First Congregational Church
December 6, 2015
Second Sunday in Advent
“Preparing the Way of the Lord One Valley, One Brick at a Time”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Back in the wild West, a stranger stands at a saloon bar. Suddenly a cowboy runs in screaming, “Hey, everybody, Big Bad John is coming to town.” Several others exclaim: “Big Bad John is the meanest, toughest, biggest outlaw in the West. Let’s run for it.” Everyone heads for the door except the stranger and the bartender. The bartender says, “Are you deaf, mister? Big Bad John is coming!” The stranger replies, “I don’t know who he is, but he can’t be all that big and bad. I’m not afraid.” So the stranger and the bartender wait. Soon the saloon doors fly off their hinges, and a mountain of a man stomps through the door. Covered with scars and sporting a scowl, he demands a drink. The bartender meekly complies. The stranger nervously thinks to himself, “Now I wish I had run away; this guy is the biggest, meanest-looking outlaw I’ve ever seen.” The outlaw downs the drink in one gulp, slams it down on the bar, then turns and looks the stranger coldly in the eye to announce, “I don’t know about you, stranger, but I’m gettin’ outta here. I don’t wanna be here when Big Bad John comes in!”
It is a different John that is at the center of our scripture passage this morning, and definitely not from the wild West, although it was wild. Scott Hoezee from Calvin Seminary described the scene as “a wilderness wasteland, coming to land at the calloused and filthy foot of a wild ox of a man called John. He’s got wild honey dripping off his scraggly beard and is arrayed in something that could best be described as resembling the fur of some road-kill animal from the side of a highway. He’s got a distant look in his eye, as though at any moment he might lunge forward and begin to spout off whatever fool things came into his head. In some ways, what John says sounds like fool things coming off the top of his head.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar - when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
Thank you, John. There is a part of me that is fascinated at large machinery. In fact, in a delusional moment in high school, I took the military test to see if I would qualify to drive bulldozers and derricks and such. For those wondering, I passed.
In Minnesota, just as it is in Michigan, there are really just two seasons: winter and road construction. One hour commute one-way, pre-Frankfort day, I drove up on a construction site that had massive potential to make me late for work. The first things were the big roller machines that compact asphalt, and in front of that was the machinery that lays asphalt. But in front of that was a machine that was mixing asphalt and in front of that was a machine that was scraping up and picking up the old asphalt. It may have been a mile, but the line up of eating up old road, chewing it up and spitting it back down as brand new road - was marvelous!
In a similar fashion there online videos - equally as cool and fascinating - of machines that lay down bricks like a giant, heavy ribbon, in a herringbone pattern for a new road - like giant sheets of bricks. Although all those machines are not cheap, they are SO over the top awesome - in my mind, anyway. If only we could get those sorts of machines for highway 115….
So I had those sorts of machines in mind when I read this morning’s passage, especially in how easy it would be to fill valleys and level mountains and hills - even making straight roads. Except that the passage is not really about hills and valleys. And way too much mountain-top skimming and land-filling is happening these days.
We know the passage is not really about hills and valleys because of all those names at the front of it. Previously, I would have glossed right over those names. But again, Scott Hoezee made the names plain. He said, they are “seven names of the high ranking folks of that time. Today the list would be headlined by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Paul Ryan. If it were a narrative taking place in New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio might get thrown into the mix. These are the big names, Luke is saying.”
The paving of the way is a big thing - bigger than the powerful governmental headliners - of any era. And John the Baptist’s message is to get ready, because the one that is to come is more powerful than any element that could flatten hills and mountains, and this one yet to come will take us home. So we prepare our hearts in this season for the celebration of the powerful one that God sent - in the form of a newborn baby. The irony is huge! What was expected turns out to be unexpected.
Regardless of glitz and glitter of any season, and despite precautions to get rest and eat well, we all are apt to `overlook the small and seemingly insignificant and overlooked. Last week’s message was about doing our duty, not getting wigged out by all that seems terrifying in the world, praying for those who need our prayers, lifting up those who need lifting up.
This week’s message is somewhat similar in regards to duty, plus preparing the way. As David Lose from workingpreacher.org says, “Maybe it’s not an Emperor that makes life miserable, maybe it’s just a difficult colleague or unhappy marriage. Maybe it’s not a Roman procurator that oppresses, but instead a struggle with addiction to alcohol, drugs, or porn. Maybe it’s not governors that threaten to destroy, but instead feeling lost at school or work with no real friends. Maybe it’s not rulers and priests that overwhelm, but instead a struggle with depression, grief or loneliness.”
Those things are hard enough to do at any given time of year, much less at holiday time. And then throw on the social expectations of holiday cheer and joy and why bother? Besides, we know what’s coming. We’ve done this preparation/anticipation thing so many years, maybe we struggle with the guilt of feeling little if any anticipation about the coming of Christ again as a child, much less in his second coming. Just leave me alone to fight my way through the stores, unpack the ornaments (if I even make it to putting them up), let me eat too much and leave me alone.
God didn’t ask the prepared, the educated, those who had asked. God asked people of no significant consequence to play an important part in the history of understanding God’s love. We know Elizabeth and Zechariah were without hope of a child, and ta-da - wild and wooly John. We know Mary had some important genealogical history, but that was all the kid had going for her. And God gives her the ability to not only bear the Savior of the world, but to bear the looks of suspicion and contempt that had to have been hurled her way during her pregnancy. Same thing for Joseph.
Our assistance in road-building for God’s love is not something more than we can do, because God would not ask it of us if we weren’t able to do it. And God doesn’t require that we do it all at once, either. So we can enter into this “preparation,” this helping to bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth with one valley and mountain and brick at a time.
This morning each of us have the opportunity to lift a brick or shovel-full of preparation when we come forward to partake of our Lord’s Supper. Goofy analogy, yes. But God started it. In sharing the bread and cup, we remind ourselves that this preparation for the coming Christ is not something we do alone - that we have each other - and God’s Holy Spirit, to set the stage for the gift God have for each of us in God’s love, mercy, grace and joy.
Let us pray. Gracious ever present, ever reaching out God, we thank you for reminding us of our holy job with you. Thank you for reminding us that all of us have a purpose and part of leveling hills of hatred and filling valleys of love, that the path of your salvation is smooth and straight for others to walk upon. When we are weary, help us be aware of those who share the yoke with us, and when others seem to be overwhelmed, help us to see how we can lean into their burdens. For the gift of your son, who came once and will come again, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.