December 8th, 2013 – Second Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 40:3-5, Matthew 3:1-12
Hymns: “Emmanuel”, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
Anthem: “Awake My Soul” (Mumford & Sons)
“Awake, My Soul!”
Today’s Old Testament reading, from Isaiah, is one of the most well-known and beloved passages of Scripture. “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!” It has been the basis of hymns. It serves as the foundation for “Comfort Ye”, the opening solo in Georg Frederic Handel’s Messiah. It even found its way into popular culture, as the keystone for the opening – and closing! – number from the Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell. I’m sure most of you know the song, even if you’ve never seen the musical – “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”
It has also been the basis for many, many sermons over the years, but the first of those recorded sermons came in the third chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, from the mouth of one John the Baptist, who appeared in the wilderness in Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This is the Word of God, for the People of God.
John the Baptist had an interesting way of going about preparing the way of the Lord. In his case, it involved preaching a message of hellfire and damnation, of doom and gloom, of the end times – of a Messiah who would barbeque the serpentine Pharisees and Sadducees with holy flame, who would separate the wheat from the chaff, and would burn the chaff into nothingness.
When I was younger, this Scripture – and especially its presence in the lectionary during the season leading up to Christmas – troubled me no end. Why, when we are in a season of preparation for the birth of the Christ child, would we have this Scripture talking about how the Messiah will come to cull and destroy? Even more, why would we have this Scripture talking about how that will be done by the very Messiah we’ve come to know as the bringer of peace, the giver of mercy, the forgiver of sins?
A little troubling, isn’t it?
When I was a child, I thought like a child, I acted like a child.
When I was EVEN younger than I was when I started considering this Scripture, a very important construction project was going on in my home town of Phoenix, Arizona. Day and night, construction crews employed by the Arizona Department of Transportation were working, excavating, constructing, preparing a highway through the center of downtown Phoenix – a highway in the wilderness of the great Sonoran Desert. This stretch of highway was to be the final link of Interstate 10, one of the five great transcontinental highways of the Interstate Highway System, President Eisenhower’s ultimate lasting legacy for this country. From Santa Monica to Jacksonville, the Veterans’ Memorial Highway spanned the country, interrupted only by this last one mile stretch through downtown Phoenix – a one mile stretch that would run UNDER the city. The Margaret T. Hance Tunnel, it was to be called, and on top of it would be built a park, a cultural center, museums, a new main building for the Phoenix Public Library – it was, indeed, one of the greatest public works projects in the history of the city.
And as an eight year old who was somewhat obsessed with maps, I could not have cared less about all of the associated rigmarole surrounding this project. All I cared about was the freeway. I couldn’t wait for the first time one of my parents drove me through the tunnel. I could tell you all sorts of vital statistics about the freeway. I could tell you how it was started in 1957 and how it would be finished in 1990. I could tell you that it was 2,427 miles coast-to-coast. I could tell you that it passed through eight states and that the cities it passed through had a total combined population of over 25,000,000 in 1990 (it’s closer to 50,000,000 now, which, by the way, is more than any other freeway in the Interstate Highway System). And lest you think I’ve changed in the nearly 24 years since then, let me tell you that I have a picture, one half of which is my fiancée standing at the western terminus of Interstate 40, next to a sign that says, “Wilmington, NC, 2,554 miles”, and the other half of which is me standing at the eastern terminus of I-40, next to a sign that says, “Barstow, CA, 2,554 miles”.
I’m a giant nerd. I’ll own it.
The problem, however, is that because of my sheer nerdiness, I became very single-minded about this highway, and how it was being prepared. I lost sight of the things surrounding it. I didn’t care about the park, the library, the museums, the cultural center – heck, even the architecture of the tunnel. I just cared about the freeway.
And that has what to do with John the Baptist, exactly?
The prophesy from the 40th chapter of Isaiah about the voice calling in the wilderness, “Prepare a highway for the Lord,” had been part of Jewish Scripture for centuries by the time John the Baptist came on the scene. The Jewish people KNEW what they had to do – they had to make straight the path for their coming Messiah! This was especially important for the educated, the elite, the Jewish ruling class – the Pharisees and the Sadducees, because they believed that the arrival of the Messiah would liberate them from their Roman oppressors, and free them to be the Jewish people living under none but God once more.
The problem is, they were so single-mindedly focused on preparing this highway that they forgot about everything – and everyone – around them. They cared more about the Messiah coming than the people for whom the Messiah was coming, and because of this, John the Baptist looked them square in the eyes and said, “You brood of vipers! I STRUGGLE TO FIND ANY TRUTH IN YOUR LIES!”
