Todays’ Gospel begins as follows:
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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
However, I want to paraphrase this:
“Despite Tiberius being Emperor of Rome, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Phillip and Lysanias being provincial governors, and despite Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, God chose to speak to a nobody named John, living in the desert.”
To have lived for over six decades on this planet means that I, like you, will have witnessed the parade of powerful, professional, pontifical people pass into obscurity. They have held the headlines, transformed the tabloids been called newsmakers. The question I ask myself is, “Have they received and shared the word of God?” My answer is, “Seldom.” The same would be true for preachers and priests who have paraded themselves in the same arenas, as did Annas and Caiaphas. Seldom does the word of God enter history through the flashy and powerful religious industry.
Come to think of it, in my life, the word of God has come to me through the people whom history would not remember, and whom people would deem to be “not newsworthy”.
Grandmothers and mothers, friends and family, and, yes, wild people; people like John. Wilderness voices. Someday I will tell you the story of Rosie; a wild woman and a prostitute that I have met in the rain forest of the Republic of the Congo. Yet, a dedicated and fierce mother who insisted that her son be brought up right in the love of God. They receive the truth of God and transmit it.
So instead of expecting the word of God to come on CNN or even in church, this advent, perhaps we should be more attentive to the voices of those around us.
As John the Baptist brings God’s word of promise to those in the wilderness, it is important then to think about what Luke means by salvation. Contemporary belief about salvation tends to limit salvation to something out there in our future after we die. In other words, salvation has been construed as that which will secure your soul from everlasting damnation in hell. “Are you saved?” has everything to do with eternal salvation and very little impact on your here and now. Yet, Luke seems to tell us otherwise.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s paraphrase of today’s Gospel testifies to the power of God’s word to bring salvation to all.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
His paraphrase is an interesting turn of interpretation. “All flesh shall see it together,” acknowledges the communal commitment to justice.
The inclusiveness of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke means that we will see the most unlikely of characters, including ourselves, have a central role in bringing about the Kingdom of God. This is John’s message. Preparing the way is seeing salvation together and together seeing that salvation can be for all.
To prepare the way of the Lord is to see those the world overlooks.
To prepare the way of the Lord is to join together to make straight the paths of the crooked that seem to rule our world.
To prepare the way of the Lord is to see how we might make possible salvation here and now for all.
And how to do this?
By building this way, this road, one brick at a time. Through small acts of kindness. Through reaching out and touching the other in their pain.
Perhaps we should think of our Advent journey in this way? It is so easy to be overwhelmed by big, seemingly insurmountable problems too much of the time; the worldwide refugee crisis, frightening crime statistics, high unemployment, injustice, xenophobia; the list goes on. And I do believe that each and all of these and so many more require large scale solutions and yes, sometimes, they are called for in short order; not in the amount of time it would take to lay bricks one at a time in the wilderness.
Nevertheless, I have seldom known a big solution which has come to be without the back breaking, soul stretching work of doing it one step at a time.
The sort that shapes values and deepens relationships. The kind that makes it safe to grow and make mistakes and back up and start over and grow some more. And that always takes time. The problem is, it seems to me, that too often we want the instant solution. The one, perhaps, that already aligns with my own beloved preconceived notions or positions. The one that does not necessitate me understanding deeply the humanity of my neighbour with whom I might just be at odds. All too often I am simply not willing to give it time, which if you think about it, is foolish and short sighted, for one way or another, time will be demanded.
Indeed, John tells us today that this way will be made smooth by our repentance, yours and mine. The path is cleared by our being reconciled to God and to one another. And that takes time. Perhaps one brick at a time. We do it now with intentionality and with hope, seeking to mend and to heal.
Maybe it’s not an Emperor that makes life miserable, maybe it’s just a difficult colleague or unhappy marriage. Maybe it’s not a Roman that oppresses, but instead a struggle with addiction to alcohol or drugs. Maybe it’s not governors that threaten to destroy, but instead feeling lost in life. Maybe it’s not rulers and priests that overwhelm, but instead a struggle with depression, grief or loneliness.
Whatever it may be, Luke shares the gospel promise that these things, too, will pass; that in the end they will be but a difficult and distant memory; that over time they will become mere footnotes to a larger, grander, and more beautiful story of acceptance, grace, mercy, and life. The waiting can be hard, which is why Luke reminds us of this promise that is so easy to overlook but big enough to save and audacious enough to transform.
“…and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Amen.
With thanks to David Lose and others.