The Second Sunday of Advent, Year C, 2015 – Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 19 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
When I was growing up, my family spent most Christmases with relatives who lived a few hours away. Unlike some of the technologically advanced minivans that are available today, our vehicle didn’t have a built-in DVD player. We didn’t have iPads or MP3 players to keep us entertained. My mother would pack a small suitcase of toys for us to play with in the back seat. However, most of the time I was content to look out the window and watch the world going by.
While this may not sound like much fun, I assure you that it was. I used to watch for my favourite landmarks along the way – rural Tim Horton’s locations, farms with horses grazing close to the highway, and one property that had a tiny roadside chapel for drivers to pull over and pray at. I would eagerly anticipate the point on the trip where my mother would always say, “Okay girls, we’re coming up to Chatsworth. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it!”
As a child, I failed to understand that this was just an expression used to describe a small place. I took her instruction quite literally. So, I would prepare myself, as if about to have a starring contest, closing my eyes for a few seconds and then holding them wide open for as long as possible, maximizing my chance of not blinking, so as to not miss Chatsworth. There was a definite sense of anxiety in this exercise. In the three hour drive that felt like an eternity to my child-self, I had a mere moment to see what had been announced, but I was never sure what I was looking for. Often this would end with me asking my mom, “Did I miss it?”
In our Gospel reading for today we read about John the Baptizer going into all of the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Often the meaning of the word repentance is confused; perhaps by the way that it has been employed in popular culture, so we think of street preachers or televangelists. Even as someone who attended church regularly, for a long time I thought that it meant feeling sorry for the things that I had done wrong, when in fact it means a full turn towards God; turning away from that which we have allowed to rule us and reorienting ourselves towards the Lord. John’s proclamation can be heard like my mother’s: reorient yourselves so that you don’t miss it; so that you see the salvation of God. However, unlike my misunderstanding about Chatsworth, when we wait for the Messiah to come, we know who it is that we are looking for. We know the one who is our Lord and to whom we must turn.
We know all of this because God has chosen to reveal himself to us. How? Well, in the chapter leading up to our reading from today, Luke recounts two instances in which the Lord guides his people to see his salvation. The angel of the Lord tells the shepherds to find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. They go to see Jesus and return glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them. Likewise Simeon is guided by the Spirit to the temple where Mary and Joseph bring in the child Jesus. Simeon praises God saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel”. The Lord leads his people to see his salvation in Christ.
Now Luke tells us that the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. One might wonder what John is doing in the wilderness, but if we look back to the conclusion of Luke 1 we are told that the child John grew and became strong in spirit, and that he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel (Luke 1:80).
His growth in strength and spirit is notable. Luke is signalling for us that the same spirit that is with John was also with the prophets of the Old Testament. We confess each week that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets; this is one of the ways in which God has revealed himself to his people.
So, we are to recognize that the word that comes to John is the same word of the Lord that came to the prophets: the word of the Lord came to the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4), the word of the Lord came to Hosea (Hosea 1:1), the word of the Lord came to Joel (Joel 1:1). The words that come to John are written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘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 God.’”
Later in the same chapter of Isaiah these words are written: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) The eternal word of the everlasting God – the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – comes to John at a particular time and place.
This particular time is marked by the naming of the leaders of the of the day. Tiberius, Pontious Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias; all of these names serve to indicate a period in history, as do Trudeau, Wynne, and Tory. However, more then marking time, the naming of these rulers also point out something interesting geographically. These men named are the the ruling powers that include and surround the area where the word of the Lord comes to John in the wilderness. Here we have two contrasts: temporal earthly powers versus the eternal word of God (notably Caesar Augustus is named as the Roman Emperor just one chapter before, so there has already been a change of leadership in the highest office of the Empire), and the visible signs of worldly authority versus John in the wilderness.
Imagine, if you will, the splendour and pomp surrounding the Roman Emperor Tiberius. During his carer as a military tribune, he donned a rich metallic breastplate and marched under the golden standard of Caesar. Later Emperor, he was swathed in deep red silk imported from the east, and was crowed with a laurel wreath. Now picture John, clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey.
What are we to gather from these contrasts?
The kingdom of the Lord does not look like earthly dominions. His coming does not look like the triumphal entry of any earthly ruler. But again in this passage we see that the word of God directs us to see He who is coming: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
This commandment would have been associated with a particular image for those hearing it in John’s day. Ancient pagan societies used to prepare paths for processions of their gods. So the word that comes to John reframes this image of a god, sending this message:
Your God is coming. Your God is near. Prepare, so that you don’t miss it.
Today, in our particular place and time, we hear this same word of; the everlasting word that came to John in the wilderness. Our Lord is coming. We too must prepare. John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Today as we celebrate the baptism of Rhys we will witness his repentance, as his parents and sponsors commit, “we do,” to this question: will you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your saviour? We remember our own baptismal covenant and turn once again. In turning towards Christ we fix our eyes upon the one who has reveals himself and in whom we are well and truly forgiven. John baptized with water, but in Christ we are baptized with the Holy Spirit. So we do not look alone, but as members in the family of His church.
In this season, we the Church mark Advent. Why do we do this? Every shopping mall, television commercial, and office party suggest that it is time for Christmas; time for celebration. So why do we read today about John the Baptist and God’s call to repent, rather than about angels, shepherds, and the little baby Jesus in the manger? Why do we watch and wait? In the busyness of these four weeks, what would be the harm if we blinked and missed it?
I think that the answer to these questions is yet another question…
What do we see when we open our eyes and turn from that which rules us at present, whether it be worry, self-centredness, stress, fear, all distraction, and orient ourselves to see the salvation of God?
In our watching and waiting we see a world that is in very deep need of salvation. We see victims of war, shootings, terrorism, families with no place to call home, poverty, depression, broken families – and it all feels overwhelming and heavy.
Our life together in the Church is one of ‘living in the tension’ in experiencing joy in the midst of suffering. We see that the kingdom of God has come near as he has chosen to reveal himself to us. We know new life in the midst of death, and we celebrate new life here this morning with the baptism of Rhys. We rejoice, knowing that all is not as it should be; that the kingdom of God is and is to come.
We mark Advent to remember the first time that Jesus came and we wait with expectant hearts for him to come again. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. Our Lord is coming. Turn back to him; do not miss this.
So this is our prayer: O come to us our Lord. O come to us our Saviour. Come Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen.