“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