Yr C ~ Advent 2 ~ Luke 3:1-6
There are two major themes about hearing in today’s scripture passage. It’s about our ability to hear and what it is we’re hearing. Please know that when I say “hearing” I’m meaning it not in the literal sense but in the metaphorical sense of perceiving or sensing or grasping something.
Do you hear? And what do you hear?
If this passage from Luke was written today it would begin like this: “In the first year of the government of Prime Minister Trudeau, the younger, when Wynn was Premier, and Foster was Mayor, during the Moderatorship of Cantwell, the word of God came to…me, in the wilderness of suburbia.”
The point is that it’s set in real life, in the historical time of real people. It starts with the political powers, then moves to the religious powers, and then to the local person – and significantly, the word comes to the local person “in the wilderness.” Notice that it doesn’t say that the word did NOT come to those with political power or religious power. My theology says the word was just as vivid and available to the powers that be as it is to John the Baptizer or you and me. The difference, and it’s a huge difference, is whether a person can hear it or not, and whether they choose to follow it or not.
The word wilderness is a powerful biblical word. Sometimes it gets translated as desert, or barren place, and that’s not wrong but it’s incomplete. Wilderness literally means an uncultivated and unpopulated place. For example, if you went behind our church and walked out a hundred metres you’d find yourself in an uncultivated and unpopulated wilderness. The significant part isn’t that it’s barren or desolate – it’s that it’s quiet! It’s away from the crowd, away from responsibilities, away from the hubbub of Christmas shopping and parking lot hell. The word of God is present in all those places but it’s human nature to not be very adept at hearing it there. We tend to need quiet.
What functions as wilderness for you?
What place(s) are best for you to “hear” God, or sense God’s Presence?
Maybe you have a special chair, or your back deck, or a cottage, or a favourite walking path, or a certain tree.
Maybe it’s here!
Where do you go to receive the word of God?
If you have a quiet space that works as wilderness for you, well done! Go there often!
And if you don’t have a place keep looking. Time in the wilderness is vital, because that’s where we can tune-in and “hear” God’s voice.
Now, what do you suppose you’re going to hear in the wilderness? What might God’s voice be saying? And if Sunday morning worship is a key feature of your wilderness, where you come to find the quiet space to hear God, then what you hear at church is really significant. And what breaks my heart is that for a very long time we’ve tended to emphasize things in churches that, for me anyway, are not very spiritually helpful and don’t sound a whole lot like what I believe God would be trying to say.
Look at John the Baptizer here in Luke 3 for example. What was John’s message? He was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Those are all perfectly good spiritual words, but I’m afraid over time their meaning has been misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Repentance, forgiveness, sin. What do those words suggest to you?
I suspect you’ve experienced them in relation to a theology that says you’re basically a bad person and God is mad at you so unless you repent and get forgiven of your sins you’re in big trouble. That’s been the dominant theology and it’s all based in crime and punishment imagery.
I’m going to suggest to you that there are other ways to read those words that might significantly change how you feel about this passage.
Repentance literally means to have a change of mind. The Greek word is metanoia which means “beyond–thought.” Metanoia means a change of mind and heart, an inner transformation, a change in the inner person. That’s repentance.
The Greek word translated as forgiveness more fully means a sending away, a letting go, a release, and also a pardon, or forgiveness.
And sin, in Greek hamartia, is a very complicated and nuanced word that primarily means ‘not hitting the target,’ or ‘missing the mark.’ Sin means falling short and missing the mark, not that you’re a terrible person.
We have typically interpreted John’s baptism to be about us turning around so God could forgive our badness.
What I’m suggesting is that John was proclaiming a baptism of changing the inner person for the letting go of the negativity of missing the mark.
A baptism of inner transformation for releasing feeling crappy about not doing well enough as a person.
How does that feel?
Then we get a quote from the prophet Isaiah but Luke leaves out a part that we really need to hear. Isaiah was out in the wilderness too, by the way. That’s where prophets get their material from! – where they can hear God’s voice. The missing verses are these:
Isaiah 40:1-3 – Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. (then we get the part from Luke) A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Even if you subscribed to the crime and punishment theory (and I don’t) it seems pretty clear that any debt was paid hundreds of years before Jesus. I’d hate to think the church ignored that bit because it’s more useful to have people feeling guilty and needing the church for absolution. Maybe that’s part of why John was so threatening back then too – because his invitation cut out the middle man and hooked us up directly with the Holy Mystery we call God.
