In the Meantime… We gotta’ straighten some stuff out.
Today’s scripture passages are Malachi 3:1-3 and Luke 3:1-6. I crafted a paraphrase of the Luke passage which is below.
In the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when Nathan Deal was Governor of Georgia and Ron Shinnick was the mayor of Cohutta, and Mark Richt was still the head coach of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, during the papacy of Jorge Bergoglio known as Francis, and when Heath Rada was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the Cohutta Wilderness. He went into all the region around the Tennessee and Coosa Rivers, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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.
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.’”[i]
There are those who believe that the contextualization of the gospel is a heretical and dangerous practice that devalues the importance of Holy Scripture. I’ve probably been guilty of greater heresy than this in my life, but I offer to you this paraphrase of the Gospel today to help us wrap our heads around what Luke was up to in his crafting of the story of Jesus for his community. Maybe, just maybe, the Word of the Lord is easier to hear when we aren’t stumbling over the names of ancient Romans and Hebrews. Maybe, just maybe, the political and theological points Luke is trying to make are clearer to us when hear the names of political and religious leaders we know. And, maybe, just maybe, a little tweaking of the details of the story will remind us that God is still speaking – here and now – into lives as ordinary as our own. So, charge me if you must, but at least hear me out first. . . .
We’re three chapters into Luke’s Gospel, and, already, Luke has made it a point three times to locate his story in the context of political and religious history. Over and over again, he reminds his readers who was running the show when it came to the hot-button issues of the day like crime and taxes, the occupation of foreign armies, oppressive regimes, and international alliances. He wanted them to have a name to connect with the practices of personal piety and orthodoxy that were expected of the faithful. Was Luke the physician just trying to be a good historian working to accurately date his account? Is it possible that he might have been suggesting that this Word of the Lord was speaking to – or over and against – the political and religious powers that be? Or could it be that Luke – in writing to Theolpholis – the God-lover – is trying to say something along the lines of, “Hey, I know you’re probably paying attention to the stump speeches of the people seeking to be our next leader, but look over here… out in the wilderness… God is speaking through a prophet named John. He’s nowhere near the halls of power. He’s talking about change, that’s for sure. Big change. Real change. Hard change. Lasting change. And you are going to have to do something way more than trust a politician or a church official to see it come about.”
Damn. We’re now two weeks into Advent – this season of waiting for the coming of Jesus anew – and still no shepherds and angels. Last week we read about the sky falling, and today I’m telling you about a crunchy, backpacker dude who eats bugs and wants us to change everything about the landscape of our lives so we can see the salvation of God. Can’t we just sing Silent Night and open our presents? This is the stuff of January, New Year’s Resolutions, or maybe even tax season – or Lent. We need a little Christmas, right? I’m tired of the wilderness. I just want to cuddle up by the fire and have someone tell me a lovely story while we sip hot chocolate and watch the lights twinkle on the tree.
“Not so fast,” says the lectionary. “We’re not there yet. You can’t rush these things. And we need to talk.” John is calling for a turn-around. He says we have some work to do to get ready for this coming. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” I think he has more than cleaning the bathroom and putting out the guest towels in mind. That wreath hanging on the door of your heart? Not it. It’s time for heavy, yellow equipment. Bulldozers. Earth movers. It’s a road work project that we might get started on now, but will be “several months… years… decades in completion.” We’re going to fill valleys, move mountains, and smooth over the potholes with a real and lasting fix. It will be nothing short of salvation.
A few years back we were living in a small town that had experienced some quick growth resulting in new restaurants, shopping, and gas stations. The Flash Foods stood at the corner of a major intersection and did quite a brisk business both in gas and fountain drinks (largely due to my family’s consumption habits alone). But the rear access road was built too fast, and the grading wasn’t up to par. Over the time we lived in the community, the town must have filled a growing pothole back there a dozen times. But it just kept coming back. The problem was much deeper than the asphalt itself. Over and over again, the workers patched the road. And over and over again, a hole began to open up almost as soon as they finished – getting bigger and deeper and more dangerous each time – until the town finally invested in the more extensive work of digging down to the root of the problem and filling in the subterranean expanse that simply couldn’t support the traffic the road had to endure.
