Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 5, 2021
Luke 3:1-6 Commentary
This week and next we are listening to John the Baptist, who is set up here as a prophet. The signs are obvious (once you know how to see them). First, there’s the clear shift in the text from chapter 2, as Luke provides political context to pinpoint the actual historical moment that John’s message went out. Based on the details, John was leading people through the baptism of repentance in 28 or 29 CE. Second, in verse 2, “the word of God came to John,” which is the same sort of formula that populates the Old Testament Prophets’ calling narratives. This is not just something John thinks is important; it is a message that the Spirit of God has laid upon him to share.
What is different, however, is how John’s message isn’t just for the leaders, for the whole nation, or even given in one geographical location. Instead, John is described as “coming from the wilderness” and going “all around.” Presumably, the reference is to the Jordan River, which runs north of, and between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea; that’s about 251 km or 156 miles long. Unlike prophets of old, John doesn’t go to all of the leaders or prophesy about the nations of Israel and Judah; he goes to the people of God directly by taking the invitation from God on the road, making it accessible to everyone with ears to hear and a heart ready to receive.
I’ve been living with physical disabilities for the last decade. They are the kind that others can’t see, but that truly and significantly limit my ability to participate in sustained physical exertion. So, when I listen to John’s words from God for the people in verse 5, I have images of shoveling and packing and lifting and moving heavy objects in order to prepare and make a roadway, and I get really antsy. I know I can’t do any of those things, even though I feel responsible for being part of the good work of the kingdom of God. And that makes me really nervous and unsure of myself. I imagine that there are people like me in your congregation. I also imagine that there are people in your congregation who jump on the chance to get at it! They like to be busy, useful, game changers and are chomping at the bit for a good project…
The thing is, people like me and people-who-are-almost-the-opposite-of-me don’t hear this passage correctly.
Like the accessibility demonstrated in John’s travelling prophecy and baptism “business,” the true depiction of the coming of the Lord, based on Isaiah 40, is accessible to everyone. Yes, we are commanded to prepare the way of the Lord, but then, as shown in the textual point below, the rest of the work of doing so is done by God. Like when God held back the Red Sea so that the Israelites could walk across on dry ground, God is at work to make the path smooth and open to everyone. All of the obstacles to both God’s coming and our going with him once he is here, are being taken care of by his mighty hand.
Getting ourselves ready, making straight the path to our heart, is enough work for us in and of itself. I think that’s why John’s prophecy is paired with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. No matter when or what kind of baptism it was, scripturally, baptism always signifies some sort of washing or cleansing. It also has calling overtones. In fact, it is believed that when John the Baptist led people through the experience of the baptism for repentance, he did so in a way that mimicked the Israelites’ entry into the promised land after their forty years in the wilderness—moving east from the wilderness through the Jordan River into the promised land of Israel on the west bank. Moving east to west is also the general direction of every return home Israel and Judah made from exile. (Assyria and Babylon were both to the east, but the actual exile road was likely north-south along the Jordan before turning east-west.)
Re-enacting entering the promised land is to re-orient and re-center one’s self on the purposes of God, which is the second part of repentance. Once we’ve confessed what is not right, the other action that makes up our turning is to commit ourselves to the opposite action—to the way of God. And we do this because we are forgiven. We aren’t trying to earn it or make up for it, but out of the grace of forgiveness that washes over us, we know we can repent without fear and re-commit ourselves to God.
Even this grace-filled cycle speaks to the accessibility work of our amazing God. We know that John is telling the people to prepare for the ministry of Jesus without anyone really knowing who Jesus was or why he mattered so much. But through Jesus’ incarnated life, ministry, and death, Jesus made himself the mediator and the way for us to God. And like the message had meaning for Israel when the prophet spoke them (Isaiah 40) as well as when John spoke them, we know that they hold meaning for us today. Now, they speak of Jesus Christ’s accessibility work for the new heaven and earth. We continue to prepare for his return through repentance and committing ourselves to the way of God marked by baptism, but we do so in trust that God’s promise to eternally establish his kingdom will be done by him; we continue to prepare our hearts to receive his ways so that the turning is a little more natural.
Not to worry, next week we get to hear the continuation of John the Baptist’s cries from the wilderness. We’ll hear descriptions of what kind of life we are invited to commit ourselves to when we follow the way of repentance and baptism. It’s to follow, as it turns out, the way of Christ. So this week, it is our opportunity to celebrate and rest in what God is and will do. To celebrate the way that God works so that more and more people will come to know him and the truth, and will be enabled to live that truth.
From John being given a word that he then takes on the road so that more people can hear it, to God blowing up mountains and filling in valleys to come and get us, God is doing what needs to be done so that more and more of us will live with him. If we were to look at these two weeks as depicting both sides of the covenant, this week’s emphasis is definitely on God’s side of the commitment. Understanding and sticking with that awareness this week will make the invitations we hear next week all the more rich.
Verse 4 has the commands prepare and make straight, but verse 5’s description of the changes to the landscape are in in the future passive, and are not imperatives (the verbal form for commands). We can interpret verse 5, then, as “divine passives” since the person doing the action of the verb is not specified. (Instead, the subjects of the sentence- every valley, mountain, hill- receive the action of verb.) They are divine passives because in Scripture, God is often understood to be the one doing the action of these no-acter-specified passive verbs. Again underscoring that we make the path straight and prepare for the Lord, but God does all the big work.
Do you remember being a kid at a sleep over and wanting to go home? Whether it was because you didn’t feel well, or you were being picked on, you did something embarrassing and just wanted to hide from your peers, or you were uncomfortable from the peer pressure to do something you didn’t want to do, most of us can remember a time when we wished our mom or dad would come and rescue us. When we felt that way, we had all of our stuff packed up and we were as close to the door as possible: we were prepared to get out of there! The relief and the hope of that moment when our parent showed up reminds me of that feeling of hope depicted in Luke 3 as God fills every valley, levels every mountain, straightens every bend in the road, smoothing out the stumbling blocks, and comes to us to bring us back home on that same road. The relief. The safety. The love. The protection and understanding of a parent. All of this is ours when Christ returns.
When the Transcontinental Railroad was being built in the US after the Civil War, the Central Pacific Railroad (going from West to East) laid 690 miles while the Union Pacific Railroad (going from East to West) laid 1086 miles, meeting in Promontory, Utah. The reason why the Central Pacific Railroad company laid so much less track is because they had to engineer and prepare the way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While the Central Pacific Railroad was making the path “straight” through the mountain pass, the Union Pacific Railroad company covered four times the amount of ground through the flat American plains. When we consider both the commands to prepare and to make the path for the Lord straight, and that God takes charge for levelling the valleys, hills and mountains, we can be extremely thankful.
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