2nd Sunday of Advent—Year C—December 6, 2009
Preached at Mediator Lutheran Church
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time of expectation and waiting, and this, the second week is all about preparation, which an important part of waiting.
We spend a lot of time and effort preparing for important things throughout our lives. You might prepare for school, for our jobs, in relationships, for having children, for holidays, for parties, for trips, for the first snow of the winter, and even this worship service required a lot of preparation.
Thanksgiving just passed, and for many of us that took a lot of getting ready. My brother came up from Virginia and stayed with me for a couple of days. Even though we went out with my Grandparents for Thanksgiving dinner, which meant I did not have to cook the huge meal, there was still a lot of preparing to do. I had to clean the house from top to bottom, grocery shop, decide what to wear, and get directions to the restaurant.
Now that Thanksgiving is over, the preparation for Christmas has begun. We spend so much time and effort preparing for various things throughout the year, so doesn’t it make sense that as Christians we set aside four weeks a year to prepare for the coming of Christ.
I remember that when I was a kid, my church observed the Advent season: we lit the Advent wreath every Sunday while singing “Light One Candle to watch for Messiah” and we always had a family Advent festival with various arts and crafts and food. But other than that I can remember having no idea what Advent was for, what it was really about. Why do we need this Advent season of waiting, expectation, and preparation?
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”
The author of Luke opens the third chapter of the Gospel in this peculiar way in order to set the stage for what the current world order is. It is a world where Rome ruled through an emperor, governors, client kings, and even the local religious leaders of Israel were part of the Roman system of government. Unlike some of the previous empires that had controlled the land of Israel, Rome allowed local leadership to remain in tact, but kept a close leash on them. Rome expected two simple things from the kings in the regions they controlled, the local governments had to pay tribute, which are basically taxes, to Rome and they were to prevent the people from complaining and protesting. From as high as the emperor, down to Israel’s high priests, every level of leadership worked together for Rome.
The people, even those closely connected with the temple of God, were very much of this world. They were as much controlled by Rome, and other earthly powers, as they were by God, the divine power. Therefore, they are in need of refinement and purifying; they need to be prepared for Jesus’ coming. For “who can endure the day of [Christ’s coming]?” “Who will be able to stand when he appears?” Sin causes all of us to mess up and fall short of the glory of God.
We live in a time when there is a war still going on to which even more troops are now being sent, there is an economic crisis that is affecting our nation, our city, our neighborhoods, and our church. There is gang violence on the streets and domestic violence in homes, bullies and cliques in schools, robbery, murder, and other violent crimes all throughout our cities, and there is even conflict in churches. At times, we can be easily distracted from God by things of this world: material possessions, money, jobs, school, relationships, fame, power, or ambition. Just as the people that listened to John preach and teach, we live in a world that is governed by many different layers of government, all of whom are imperfect, sinful people just like us. There is nothing we can do to change the fact that we live in a broken world.
As Christians we are called to be a part of two different worlds: the kingdom of God and the physical world of our society, which Martin Luther calls the temporal kingdom, the kingdom of the world, or the civil realm. We live simultaneously in both kingdoms, and are pulled in different directions by the customs and expectations of both. Therefore, we are simultaneously saint and sinner. God has claimed us children of God, but we still sin every day. We are still waiting for the sin to be wiped out by Jesus’ coming again so that the kingdom of God might reign for eternity. Until then, we remain sinful, and helpless to change that fact. We cannot do anything about it on our own. We need God to prepare us, to refine us, and to purify us. God begins the preparation in baptism during which we die to sin and are raised to new life, but it is not completed, sin is not totally purged from humanity, until the end.
With the rise of the Roman Empire came the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, which was a time of lots of building projects, such as an elaborate system of roads that made trade between regions of the empire much easier. However, these roads are not the ones of which John is speaking. God is the one that prepares us for the Lord. God makes the path straight, fills the valleys, lowers the mountains, and makes the rough way smooth. The author of Luke bookends the account of John’s call by contrasting the current world order of Rome with the world order of God. Through God, all of creation is preparing for this change, for the arrival of Jesus, and through Christ, God brings the new world order.
