2 Advent 2015 Lesson Luke 3:1-6
When I was a kid I loved Saturday morning cartoons and among my favorite characters was Yosemite Sam. He was a tiny redheaded character with a large mustache and a loud powerful voice that claimed to be “the roughest, toughest, root’nest, toot’nest, fastest gun-slinger west of the Pecos!”
I may regret saying this when I meet him in glory but whenever this season rolls around and we are once again introduced to John the Baptist, I picture Yosemite Sam in camel hair clothing eating locust and honey. I can hear him cry out, “Say your prayers you brood of vipers.”
But more than the person of John the Baptist, I want to draw your attention to his message this morning. As you can tell from our reading in Baruch and from quotes from Isaiah that John’s message is not original. He never claimed it to be. He was repeating Isaiah’s message but in a different way. While Isaiah was using the geography of the land as a metaphor for Israel’s return from bondage, John the Baptist is speaking about the geography of the heart and he is speaking to a people who are in spiritual bondage. And it is precisely because he is speaking about the geography of the heart that he is speaking not only to those first century listeners but he is speaking to us as well. In spite of all of our advances technologically, human nature remains human nature.
First he speaks of every valley being filled. The valley represents those whose hearts are downcast, those who are broken, those who have even lost hope. It is easy to imagine that many in his audience knew the valley. They had been conquered by the Romans and were living under the evil rule of Herod. A strong cast system existed that separated male from female, slave from free and Jew from Greek. Unless you were on the top of the heap it would have been a time in history when it would have been very easy to feel beaten down.
If you have never been there it is difficult to imagine what that is like but it is so important not to underestimate the power hopelessness. I once heard an interview of a World War II veteran who had survived the Bataan Death March. If you are not familiar with that, it was a forced march of about 70,000 allied prisoners by the Japanese forces for about 60 miles. The march was so filled with brutality that one estimate is that about 10,000 died along the way. What struck me as this veteran was telling his story was how he saw man after man lose hope and literally roll over will themselves to die. The loss of hope can be that debilitating.
So the last thing a person who is broken and downcast needs to hear is that they need to buck up or to get more faith. The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” This is especially true of those in the valley. What they need is to be given hope again and John gives them that by pointing them to the coming Messiah.
What we see throughout Jesus’ ministry, in the many healings that He performed, in the demons that He cast out, in the times He pronounced forgiveness (to the consternation of His enemies) is that He has come to heal and restore. That is why the text of Isaiah from which Jesus quoted in the Synagogue at the beginning of His ministry was so appropriate. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” (KJV).
And Jesus continues that ministry to this day, which makes this time of waiting in Advent is a time of hope. We have not been abandoned. We are not alone. God Himself will take on flesh and tabernacle among us, and when He returns we will forever be with the Lord. So this is a time of joyful expectation as we look forward not only to His birth but also to His coming again when all things will be made new. And when we see things like the events of Paris and San Bernardino we know that He cannot come soon enough. We need to be praying with the saints in heaven, “How long O Lord?”
The second geography of the heart that Yosemite the Baptist mentions is that every mountain and hill will be brought low. When Jesus is born Blessed Mary sings in her song “He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats….” (Lk 1:51,52).
The Scripture is quite clear that as surly as God gives grace to the humble so also He opposes the proud. Proverbs tells us that pride is one of the seven things that God hates. Why does God single out pride in this manner? Perhaps because pride seeks to rob God of His glory and inevitably leads to idolatry. In our Thanksgiving lessons God gave the children of Israel a stern warning once they entered the Promised Land not to become prideful. God warned them saying. “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.
The damnable thing about pride is that it comes in so many forms and can be so subtle. We can have pride in everything from our ancestry, to our accomplishments, to even our religion. 19th Century South African pastor Andrew Murray wrote, “There is not pride so dangerous, so subtle and insidious as the pride of holiness.” That is what both John the Baptist and Jesus ran into with the Scribes and Pharisees and they are fairly easy to find in the Church to this day. And I would argue there is even more of them outside of the Church, who stand in judgment of the Church because in their eyes it fails to meet their expectations.
