Today is the second Sunday of Advent as we continue our Advent journey towards Christmas.
In the Revised Common Lectionary, the second Sunday is normally devoted to John the Baptist who is described as the fore-runner who comes to prepare the way for Jesus, the Christ. In reflecting on the ministry of John, so Christians are invited to reflect on how John invites us to prepare ourselves not just for Christmas Day, but how we may prepare our hearts for an ever greater fullness of Christ's love to be born and revealed within us.
In our passage from Philipians today, the Apostle Paul writes of God’s love being brought to completion within us. He writes: “I am quite certain of this, that the One who began this good work in you will bring it to completion when the Day of Christ Jesus comes.”
He goes on to say: “My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more so that you will always recognize what is best.”
And so today, as we reflect on the Ministry of John the Baptist, may that be our prayer too, that Christ’s love within us may increase more and more, that one day the One who began this good work within us, may bring it to completion.
Turning to Luke 3 there is a lot packed into these few verses, but the first observation is that John is described as ministering in the wilderness in the countryside around the Jordan.
The wilderness and the Jordan both have symbolic value for us as we reflect on these verses.
In the Old Testament, according the sacred story of Israel, after the Israelites had been rescued from the land of slavery in Egypt, before they entered the promised land, they wandered around for 40 years in the desert. This was however not an aimless wandering, it was with a purpose. The wilderness was according to the sacred story of Israel a kind of a school, the wilderness school one could call it, in which the people of Israel were being prepared by God for life in the Promised Land. When life is too comfortable you will learn nothing. But when life has some element of challenge to it, then there is real opportunity to learn and grow. And so while the 40 years of wandering in the desert may at times have seemed like aimless wandering, according to their own sacred story, the wilderness was a school of learning the ways of God. It was a school of learning to trust in the Higher Wisdom and Higher Power of the Divine.
And so, as John the Baptist ministered to the people in the wilderness around the Jordan, he was symbolically inviting them back into the wilderness school of God’s love, inviting them once again to learn God’s ways, inviting them symbolically to prepare themselves for some kind of a new entry into God’s Promised Land of goodness and love.
And that is perhaps the importance of the symbolism of the Jordan. In the book of Joshua, when Joshua finally leads the people of Israel into the promised land, he does so by leading them across the Jordan river. And according to the story, in language that seems more legendary than historical, like in the story of the escape from Egypt, as the priests approached the Jordan with the ark of the covenant, the waters banked up on one side allowing the people to cross over into the Land of God’s Promise.
John, in Baptising people in the area around the Jordan is preparing the hearts and minds of the people of Israel once again for some kind of an entry into a new Promised Land, an inner promised land of the Heart..
The second observation I would like to make is that John preaches a baptism of repentance. The word Baptism can mean either immersion or a washing. John is inviting the people into a new washing and cleansing of their inner lives, so that they might prepare themselves for immersion into a whole new kind of life that God will make known to them in the One who is to come. And as part of this baptism, cleansing and immersion into a new kind of life, John calls them to repentance.
Now most often, repentance is interpretted as feeling sorry for something one has done. But the original Greek word metanoia can have a variety of shades of meaning. One of those meanings is simply to change your mind and by implication to change your thinking.
Brian Stoffregan asks the question “What is it about our thinking that needs changing?” “Simply stated,” he says, “...It is the idea that we can do it by ourselves. We are pretty good people. We aren't as bad as those sinners over there. And, if we find we are coming up short in some part of our lives, all we need to do is to reflect on our misdeeds and simply make the decision to stop doing the bad things and start doing good things. But the problem with this type of repentance according to Brian Stoffregan is that the mind still thinks, "I can do it by myself." The ego is still in charge. It hasn't been changed. It hasn’t learned to open itself to a Greater Deeper Wisdom and a Higher Power.
Brian Stoffregan suggests that this was the reason that Jesus had so much trouble with the scribes and Pharisees, because they believed they were doing pretty well by themselves. They felt on the whole that they were living good, moral, obedient lives and as a result were not aware of the depth of their true spiritual need.
Brian Stoffregan writes that the 12-Step programs begin with the first step, which is an acknowledgment that I can't do it by myself: "We admitted we were powerless over _______ -- that our lives had become unmanageable." He writes that in working as a part-time chaplain at an alcoholic hospital, it was clear that the more seriously they took this first step, the more likely the clients were to follow through the program and find the needed help in the other steps. They knew that couldn’t do it by themselves. They knew they need to rely on a Higher Power. They knew they needed the care and support of the AA community. If they continued to think that they had some power over their drinking, recovery and sobriety were very unlikely.
As we read further on in the Gospel of Luke, we discover that unlike the crowds who, knowing their deep inner need, came to be baptised, the Scribes and Pharisees chose not to. They were not willing to humble themselves in this way, not willing to admit their spiritual need to be immersed in a Higher Wisdom or to rely on a Higher Power. Apparently, they were doing ok on their own. It was everyone else who was the real problem according to them.
Lastly, the passage quotes from the book of Isaiah 40:3-5
A voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight the paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads made straight, the rough ways smooth, and the people will see God’s salvation.
In the same vein as last weeks sermon, when the kings courier announced to the people of an area that the king would be passing through or visiting an area, they would get themselves busy preparing for the Kings coming. Repairing roads and bridges to make the road for the king as smooth as possible.
This is the imagery that we find in the passage quoted from Isaiah. The Lord is coming, says the prophet Isaiah, prepare the way for him.
And that is how John the Baptist understood his own ministry. John sees himself as a courier of the King, announcing the coming of God in his chosen Messiah and thus encouraging them to prepare the way. As William Barclay says, the message of John is “The king Is coming! Mend, not your roads, but your lives”.
Every valley shall be filled – what are the valley’s that you have passed through that you would need God’s help to fill today? To fill with his healing presence and his comforting love.
Every mountain brought low – What mountain does it feel like you are facing at the moment? What if by God’s strength and inspiration you were to discover that it is not insurmountable and that as Paul suggests in Philipians, we can do all things through the mind of Christ within that gives us strength.
The crooked roads made straight – What crooked roads might you have been walking on in recent times. What might it feel like, if confessing those things to God, you could feel like your life could return to the straight and narrow? Would that come as a relief to you?
The rough ways made smooth – Life is never easy and straightforward. We all go through rough times. And yet the experience of many is that when we reply on that greater and higher wisdom of Divine, that greater and higher wisdom of God, even the rough times we go through can begin to feel a little smoother.