever.
A person can rationalize just about anything. But that doesn't make it any less a sin.
Our preference might be to simply ignore it. It's not that we deny doing it, it's just we'd rather not talk about it. It's as though we believe that if we shut our eyes, plug our ears and close our mouths, we'll somehow immunize ourselves from it. But unfortunately, that's not the way it works. We all sin.
I have a theory, and it's my theory so you can disagree with me if you want and you're not disagreeing with an expert or anything, so it can still be a good day. I think that people have 2 basic misconceptions when it comes to sin. We think we're too bad, or we think we're too good. There are folks who think that whatever it is they've done is so bad, that God wouldn't want to have anything to do with them anymore. They're beyond hope…beyond redemption. Then, there are folks who can't think of anything they've done that is particularly out of the ordinary. I don't lie, cheat or steal, so I'm okay, right? I want to go to heaven, but I don't really need a Savior, do I?
Maybe we ought not go any further without defining sin. My definition of sin is anything that separates us from God or from one another. My NIV avoids a broad definition of sin, but of course, our Bibles refer to sin, and the consequences of sin all along the way—from the original act of sin in the Garden of Eden all the way to the death of Jesus in each of the Gospels. The Bible reveals one episode after another of humanity's sinfulness, and God's patient and steadfast offers to redeem.
Here's what Frederick Buechner has to say about sin in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (1973).
"The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tend to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left. "The wages of sin is death," is St. Paul's way of saying the same thing."
"Other people (and if you happen to believe in him) God or (if you happen not to) the World, Society, Nature—whatever you call the greater whole of which you're part—sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self."
"For example, the sin of the Pharisee is not just (a) his holier-than-thou attitude which pushes other people away, but (b) his secret suspicion that his own holiness is deficient too, which pushes part of himself away, and (c) his possibly not so subconscious feeling that anybody who expects him to be all that holy must be a cosmic SOB, which pushes Guess Who away."
"Sex is sinful to the degree that, (when) instead of drawing you closer to another human being in his humanness, it unites bodies but leaves the lives inside them hungrier and more alone than before."
"Religion and un-religion are both sinful to the degree that they widen the gap between you and the people who don't share your views."
"The word charity illustrates the insidiousness of sin. From meaning a free and loving gift it has come to mean a demeaning handout."
"Original sin" means we all originate out of a sinful world which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves the center of the universe, pushing away centrifugally from that center everything that seems to impede its freewheeling. More even than hunger, poverty, or disease, it is what Jesus said he came to save the world from."
We all sin. We all fall short. But that's not where we're destined to remain.
John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People recognized that their lives weren't what they could be, and they headed out into the wilderness to hear what he had to say, to discover—in his fiery words—a message of hope, of transformation, of possibility.
The people who went to hear John had to travel away from the comforts of their homes, away from the familiar, away from the everyday routines of their lives…they left all of that, because they knew there had to be more to life than what they knew, and that perhaps this man would be able to offer them the direction they needed.
As we approach the time when we're to meet our Savior, we, too, need to get through John the Baptist. We don't get to travel a straight path to the manger; we need to spend some time first, in the desert. In each of the gospels, we have a head-on crash with John the Baptist, and that can give us a big headache. But we want to be ready, really ready, when the Savior comes.
Moss Hart was a Broadway playwright and director. (He wrote the screenplay for "A Star is Born" [the 1954 version], and directed "My Fair Lady" the 7 years it was on Broadway, as well as a number of other plays/films that would be familiar to you). In his autobiography, he describes one particular Christmas Eve at the turn of the century when he was 10 and his family was living in New York City. Because of their poverty, Moss was surprised that special night when his father said, "let's go downtown," and set out on a walk "down to 149th Street," a part of town where push carts full of toys were lined up for shoppers.
Moss knew that his dad was going to try to buy him a Christmas present, but he also knew that his dad had very little money (later he figured that his father might have had 75 cents in his pocket). As they walked by those carts, Hart said he saw all kinds of toys he wanted. But after his father asked the price, the two of them would move quietly to the next cart, his father putting his hands in his pocket and fingering the coins. So it went from one cart to another. Nothing the youngster wanted could be purchased for what his father had been able to save. This is how Moss Hart remembered his feeling that night:
"As I looked up at him I saw a look of despair and disappointment in his eyes that brought me closer to him than I had ever been in my life. I wanted to throw my arms around him and say, "It doesn't matter…I understand…this is better than a chemistry set or a printing press…I love you!" But instead, we stood shivering beside each other for a moment—then turned away from the last 2 push carts and started silently back home. I don't know why the words remained choked up within me.
"I didn't even take his hand on the way home nor did he take mine. We were not on that basis. Nor did I ever tell him how close I felt that night—that for a little while the concrete wall between father and son had crumbled away and I knew that we were two lonely people struggling to reach each other" (Act One, An Autobiography).
The Word of the Lord comes to us, in the midst of our normal everyday lives.
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.
What separates us from God? What separates us from one another? What do we need to acknowledge and deal with in our lives so that we're ready to fully experience Christ's coming? To make his paths straight? With whom do we need to reconcile? Who do we need to forgive? To whom, or for what do we need to ask forgiveness?
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 ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord.