Advent 2, Year C, 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Last Sunday we started our movement into Advent. We began to think about hope and what that means in terms of the already and not-yet dual nature that Advent offers. Our Gospel lesson was another vignette by Jesus of what to expect at the end of times, another small apocalypse. Today though we have readings in many ways more characteristic of that expectation that comes with Advent. Readings that drop us into the beginning of the story, not quite the very beginning, but close enough to feel more like we are leading up to Christmas. The words of Zechariah we heard in the Benedictus that takes the place of a Psalm today are about his joy in the birth of his son, John, who will become known as the Baptist. Zechariah has a vision and prophecy that leads him to understand that his son will herald the coming of the Messiah. Which is why that canticle is paired very neatly with the Gospel reading from the third chapter of Luke. We have skipped over the birth of Jesus, and over his growing up as a refugee in another country, after his family has fled the murderous and insane Herod the Great. We hear today of John the Baptist, the voice calling in the wilderness, heralding the coming Messiah, right before Jesus’ ministry begins.
Luke introduces the third chapter with something that might often be glossed over, but there is, I promise, a very good reason for how this reading starts. Unlike so many gods, demi-gods, or mythological heroes of old, Luke tells us exactly when this was by telling us about who was ruling the land. Not only does this place the events very clearly into a historical context, but it also says something about the fractured and divisive nature of the area. We know that this really happened because we know when it happened. This isn’t a long time ago in a kingdom far far away. This was the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee. That means we know this is, historically speaking, year 29 of the Common Era. Now of course, that’s all a bit convoluted since history has been marked and years numbered more recently based around the birth of Jesus Christ. But, that doesn’t diminish how important it is for Luke and should be for us that this is something we can actually point to as a historical event.
Now at this point in the story, the Herod we are talking about is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He is the one we’ve talked about before. A megalomaniac who is starving his people while feasting in his palace. Who is constantly assassinating or getting rid of people in his court who he thinks are scheming against him. And of course, divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, the former wife of his brother. Enter John the Baptist. He’s in the wilderness, which is not a nice place to say the least. I’ve been there. It’s dry, dusty, there’s very little shade. It’s very rocky. When it rains there are flash floods. There is very little to subsist on. Against the opulence of the insane King Herod, feasting in his halls and filling his court with all sorts of hedonism, stands John the Baptist. Dirty, wandering in the desert, perhaps we would think of him as homeless or vagrant in modern terms, though that might be a stretch. Wearing camel’s hair…I promise you not a comfortable or popular fashion statement. Eating honey and locusts, as opposed to royal feasts. In the history of salvation John the Baptist plays a very important role for the Hebrews. The last prophet of God before John was Malachi, and he lived approximately five hundred years before John. So having the Baptist showing up wandering the land, repeating the words of a very well know prophet, Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Is a momentous occasion in the wider narrative of the Hebrew faith. Luke says that John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness with these words, but what exactly does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
This last week I have spent countless hours cleaning my apartment. Annie arrives this coming Friday morning and she hasn’t been here since July. So, for five months I have been left to my own devices in what is essentially a bachelor pad. Now, I’m generally a tidy person, but I also spend a lot of time working so I don’t pay as much attention to upkeep as I should. There was a lot of cleaning out old mail, vacuuming, mopping, and even unpacking a few more boxes that I hadn’t gotten to. I am preparing for the arrival of someone important to me. Don’t we usually go the extra mile to make sure that a special person arriving feels welcome and at home? Wouldn’t we do even more to prepare for a visit from a dignitary? Imagine what we might do if the Presiding Bishop was going to visit us here at St. Andrew’s! Now the imagery that Isaiah is invoking is on an ever greater scale. At the time that Isaiah says, “Prepare the way of the Lord” the royalty didn’t visit anywhere without bringing their entourage. Usually they were either pulled in large comfortable carriages or carried by slaves in palanquins. As you can image that sort of travel doesn’t do well with hills or twisting roads. Quite literally they would level the roads, make the paths straight, they would prepare the way of the royal caraven to be able to traverse the path.
History lesson aside, what does this then mean for us? It sort of reminds me of those bumper stickers, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” Really, we shouldn’t just look busy. We have a lot of work to do. A call to repentance and salvation, by making the paths straight. We have a lot of hills and valleys in our lives. We have twists and turns. We have all sorts of obstacles that are always distracting us from living out our call to follow the path of Christ. Our world doesn’t really work in our favor or support us in living out the values of the Kingdom of God. There is always a distraction, whether electronic or not. Our hobbies, our families, our 24 hour news cycles, every aspect of our modern lives are designed to make us constant consumers of all manner of goods. Where do we take the time to pray? Where do we take the time to listen for God’s call? Where do we take the time to just be in the presence of the one who created us and loves us?
John the Baptist stands outside of everything that wealth, power, and busyness does to make sense of its existence. He stands near the Kingdom of God, calling people into right relationship as the ministry of Jesus approaches. I’m not saying we need to put on camel’s hair shirts and eat locusts just to make the metaphorical path straight. But you might find turning your phone off to be as uncomfortable as that camel hair shirt; carving out precious time in your schedule for reflection and prayer to feel as ascetic as subsisting on locusts and honey.
As a brother of the Anamchara Fellowship, one of the vows that I take is of Simplicity. It is often expressed in the idea of living simply so others can simply live. It is existing without a spirit of accumulation, but it’s not necessarily all about financial simplicity. It’s also simplicity in how we harmonize with all of Creation. Slowing down the pace of life. It is divesting ourselves of the clutter that is both physical and spiritual to prepare the way of the Lord. One of my favorite expressions of this in Celtic traditions is ‘Listening for the heartbeat of God’. It is the idea that in every moment of our day, in every bit of Creation that we encounter, in every person we talk to, in every moment that tests us, we are listening for the heartbeat of God, we are seeking the Spirit, discerning the way. Personally, I find it to be a very helpful reminder to slow down, to consider my day, my life, to reflect on the choices made and the paths taken. I don’t always succeed at this, but I’m often reminded that I need to do try.
The whole point of divesting ourselves, of clearing the paths of our hearts and minds is for the coming Christ; for the one that was, and is, and is to come. The one who tells us the Kingdom of God is in our midst. We know that failure to live up to this will be often, and should never be a discouragement. I like to say that practicing our faith is like trying to learn to ride a bicycle you will never really master. You will fall, and every time you fall, you have to get up and start again. But the whole reason we do what we do is to indwell in the Spirit of God, to seek our relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, and to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives that we might catch a glimpse of that glorious Kingdom of God wherein our salvation and the salvation of the whole world has been fulfilled.