This is the second week in Advent; our second week to symbolically wait for our Savior who we know will be an innocent baby leader born in Bethlehem into relative poverty. You could say Advent is a little wait to prepare us for the big wait of Jesus’s return in Glory. This year, Luke’s Gospel guides us in a process of mindful and purposeful waiting.
And we need the practice because, in our modern service economy world, we really don’t have to wait for much anymore. I bought a pair of shoes from Amazon on Monday and they arrived on Wednesday. In Seattle you can receive your Amazon order in two hours. But this is relatively new. Historically, most people had to wait a lot.
I remember when I was a child my grandma used to have to wait for an hour sometimes to use her own phone because she was on a party-line. Of course, we still must wait for some things sometimes. Sometimes waiting is stressful and scary like waiting for medical test results, or a jury deliberation, or an impending layoff.
Some waits are annoying like the Walmart checkout line. And some waiting is joyous as the 9 months we wait for a human baby or the long forever wait for Christmas morning in the mind of a child. There are books and articles giving us tips on how to mindfully wait. And that is our purposeful task right now, to mindfully, actively and purposefully wait for joy.
All the major religions and 23 others celebrate their joyful holidays around the winter solstice. On the surface, it seems counterintuitive that we, in our tradition, wait with joyful anticipation for the coldest and darkest week of the year to sing, celebrate with family and loved ones in colorful and sparkly lights, give gifts and feast on sweet and rich food; and we wait for that lovely moment to light the fifth candle and proclaim that all is calm and all is bright. It is counterintuitive, yet brilliant and mysteriously perfect.
The Gospel today is clear about how we are called to wait. John emphatically called us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight. For 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 the flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
As I understand it, John was the last old testament style biblical prophet. The prophets had some common features. All the prophets lived on the edge. In Ezek 3:1-3, Ezekiel ate a scroll of the Scriptures, including the dirges and laments, to illustrate how the Word of God was sweet as honey. Matthew says that John the Baptist wears a hair shirt and dines on grasshoppers, and Mark 6: 17-18 notes that John confronts King Herod about marrying his brother’s wife. Nathen tells king David to his face that he is an adulterer and a crook. And Isaiah 6:11 states that Isaiah, “after God declares him a prophet bellows forth, as a prophet advocating and speaking out for all prophets everywhere: “For How long, O Lord”.
Grant Gallup writes of the line of prophets in today’s Lesson, “Three witnesses, John, Paul and Baruch offer three words, Prepare, Discern and Change.” The word from John the Baptist was “Prepare. The word from Paul is Discern. Figure out what’s going on around you and in you and in your world. Figure out where God’s Sprit is leading you.
Before Luke introduces the prophet John, he sets the stage by providing fundamental historical facts: John is the son of the Priest Zechariah, a rural priest. And Elizabeth, John’s mother was a relative of Mary mother of Jesus. John’s own birth was foretold by the Angle Gabriel in a vision.
Luke also provides historical reference to ground the reader as to the moral contrast between John’s message of redemption and forgiveness, as was prophesied for generations; compared to the corruption of the current leaders who governed and held worldly power.
Joyce Hollyday gave permission to adapt this 1984 template for an example of today’s Gospel if it were written in 2018:
“In the second year of the reign of Trump, in the final days of his chief of staff John Kelly. When Prime Minister Theresa May, led the great Brexit from the European Union. President Xi ruled during the rise of China amidst US trade wars. When Governor Scott Walker who ruled in the north signed legislation to reduce power for future leaders, and in the south, Senator Ted Cruz continued to hold power in Texas a voice cries out from the Mexican border, from prisons, homeless camps, foster homes, Domestic Violence shelters, from the slums of Haiti to work camps in North Korea, and every place around the globe where John’s message to prepare a way for the Lord is heard, the word of God appeared."
This is the message about our wait. John cried out that there is a scandal. The ruling powers were not listening then, and they may not be listening now. It’s not about them. The message is about a totally different kind of power.
To paraphrase N. T. Wright, The Advent message is Isaiah’s message, that this God is coming to judge the world by the law of love. The reason that the true God will come to right all wrongs in the world is not because he is a fierce bully but precisely because he is the Shepherd who longs to carry the lambs close to his heart; because he is the servant leader who is wounded for our transgressions. If this is what the true God is like, it’s the fierce bullies –the herald’s of the world—who are in for a shock.
So, what are we waiting for? We are waiting for the God whose coming judgment will be based upon love. To prepare, we do not wait in positions of worldly power. We wait at the edges of acceptability. We wait in the margins. We must discern for ourselves with whom and for whom we are making the paths straight.
Then joy! We hear the wilderness voice.
The prepared way through highs and lows. The brightness comes.