Advent 2C, December 6, 2015

December 8, 2015

Here and Now
Luke 3:1-6

1 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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as 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. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

It’s likely that some of you saw the comedy team of Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall perform a short routine on television on February 9, 1964. It’s not likely that any of you remember seeing them because they performed on the Ed Sullivan Show right before The Beatles were to come on to close out that show. Some of you probably remember where you were and who you were with on the night The Beatles first performed in front of an American audience, but nobody remembers who else was on that show. Seventy-three million Americans tuned in to watch that show that night – a number that haunted Charlie and Mitzi for decades

I like to listen to the podcast of a radio show called This American Life, and it was on that show that I heard the story of that miserable night in the life of Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall. Charlie & Mitzi have been married for 55 years, and they are actually pretty funny, but that was the worst night of their lives.

And they thought it was going to be the best night of their lives. Charlie and Mitzi were living and working clubs in the Los Angeles area at the time, and they thought they had hit the big time when their agent arranged for them to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. But their dream turned out to be a perfect nightmare. Their comedy was geared toward adults, but the live audience was dominated by young teenage girls, and then at the last minute they were told to trim and adjust their act so much that it didn’t even make much sense for the television audience.

They didn’t have a bad night in front of a small audience at an out of the way club. They bombed in front of the largest television audience that had ever gathered to watch anything. They couldn’t bring themselves to watch the tape of the show for 40 years, and they still sort of cringe every time they hear a song by The Beatles. But they’re still together, and they’ve still got a good sense of humor.

I’m guessing we all have a few moments in our lives that we wish we could erase. Mitzi and Charlie didn’t really do anything wrong, but they found themselves in a terribly unfortunate situation. Painfully memorable moments are hard to forget, but memorable moments aren’t always bad. I’m sure we all have moments that we wish we could relive rather than redo. Sometimes things come together for us in ways that create rare moments of joy. Whether good or bad, there are these milestone moments in our lives that serve to guide us as we move through our lives.

Likewise, there have been these moments in history when things have come together in such ways that the course of human life is altered forever. Our text refers to one of those moments. Luke is very specific about the moment in history when a world altering message came to a previously unknown man named John who was living in the Judean wilderness.

It’s a clever opening. At first glance you might think Luke was simply trying to provide accurate information about who was doing what when this monumental message came to this devout man in the wilderness, but Luke is actually making a significant point. Luke likes to highlight the contrast between the people who thought they were in charge with the people who actually understood what was going on. Throughout his portrayal of Jesus, Luke contrasts the people with credentials with the people who actually had faith, and this is exactly what he was doing when he names the official leaders of the day and then points to the man who would actually prepare the way for the savior of the world.

Luke understood what supreme power actually looked like, and he recognized the way in which some people are inclined to seize lesser forms of power in order to maintain the illusion of being in charge. It’s a tragic combination. The desire and misuse of power would ultimately result in the violent death of our savior, but that wouldn’t be the ultimate outcome. God sent Jesus to reveal the nature and extent of God’s love for the world, and while the misguided and twisted leaders of Israel had the power to crucify Jesus they didn’t have the power to keep him in the grave. The word spread – the world changed.

The world shifted when God decided to arrive in the life of Jesus Christ, and there’s nothing anybody can do to change that. We can deny and resist this reality, but it won’t change it, and there’s only one proper response to this new situation. The only appropriate response is to repent and believe in the good news. God decided to come in the life of Jesus Christ, and he refuses to go away. People continue to act like the world is just as it always has been, but the old ways won’t ultimately work anymore. We can continue to try to act like the world is ruled by whoever has the most powerful weapons and other such resources, but John knew otherwise, and he began to spread the word.

John the Baptist is an interesting character to me. His talk of repentance is actually a little intimidating to me. Being the human being that I am I don’t want to change my thinking about anything. And that’s what it means to repent. I know we’ve all been trained to think that what it means to repent is to quit doing whatever you’re doing that you don’t want the preacher to know about, and maybe you do need to quit doing whatever that is, but it honestly doesn’t matter what the preacher may think of what you choose to do or not do.

This business of repenting is much bigger than maintaining proper behavior. What John was calling for us to do is not just to behave a little better, but to change our whole way of thinking. He called for us to believe that this world is ruled by God and not by anybody else.

This world isn’t ruled by Tiberious or Pontious Pilate or Herod or Annas or Caiaphas, or the president, or the governor, or the bishop, or the preacher. It’s not ruled by the terrorists, or the police, or the hottest celebrities of the day, or anybody else who seems to wield power in this world. It’s God who reigns over this world, and Jesus Christ came to show us what that looks like.

And what he primarily showed us is how important it is to love one another. That’s what we are called upon to believe. And it’s for that way of living that we are to prepare.

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.

You know, you learn things when you spend some time on a bicycle. And one of the things you learn is that our Federal and State Highway Departments spend a lot more money on highways that have a lot of truck traffic than on roads with mere automobile traffic. When you’re on a highway that’s made for a lot of truck traffic you have these really wide shoulders, and the roads don’t go straight up or down hills. They spread the grade out over wider areas. They fill the valleys. They cut the tops off hills.

I became mindful of this as I rode my bicycle across northern Alabama. One day I was on this four lane highway that had these long uphill and long downhill stretches. It was a little intimidating to see a long uphill stretch, but that is so much easier to deal with than the lesser financed roads that would go straight up and straight down. I was in the foothills of the Appalachians, and when I went from that major highway to a secondary highway I had the feeling that I was riding over the toes of the Appalachians. I was perpetually going up and down and it was terrible. I couldn’t even enjoy the steep downhill rides because I knew I would be going straight up the other side of the valley.

I don’t know if the Lord is coming to us on a bicycle, or in a truck, on a donkey cart, or in a cloud, but God is coming in some way in a timely fashion. I don’t fully understand how this world will become fully reconciled with the will of God, but God’s will has been fully revealed to us, and God’s will is for us to live in peace with one another. We can try to resist this. We can try to impose our own desires and use our own devices to try to establish the kind of world that we want for ourselves, but it’s God’s will that will prevail.

The only choice we have is whether or not we will help prepare the way of the Lord. We can engage in the work of making God’s will welcome in this world, or we can avoid that difficult work. We can engage in making God’s way clear and available, or we can be content to maintain the familiar ups and downs, crooked paths, and rough places. We can engage in the hard and costly work of living in response to God’s desires, or we can continue to pursue whatever it is that we just want for ourselves.

We don’t get to choose the moment in which we occupy space on earth, and sometimes we get handed a tough gig. Like Mitzi and Charlie, sometimes the opportunities we are provided are not what we expect or would like for them to be, but the challenge to be faithful will always be the same. Our challenge is to respond to life with a loving heart and trusting soul. Our challenge is to do what we can, in this moment in which we exist, to prepare the way for the Lord. To make God’s path as straight and as smooth and as level as possible.

Our challenge is to repent – to turn away from the wisdom of those who think they rule, and to embrace the wisdom of God – who has shown us what is most essential and who’s kingdom will prevail.

Thanks be to God for this invitation to abide in the kingdom of God while we are living right here – right now.

Thanks be to God.


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