Yeah. If we are going to experience the salvation John has in mind, it’s going to take a little more than shoving the clutter in a closet and lighting a good-smelling candle. We’re going to have to really straighten some things out this time. It’s work that calls for a high level of sustained commitment.
Fortunately, if we are really listening, voices in the wilderness aren’t all that hard to find. We just need to listen to the stuff of our very lives to hear the Word of the Lord beckoning us – begging us – to something bigger, smoother, better balanced, more whole, more holy. We hear it when we turn down the TV or log off the internet – when we remove ourselves from the glitter of the mall or the tangy bite of a margarita. . . when we stop binging on our new favorite show and instead dwell in the wild story of our very own lives. There are countless opportunities every day to take a detour around the potholes in our paths – to tunnel through the mountain one more time rather than asking God to help us get it out of the way for good. But every opportunity to avoid is also a chance to correct our crooked thinking. To tell ourselves hard truths. John’s predecessor Malachi makes no bones about it. This is painful work – a refiner’s fire, the strongest soap we’ve ever known.
It’s the good stuff.
The real deal.
The work that will leave us forever changed, tender and aching for the gentle balm of God’s grace.
So what’s the good news in all of this? Is there a Gospel according to John the Baptist, or is it just fire and brimstone, hard work and repentance? What is salvific about confronting the mess that is our lives and risking drowning in the despair that comes with knowing how much brokenness there really is in this world and in our own souls? If moving mountains is what it is really going to take for me – and all flesh – to see the salvation of God, will I ever get there? Will we ever get there? Maybe not before Christmas… but I hope the promise of God’s coming to be with us in whatever wilderness we currently find ourselves is enough to help us make a start.
But before we launch ourselves into some pietistic self-improvement plan, let’s take another look at what John was doing. Luke says he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and then Luke connects John to the prophet Isaiah who spoke of a voice in the wilderness calling whoever would hear to prepare the way of the Lord. In English, the word is “repentance” and when we hear it, we think ridding ourselves of sin, getting on the straight and narrow, rediscovering our moral grounding, and working out our own salvation. I think we need a little help from our Greek speaking friends where the word is metanoia and means something more like changing our minds, changing our hearts, coming to a new understanding that is broader, deeper, bigger than the one we had before.
And this is what’s good about it . . . this is where I think the Gospel that saves our souls comes in: when we look at the mess of this world and our lives and begin to see it, really see it – and see ourselves – as the ones God loves, the place where God wants to be – indeed, the creation God inhabits down to the tiniest molecule, it changes everything. And what begins to dawn on us is our deep and abiding connection to one another rather than the religious, political, or ethnic identities and ideologies that we allow to be huge chasms between us. And what starts to grow in us is a well of compassion that gives us eyes to see a stranger as our neighbor and our enemies as our friends. It is a seeing, a knowing, a recognition that does not leave us wallowing in a pit of despair but being baptized over and over again in a sea of mercy and grace that we have come to know for ourselves and are eager to extend to the people around us.
I do not believe we will see it if we aren’t willing to spend some time in the wilderness away from all that distracts us so easily and so thoroughly and, frankly, teaches us to accept lies as the truth. And I certainly don’t think it’s a change we will ever find in a ballot box. In fact, by the time Luke’s readers read his story, every one of those political leaders had either been executed, exiled, or dismissed by Rome – for years. They were just names in the history books. Footnotes.
Empires rise and fall.
Denominations, churches, and their leaders… come and go.
But this change we are invited to be a part of… to help pave the way for… will endure forever, and it is indeed the only thing that will save us.
May it ever be so.
For you and for me.
[i] A paraphrase of Luke 3:1-6 based on our current political leadership in the United States and Presbyterian Church (USA) as imagined by the author and inspired by the website Pray as You Can. http://www.prayasyoucan.com.au/sunday/show/289/gospel.