And then Luke 3:5-6 which come from Isaiah as well:
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low [literally it says the mountains shall be humbled], and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Let’s pause here and think about what this is really saying. It says we’re to prepare a path for God – or maybe a path “to” God – and that valleys will be filled and mountains will be humbled. Have you driven by Brooklin or Whitby where they’re building the 407 extensions? What does it take to fill valleys and humble mountains? Bulldozers!
Now, here’s the thing – here’s the part I think we don’t grasp fully enough: we are the landscape here.
Those valleys and hills are within us!
That means transformation requires us allowing God’s metaphorical bulldozers to work on us – and that’s the part where we tend to say, “Nah, no thanks. I’ll pass.” Transformation sounds great until we realize that it’s really, really hard work – and the hardest part is saying yes.
How does this passage speak to the Advent theme of peace? Remember, peace here is more about inner peace than a lack of conflict in the world. However, I can deliver world peace instantly. All the world needs to do is listen to this sermon – and the variations of it being preached all over the church this day – and the problem is solved!
If you have inner peace you are far less likely to act out in violence or war.
If your inner being is being transformed, and you’re letting go of the negativity of beating yourself up for not being perfect, and you’re really open to letting the Spirit’s bulldozers go to work on filling up your valleys and humbling your self-importance then you’ll be a person at peace within yourself.
Can such a person be fooled into thinking the bigger the toys the more love there is?
Can such a person hurl insults at people or demean them?
Can such a person pick up arms against another?
No way! A person with peace vibrates peace – and that peace rubs up against the next person and generates more peace.
It is not naïve to say that following Jesus will save the world. It’s absolutely true! A baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin is the remedy.
A symbolic ritual of dying to your former way and being reborn in a renewed way allowing God’s transformative love to move in you and help you to let go of the negative patterns you’re stuck in and committing yourself anew to trying to hit the mark and when you miss to be gentle with yourself and try again – that’s peace! That will save the world.
We are getting ready to celebrate the coming of the light of the world. What a pity if we can’t receive that light because we’re too afraid to loosen our grip on the darkness. Christmas carols sing about peace on earth. And they tell us it has to begin with us. And they’re right! But they don’t tend to acknowledge how hard it is to accept peace. We fight it. We avoid it. We want it but we don’t want to give up anything or change anything to receive it. Most religious talk is about changing other people. Jesus talked about change within. John the Baptizer talked about change within. But the bulldozers scare us – partly because like road construction the work never ends.
Topics like this – repentance, forgiveness, sin – they’re not supposed to make you feel guilty. They’re supposed to offer you a way to let go of your guilt. They’re supposed to invite you to open yourself to the possibility of feeling better about yourself and life, not worse. We’ve done a spectacularly bad job of communicating this.
Church may have been about those guilt-trippy things but John the Baptizer wasn’t, and Jesus certainly wasn’t.
It’s about personal inner transformation for the purpose of outer world transformation.
It’s about becoming inwardly peaceful so you can live outwardly in peace.
God loves you.
God has always loved you.
No matter what.
That’s the only thing God can do because God IS love.
Do you hear?
John the Baptizer draws you out to the wilderness, away from the noise and the distractions of the junk we too often fill our lives with, and he reminds us that missing the mark is part of life but it isn’t the end.
We can let go of feeling crappy about falling short.
We can embrace a new way of thinking, of looking at the world, a new mind.
We can have peace and a fresh start to aim at hitting that mark again. Over and over. God’s love is waiting for the world to open up and receive it. Waiting for us, for you, for me.
But God can’t force us into something we don’t want. You and I have the power to resist God. We can keep our hand closed and avoid the bulldozers – but if we do we also miss out on the peace part.
Real peace, inner peace, has a price, and the price is your humility and willingness to allow the Spirit to work on you.
I’m going to leave you with some questions to ponder.
Find yourself some wilderness and take your time with these:
- What do you need to release? (or be released from?)
- What are you holding onto that needs to be let go of?
- What is preventing you from being transformed?
- Are you willing to allow God’s bulldozers to go to work on you to make your path straight?
A voice is crying out in the wilderness calling us to notice God’s Presence and inviting us to allow transformation to happen within us and through us.
Do you hear?