This preparation is not just for some people, but is for everyone. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Although the Gospels of Matthew and Mark also introduce John the Baptist in a similar way, even using the same Isaiah text, the Gospel of Luke is the only one of the three that includes any more than the first verse of the Isaiah text. Matthew and Mark stop at “make his paths straight.” While Luke includes “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” just to get to the part that says “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
There are many levels of preparation that are going on in today’s text. God called and prepares John by giving him the word of God in the wilderness. This makes John able to prepare the way for Jesus. John does so by preparing the people for the coming of Jesus by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance and forgiveness of sin are no longer just located in the Temple; God sets up a new procedure for them. Through Jesus, humanity is prepared for eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
It is interesting to note where this is all happening: John “went into all the region around the Jordan.” Why is this significant? Let us think about what other preparation happened in this region, in the wilderness. It is a place that is separated from the city, which is the locus of government and organized religion, and the wilderness historically has been an important place of change and preparation. In Exodus 3, God called Moses through the burning bush and prepared him to free God’s people. And in Exodus 19, God tells Moses how to prepare the people before God made the covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, which is in this wilderness. In addition, during the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, before the people crossed the river into the Promised Land, God prepared the Israelites to enter the land during their forty years of wandering in the desert. Then after the death of Moses, in Joshua chapter 1, God had Joshua tell the people how to do the final preparations before crossing into the land while they were in this region around the Jordan. Jesus was also prepared to start his ministry in the wilderness when the Holy Spirit drove him there.
This wilderness has been a place of covenant making, preparation, and promise fulfilling for Israel and God in the past, and this time it is no different. John’s preaching is about both the making of a new promise between the people and God in baptism, and it is about preparing them for the fulfillment of Jesus’ coming. And this time it is not just between God and Israel, but between God and all people. The universality of salvation is a theme that permeates all of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, who are both written by the same author. The idea that Jesus is for all did not only apply to the time of John and Jesus, but also across time, 2000 years, to now.
God continues to prepare us through the renewal that happens when God claims us as children of God, as we die to sin and God raises us to new life as a Christian in baptism. It also happens in daily when God reminds us of what our baptisms mean. When I cross myself during worship, God reminds me that I am a child of God, that I have died to sin and that God raises me to new life, and continues to prepare me for Jesus to come again and eternal life. Martin Luther also said that every time he washed his face, God reminded him of his baptism; that has stuck with me, and washing my face does the same for me now.
God also prepares us in other ways. Even though we live and participate in the kingdom of the world, we are also active participants in the kingdom of God, which comes in two ways. It is a reality now through the hearing of the Word and the participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion, and lived out in the body of Christ. However, it also is in eternity, through the second coming of Jesus. During Advent, God prepares us for both of these. Through the readings and rituals of Advent, God works to remind us that Jesus already came into this world, over 2000 years ago, as a baby, born in a manger in Bethlehem, and is therefore active in the world. However, God also prepares us for Jesus coming again, for eternal life. The kingdom of God is around us now, but it is also something that is coming in the future. This is just like our baptism; we are baptized once forever, but it is not completed until we die and Jesus comes again.
There are signs of God’s preparation throughout our everyday lives. God’s preparation is visible anytime the ways of the kingdom of God work over and against the ways of popular society. When people from different ethnic, religious, or economic backgrounds work together to fight poverty, AIDS, hunger, violence, and injustice; God’s kingdom is there.
God also works through our government officials. God calls and equips our leaders to work together, across party lines at time, to bring about policies and actions that are fair and do the most good for the most people possible. This justice is the kingdom of God here and now.
God prepares us throughout the year, and especially during this season of Advent, to carry out God’s justice and mercy in the world. God calls us to be of both kingdoms, to work to do God’s will in the world, but also not to be totally of this world. God reminds us of whose we are daily, so that we will can become less focused on the commercial preparation for Christmas, and prepare our hearts, minds, and hands for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and remember that it signifies God’s immense love for us. Jesus is the ultimate symbol of God’s love for us, the love that was so great that God sent his only Son to earth to save each and everyone of us and prepare the way for us to have eternal life. Amen.