The cure for this sin of pride is to live for the glory of God just as Jesus did. It is to be like John the Baptist and know that I must decrease while He must increase. It is to be the servant that Jesus modeled for us when He washed the feet of the disciples and we have to know that it’s pretty difficult to be filled with self-importance when you are washing stinky feet.
But here is a wonderful thing about the Gospel. Rather than being made miserable or made weak by the loss of pride, just the opposite happens. This is how one writer describes a people who are free from pride. “They live from the strong foundation of the kingdom and are not interested in being consoled, understood or loved by people because they already are by God. Instead they console, understand and love others. Paradoxically people who learn to do this are the happiest of all.” (The Good and Beautiful Live, p. 149)
The third geography of the heart, to prepare the way of the Lord, is the crooked being made straight and the rough places made smooth. These refer to areas of our lives that are not as they should be.
At Synod last month Archbishop Foley gave a very convicting talk to the clergy about keeping our consciences clear. He was not condemning nor was he calling on us to become a bunch of Pharisees, but he did strike a nerve. It caused me to pause and reflect on areas of my life where I have been ignoring that still small voice. You know that voice. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit that does not threaten or cajole but loving warns. To use John’s language the Bishop’s talk made me take a closer look at the crooked paths in my life that need to be straightened and the rough places in my life that need to be smoothed.
And John even tells us how to do that. It is through repentance. I love the 1928 version of the call to confession because it is so instructive about how we go about offering to God true repentance. First it instructs us that we are to truly and earnestly repent of our sins. We are not to be flippant about them. We are not to offer excuses. We are not to shift blame. We are not to candy coat them by calling them mistakes. We are to admit them to God because, as we pray in the 1928 confession, the burden of our sins is intolerable.
But the next step is equally important for true repentance. It is that we “…intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking henceforth in His holy ways….” I believe that this is why John the Baptist was so hard on the Pharisees when they came to him. He knew that they had no intention of amending their life and walking in God’s holy ways. He knew they were just coming to add another bead on their rosaries and repentance doesn’t work that way. It is godly sorrow AND amendment of life. That is how the crooked is made straight and the rough places planed.
But that is not where the process stops. Godly sorrow and intent to lead a new life must be met by the grace of God or we are just engaging in a self-improvement course. As we turn from our sin we must, must, must turn to the mercies of Jesus and know and believe that through His acceptance of our repentance that we are loved, forgiven, and free.
It also occurred to me as I was studying that while I have so far described John’s sermon as addressing three different types of people, it is also very likely that all three of those conditions can be possible within just one heart. I know that if I am willing to be brutally honest with myself that I can admit to areas of brokenness, areas of pride or vainglory and areas of straying like lost sheep. Because I am in Christ, none of these areas define who I am, but as St. John says in his epistle, if I were to say that I did not have these sins, the truth would not be in me. Admitting this puts me in the need of a Savior and that is what John promises us.
John’s sermon ends on a high note. He says that when we have prepared a way for the Lord that “all flesh will see the salvation of God.” This will happen like His coming as a first and a second advent. When we prepare a way for Him in our hearts then He comes to us bringing His salvation as He did at His first coming. This is when we know personal redemption. This is when we know that we have been accepted in the beloved. This is whey we realize that we are no longer under condemnation and that nothing can now separate us from His love.
But when He comes a second time then all flesh will see the salvation of God, even those who will not share in His salvation. But at that point it will be too late to make preparation. This brings to mind Jesus’ many parables about being alert and always being prepared. So let’s hear John’s sermon, and address the geography of our hearts today and every day. Let’s deal with our brokenness, deal with our pride and deal with our waywardness by taking it all to Him. Let’s do this in order to prepare the way of the Lord. Oh, and one more thing….“say your prayers you brood of vipers!” Amen.