Indeed, the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see John on the banks of the Jordan River were there for all the wrong reasons, and irony is, the other people – the normal folk who came to see John, the ones who were there for the RIGHT reasons – were seeking the same END goal, preparing the way for the Messiah, but instead of obsessing over the details, the minutiae of the Mosaic law, trying to make this highway PERFECT for the Lord, they were instead coming to John to be cleansed, to be washed of their sins, to say, “Awake, my soul!”, and to prepare WITHIN THEMSELVES a highway for the Lord.
And that’s what John was trying to tell the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He wasn’t necessarily trying to be a grating, over-zealous jerk, as he can perhaps be seen in this passage – you have to remember, he lived in the wilderness. He was basically a hermit who didn’t interact with society, and so he didn’t speak the same “language” as the ruling elite. He told them what he thought they needed to hear in the way he thought it could best communicate it. And what he was saying was this:
“You’ve got it wrong. These folks, they have it right. And when the Messiah comes, He’s going to take it to the next level. When He baptizes you, it will be with the Holy Spirit. He’s going to use the Holy Spirit to awaken your soul, to separate out your sin as wheat from chaff, and when the chaff has been separated, He will burn it away, so that your sin is no more.”
The interesting thing about it is, some of those Pharisees and Sadducees listened. People like Nicodemus, who came to Jesus in the middle of the night to learn the truth, and ended up being directly told the most famous two dozen words in Scripture – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” People like Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus would eventually be buried. People like Saul, a.k.a. Paul, of Tarsus, although he would take a little more convincing, in the form of a face-to-face with Jesus that resulted in him going blind for a few weeks.
But that’s another story for another day.
Our story today, however, has, I think, inspired a somewhat more modern prophet. This idea of telling the people at the top of the church that they’ve lost their way, that they’ve forgotten how to prepare the Lord’s highway, and having confidence that they’ll look at the way the people of the church are doing it and follow suit themselves – it appears to have inspired Pope Francis.
And yes, I recognize the irony of a minister in the Disciples church – a movement that wanted reformation SO badly that its founders weren’t content with the original 16th century one, and so they threw another one of their own 300 years later – there’s a certain amount of irony that I’m invoking the head of the Roman Catholic Church here.
But if you’ve been paying attention to what Pope Francis has been doing lately, you know that he’s unlike pretty much any leader of the Roman Catholic Church before him. Are you a female Muslim prisoner? Fantastic, he’ll wash your feet. How about a member of a marginalized segment of society, be it socially, sexually, or theologically marginalized? And I quote, “If they search for the Lord and have good will, then who am I to judge?” A poor person on the streets of Rome? Well, you might find the Pope pulling up next to you in his Fiat and giving you some money to get by for the next few days – or, at least, you might’ve until Vatican security informed him that that was a really good way to start talking more directly to the Lord, and he should probably knock it off.
At the same time, you’ve got Pope Francis calling out European bishops and cardinals who have amassed great amounts of wealth, and ordering them either to divest themselves of it or leave the priesthood; you’ve got him calling out the world’s rich and powerful, telling them that their system of the rich getting richer is destroying the lives of billions of people and that that’s not how Christ would do it; you’ve got him standing up to centuries of tradition in the church and saying, “Have we become so obsessed with preparing the highway for the Lord that we’ve forgotten about everything around it?”
This is the leader of the second largest religious movement in the world, and far and away the largest segment of Christianity, looking at the powerful and saying, “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from repentance,” and holding up the poor and marginalized of the world as an example of those who have come seeking Christ, who have thrown themselves at the Lord’s mercy and said, “Awake! Awake my soul!”
But this isn’t just about Pope Francis.
This isn’t just about John the Baptist.
This is about the people of the world, seeking something greater but needing to have their eyes opened to what is beyond the road that they are on. This is about the people of first century Israel, coming to the river to be cleansed, asking that the chaff would be removed from the wheat, never to return. This is about a kid in Phoenix, who is so obsessed with the highway that he’s forgotten about the amazing things that surround it, who needs to open his eyes and take everything in.
This is about each of you here today, each person in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and indeed, each person in the greater body of Christ, recognizing that as they prepare within themselves a highway for the Lord, it is their responsibility to improve the area around it as well. No, we don’t have to beautify the sides of our highways with carefully groomed landscaping and commissioned public artwork, but as we prepare our highways for the Lord, we must make sure that we’re working to simultaneously make better the world in which we live.
So as you travel this highway that you have prepared for the Lord, the highway that you now travel to seek the Lord, open your eyes to what you might see, and say, “Awake my soul,” for you are meant to meet your Maker.