John the Baptist
“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 all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:5-6
It’s that time of year. Time for all of the “best of the year” lists and rankings. Some of them generate more controversy than others. For example, there’s a lot of debate about whether the best four teams are in the college football playoffs. My family is not going to argue with Clemson being there, but I know a lot of Georgia fans who could make a case that their team got unfairly left out.
Then there’s People magazine’s “Most Intriguing People of 2018” list. You could say that “intriguing” has many meanings, but the editors still picked 25 people who fit their idea of it, from Meghan Markle to Chadwick Boseman to the teenagers from Parkland, Florida.
I enjoy comparing the year-end top ten lists for different forms of entertainment – the best movies, the best TV shows, the best books. I do a lot of reading, and yet I find at the end of the year that I have barely made a dent in those lists.
All of these lists depend on one assumption: Some things are better than others. Some teams. Some movies. Some people. There’s always a way to compare and rank.
It’s mostly in good fun, but I wonder how much it creeps into our way of seeing the world. There are already plenty of terrible powers at work to make us believe that some people are better than others. We don’t really need much help to reinforce that view.
Today’s gospel opens with a very specific naming of the people who hold positions of power when John the Baptist bursts onto the scene. You get Emperor Tiberius. Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. King Herod. His brother Philip. Lysanias ruler of Abilene. And the list isn’t limited to political rulers tangled up with the Roman Empire. There are religious leaders here too – the high priests Annas and Caiphas.
These are not just random names. Several of them will show up later in the story. You may remember that Pontius Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas will play a role in Jesus’ crucifixion. Their names are here to provide historical context near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, but they’re also here to remind us that the power differences in the world have consequences. People end up dead when power goes unchecked.
Against that backdrop of political and religious leaders, many of them corrupt, John the Baptist appears with words of prophetic power. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he cries, quoting from the prophet Isaiah. John and Jesus are both adults at this point, and John’s job is to get people ready for Jesus’ ministry, so it may seem strange that each year we hear from him as we are preparing for the arrival of the baby Jesus. But I appreciate that John shows up in the middle of Advent to keep us from being complacent about what God is up to.
John comes to remind us not to sentimentalize this Savior for whom we wait. It’s easy to do as we sing our Christmas carols and put up decorations. We look at the little baby in our nativity scenes, and it makes us smile because it all looks so sweet. And don’t get me wrong. It’s fine to soak up the spirit of the season. Sing your heart out. Enjoy your Christmas tree. Have some hot chocolate. These are all good things.
And as you do, remember that Jesus is coming to shake things up. The baby will grow up, and he will change everything. The imagery that John gives us today is geological: “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.” But John is talking about more than mountains and valleys. John is telling us that Jesus is coming to level things out. There will no longer be power differences, with some people looking down on others. God’s salvation is for all flesh. All. No one left out.
When John shows up, he also talks about repentance as a crucial part of forgiveness. He calls us to name our sin explicitly, and what sin is more insidious than that which causes us to see some people as less valuable, less important, less worthy than others? I’ve come to believe that this sin is at the root of so many others. When we look down on people from a mountain of our own making, it becomes easier to ignore their suffering – or to be part of what causes that suffering in the first place.
On Tuesday evening – the third night of Hanukkah – I attended a Community Menorah Lighting at Temple Sinai in Summit.[i] This event took on an added significance after swastikas appeared at two local schools. Embracing the theme “No Room for Hate,” community leaders came together to condemn these acts and to call us to stand firm against the prejudice behind them.
My friend and colleague Pastor Gladys Moore from St. John’s Lutheran spoke at the event, and she said: “Tonight, we light this menorah together, because together we stand against hate and all of its evil symbols. We light this candle together, because together we must learn a new way of being the human family, a family that practices justice, loving-kindness and peace — to all people, in all places, for all time. And this requires learning.”
I appreciated Pastor Gladys’ reminder that standing firm against hatred and prejudice requires learning. Perhaps that’s one way to prepare the way in this season of Advent and long after Advent is behind us. We seek to learn about people whose backgrounds are different than our own – learn their stories, learn their histories. We can do this by reading books or by watching movies and TED talks, but we also do it by listening to people who are willing to share their experiences with us. Listening not from a mountain looking down, but from level ground, sitting beside those from whom we are learning.
Let’s not fool ourselves. God does not need the way cleared in order to break into the world. God can arrive anywhere and anytime that God wants to. It won’t be our preparation that somehow permits Jesus to be born or to return. But the preparation is good for us. It helps us focus on the good news that the valleys will be filled and the mountains made low and the rough places made smooth. No more of some people wielding power over others. No more hierarchies that keep some people trampled and others triumphant. In God’s vision of the world all the teams make the championship. All the people are the most intriguing. Everyone makes the “best of” list.
All flesh will see God’s salvation. All flesh.
To prepare the way means we live now as if that were already true – because it is. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” Luke 1:64
You might be wondering why John the Baptist has shown up in June. We’re used to meeting up with him during Advent, that season leading up to Christmas in which we usually find him shouting about preparing the way for his cousin Jesus. He comes back to us each January when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, where John does the honors in the Jordan River. We remember John as a colorful figure – dressed in camel’s hair, dining on locusts and wild honey, and yelling at anyone who would listen.
