Sermon preached at St. Alban's on December 6, 2015
The Second Sunday of Advent
by the Rev. Carl D. Mann
by the Rev. Carl D. Mann
In the spring of ’75, barely seventeen years of age, living outside of Swisher, Iowa, my parents gave me permission to take a trip into Chicago all by myself. And if that wasn’t exciting enough, Dad was letting me use the company pickup since I didn’t own a car! I realized without being told that this was a huge responsibility.
After checking a map, I decided against taking I-80, because I wasn’t in a hurry. I nixed Highway 30 because that’s the way my parents always went into Chicago, and Highway 20 was too far to the north. So I chose Highway 64, which turned into North Ave. when it hit the suburbs of Chicago, and took me directly to where I was going.
Now for the most part, Highway 64 was one of those very old, narrow highways with a slight curb on the edge that always made you feel like you were driving on a bobsled course. Every time I met a semi, I would ease over to the right side of the road only to feel that little curb about to launch me off into space or push me back into the oncoming truck. These nerve-racking sensations were magnified when there was a curve in the road, and let me tell you, there were lots of curves and hills on that road, especially 35 miles on either side of the Mississippi. It was deceptively beautiful! It’s the kind of road that is now considered a scenic highway, but quite frankly, it was a dangerous stretch of concrete!
I remember being taken with the notion that when this road was built, it was designed to conform to the terrain, because in those days it was easier to move the road than it was the earth. The strategy was to follow the contour of the landscape, through river bottoms, around bluffs, only ascending in order to traverse through a natural pass between the hills, followed by a winding descent into the next valley. The pavement probably followed the same trail that was used by settlers moving westward. So it became a game in my mind’s eye to eliminate telephone poles and road signs, and other man-made obstructions, and to imagine being a frontiersman seeing the land for the first time, never knowing what existed on the other side of the bend, but continually drawn forward. It was breath-taking, but not an efficient means for travel.
Now in biblical times, if a king were planning on traveling through his kingdom, a courier was sent ahead to proclaim his imminent arrival. In order to prepare for his coming, work crews were sent out from the communities along the way to repair the road leading into town. In contrast to the average courier of his day, John the Baptist must have sounded like a modern DOT road engineer.
“Listen up people! Your king is coming! Here’s the plan. Go out and prepare a road for his arrival”
And the Foreman said, “But sir, there are a lot of obstacles where you want this road to be. There are numerous hills and valleys. You name it; we’ve got it.”
“I don’t care if there’s a mountain in the way! Blast through it and use the rubble for a road bed. If there’s a hill in the way, bulldoze it down and use it to fill up the valley on the other side!”
“But sir, wouldn’t it be easier to alter the road to fit the shape of the world rather than alter the world to fit the road?”
“Nonsense! The shape of the world is the problem! Why do you think he’s coming? This isn’t just any king: this is the Lord of all creation! Why, the earth would move itself if it could. Just make sure it’s smooth and straight. Your very life actually hinges on this task.”
“But how are we to accomplish such an impossible assignment?”
“That’s the point! It’s impossible for you and me, but it isn’t impossible for the Lord. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll be down at the river for a while; come on down and drop in. I’ll clean you up and make you presentable, and the Lord himself will show you the way.”
You see, John is not simply heralding the coming of the Messiah, he is proclaiming a baptism of repentance to the people of Israel for the forgiveness of their sins, both individual and collective, which is somewhat unique in that up until this point, baptism was generally reserved for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism. In short, he is saying that before the Messiah appears on the scene, God’s Chosen People are in need of spiritual cleansing. But John’s baptism is not merely a symbolic ritual; it requires a mental adjustment to coincide with the physical action! One must repent! On the basic level this means to turn around and face the opposite direction from whence they were going. And the immediate result of these actions is forgiveness, which means a release from that which holds them captive.
So with that in mind, it can be seen that John’s method of road building doesn’t involve heavy equipment or the movement of earth. It involves the movement of attitude; the transformation of lives so as to remove any obstacle that lies between God and them. John is calling for a straight, level, and smooth way to be paved into their individual and collective hearts in order to receive King Jesus into their lives and communities. But there’s more to it than that. It’s one thing to submit to the call, and to turn around and face the Lord, but when they see the sinful behaviors that obstruct their way, they need to humbly recognize that they are incapable of removing them on their own.
But this is the beauty of John’s proclamation! Because the Lord for whom they are to prepare the way is the same Lord who has the power to remove the obstructions through forgiveness. And that forgiveness removes sinful behaviors as if they never even existed. When God forgives them, He will not only release them from bondage, which is holding them back from Him; He will clear the way before them. In other words, when God forgives, He doesn’t simply tunnel through the hills and bridge over the valleys; He treats all obstructions as if they were never there; transforming them into a straight, level and smooth two-way street between His heart and theirs.
Now John’s choice of imagery is calculated exactly for his audience. He is reminding them that just as their ancestors were led out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land, they now have the opportunity to be released from the captivity of their sins through the waters of baptism, and led into God’s promised kingdom. And the message is the same for us today.
You see, Isaiah’s last line of prophecy, which John is quoting in this morning’s Gospel passage, states that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This means that God has provided an opportunity for salvation that is open to all humanity; no restrictions, no barriers, and no divisions before anyone, as long as each and every one of us turns and faces Him, admits we have sinned against God and our neighbor, and asks Him for forgiveness. This is a huge responsibility! And it may appear to be impossible, but don’t be taken in by the scenic route; don’t be tempted into believing that the way to God should conform to the landscape of the world. Rather, believe and know that with God’s help we can accomplish the task at hand. In Nomine Patris