The images of adult John are so dramatic that it’s easy to forget he was once a baby. And like all babies, there’s a story surrounding his birth.
To get us ready for John’s origin story, I want you think back to a time when you lost your voice – from a cold, from laryngitis, from yelling too loudly for your favorite team. It’s frustrating not to be able to speak, isn’t it? I remember a Sunday morning here when I had no voice. I could basically only squeak out the words of institution during Holy Communion and had to delegate the rest. Poor Bill Fallon was the Assisting Minister and had to read my sermon. (Thank you again, Bill!) I remember how frustrating it felt not to be able to use my voice. On every other Sunday I had taken my voice for granted.
John’s parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth. We learn much earlier in the first chapter of Luke that Zechariah was a priest. Elizabeth also came from a priestly family and was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old, and they had given up any hope of having a child. But one day Zechariah is chosen as the priest who will enter a special part of the temple and offer incense to the Lord. He does so faithfully, but while he’s there, an angel appears to Zechariah to announce that he and Elizabeth will soon have a son, a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will point many people to the Lord. Zechariah is (understandably) terrified and overwhelmed. He asks some questions about this surprising news, and in return he loses his voice. He’s told that his voice will return only when the angel’s words have been fulfilled.
So one thing that we learn from the story of John’s birth is that sometimes being forced into silence can help us listen more deeply. Zechariah had a long time to ponder the predictions of that angel, to wonder what God had in store for the baby boy he still couldn’t quite believe was on its way, to prepare for the role of father – a role he never expected to have.
Sometimes silence makes space for someone else’s story to emerge. When I think of anything that I’ve truly come to understand in a different way, the times I have changed my mind about something important – those times were always shaped by the stories of people whose lives and experiences were completely different from mine. I needed to stop talking long enough to hear them.
Fast forward nine months or so, and we find ourselves picking up with today’s gospel. The baby arrives, much to the delight of his parents and all their friends and relatives. Eight days later they take him to the temple for his circumcision, fully intending to name the baby after his father. But Zechariah, still mute, grabs a tablet and writes, “His name is John.”
At that moment Zechariah is suddenly able to speak, which generates both fear and curiosity among the neighbors. What will this child become? they wonder.
Once Zechariah starts talking, he doesn’t hold back. He speaks of God’s story of salvation, the story of a God who keeps promises, including the promise to send a savior to rescue the people from despair and death. Listen to the power of his words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah knows his baby boy will grow up to be a part of that story, pointing people toward the promised arrival of the Savior. Maybe all parents imagine that their children will grow up to do amazing things. In this case Zechariah was absolutely right.
Silence has its power, but so does speech. The force of Zechariah’s words pushes me to consider how often I hold back when something needs to be said. We’ve all done it. We hesitate to tell people we’re Christian because we know the assumptions people will make about us. We see or hear something awful, but we choose not to challenge it because we fear the conflict that might result. We forget that God gives us both the gift of silence and the gift of words. Both can be used to bear witness to our faith.
Most of us won’t have the opportunity to deliver a barn-burner of a speech the way Zechariah does. But there will be many smaller moments that are just as powerful. Maybe your kid asks you a question at bedtime, and you’re not sure how to answer, but you try anyway. Maybe a friend or family member is trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world. Listen to their struggles, and share your own – including the challenges of approaching this crazy life as a follower of Jesus. These ways of using our voices may not seem significant, but they are. They are the holy ground on which we stand as we continue to grow and to learn.
One of my favorite podcasts has a weekly feature in which listeners call in to share the best thing that happened to them all week.
- My husband and I found out that we’re expecting our first child.
- United Airlines found the Kindle that I left on a plane last month and sent it back to me.
- I was able to celebrate my father’s 89thbirthday in Cleveland, Ohio with all three of my brothers who are scattered all over the country.
- I found the first black raspberry of the season.
- My dad came home from the hospital with a brand new lung after transplant surgery.
The best thing that happened to me this week was taking my 2½ year old on a bus ride. It was so much fun to sit beside him on the bus and have him sit up top and look at all the things below and get excited at everything he saw. Ooh. Mail truck! Ooh! Another bus! Ooh! A dog!…It was just so much fun to spend a few minutes seeing the world through his eyes, and it reminded me that I need to do it more often.
Hearing about Savitha’s time with her little boy made me smile. And this week it made me wonder why we’re so hesitant to talk about our faith. We often refer to the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the good news. But it’s not just the good news. It’s the best news. It’s the best thing that’s happened to us this week and every week. And yet we hold back, we hesitate, we get scared.
Savitha’s little boy pointed her attention toward things she probably wouldn’t have noticed that day. John grew up and pointed people’s attention toward Jesus, begging them not to overlook this Savior who was right there with them.
Does our salvation depend upon pointing others to Jesus? No. That salvation has already been accomplished by Jesus. But we can still introduce people to Jesus.
May we, like Zechariah, find our mouths opened and our tongues freed to share this good news, this best news, this light that comes to those who sit in darkness and guides our feet into the way of peace. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