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The Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
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.'”
Sermon for Advent 2C 12-9-18 CAK The Rev Patrick J Wingo
The first time I went up to Sewanee to visit a friend, I drove from Birmingham up toward Chattanooga onI-59, and then took I-24 toward Nashville.
As you may know, it’s beautiful scenery, and on that drive I was struck by how huge the road construction project must have been to cut through the mountain.
According to people who have been going there for a long time, it used to be quite a trip to drive up the mountain on two-lane roads to get to Sewanee.
There is also a train track that goes up the mountain that was built in 1853 to haul coal and people down from the mountain down to Chattanooga to the east and Nashville to the northwest.
That train line was called the Mountain Goat railroad because at the time it was built it was the steepest slope in the world for a railroad.
I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to build those roads and train lines, especially in the days when heavy machinery was either very rudimentary or non-existent.
And yet this massive construction project, one that attempted to make crooked roads a little straighter and mountains low, is very different from the kinds of construction projects imagined by today’s readings.
The central image in the readings from Baruch and St Luke’s gospel has to do with mountains and hills being made low and valleys being filled up because something is coming, or more importantly, someone is coming.
John the Baptist preaches about crooked roads being made straight and rough ways being made smooth, and given what we know about how difficult it has been in the 19th and 20th centuries to build roads over mountains, its hard to imagine ancient people having the ability to undertake those kind of massive construction projects.
But of course we know that in the ancient world there were huge construction projects as well, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Roman Coliseum, and the Great Wall of China, to name a few.
Ancient people were often motivated to undertake these projects by their religious or societal beliefs, or for safety or economic purposes.
But filling up valleys and bringing mountains low had very specific motivations in the minds of the biblical writers who we hear from today.
According to the Old Testament theologian Walter Bruggemann, highways were made straight, mountains moved, and rough ways were made plain so that a victorious king could return home in glory after a battle.
The highway construction project was primarily for a processional event, so that the way home could be dramatic, quick and visible.
In other words, the biblical writers were thinking about a parade route, so that all people could see the glory of the returning victor.
When the writer of Baruch said to the people of Israel, “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God, “ he was speaking to an oppressed people who had been taken away into exile by the Babylonians.
He was assuring them that they would eventually be in the parade, that God would come and release them from exile, and that there would be a straight path back to their homeland.
And this did happen, about 500 years before Jesus, when the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and sent the Hebrew people back to their homes.
The prophets of the time attributed this release to God’s activity in human affairs, and John theBaptist revisited that same feeling of oppression and release in his own preaching, assuring the people that it was time for another parade, and that God was again bringing freedom from sin to God’s people through the victor who would soon come.
There was a time in my life when I didn’t like parades.
I’m sure I must have liked them as a child, but then when I got older something changed.
I think it started when I was in high school.
I remember one year I participated in designing and building the class float for the homecoming parade, which we did every night of the week leading up to the Friday afternoon when the parade actually took place.
On those fall evenings, when we were at someone’s house under a couple of floodlights sticking crepe paper into chicken wire, we thought that our float must certainly be the best ever built for any parade at our school.
Then I actually saw the float in the parade on Friday afternoon, in the light of day, and I suddenly hoped it wasn’t the worst ever built and we wouldn’t be laughed out of school because of it.
Suddenly parades weren’t that fun anymore. I found the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade boring. The Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl parades were just time-killers before we got to watch the football game.
Then, a few years ago, something changed again. My own children started being in parades.
We would drop them off with their class or their scout troop or whatever group they were marching or riding with, and then we would go to pick out a spot to wait for the parade to go by.
And as the Fraternal Order of Police, the clowns, the politicians, the fire engines, the bands, and the homecoming king and queen passed by throwing candy and smiling, I changed my mind about parades, because I knew what would be coming soon: my own child, the one I was waiting to see.
That anticipation made the rest of the parade fun, and although I didn’t reflect on it at the time, I’m sure it must have had something to do with an awareness that most people in the crowd were anticipating exactly the same thing: the sight of someone they loved marching or riding by, as if they were kings or princesses or champions, as if they were on their way to Cinderella’s ball or the big game.
Mountains will be made low, and valleys will be filled up. The parade route will be laid for the one who is coming soon, God’s victor, Jesus, the one whom John theBaptist promised would bring God’s salvation. The victory is God’s conquest of sin, bringing us out of the oppression of sin’s power.
And the parade that John proclaims is coming is a celebration that through Jesus we will learn what it means to be made in the image of God, we will learn how to become more than we have been, but also understand that we are still less than we shall be in Christ.
The victory parade is because something is going to change in us—the ability to love the unloveable, or accept someone’s shortcomings, a release from the captivity of addiction, a deeper understanding of the gift and grace of life that could only come fromGod.
The parade is a celebration that we are learning to trust in God, to trust that all will be well, even when it looks like it will not, to trust thatGod does love us, and that God loves and lives in the lives of others, even when it seems that God does not.
And we trust that we do not have to climb mountains and fill valleys to make our own way to God, because God is already doing that work for us.
God is laying out the parade route, and in Advent we await and anticipate the ones who will come by who we most want to see. They are following a bright light.
First there will be some shepherds, herding along their wooly charges; then comes a man and a very pregnant woman who is riding on a donkey. Finally there will be a child, who, for the life of us we cannot imagine being the focal point of the parade, but who is in fact the one we have been waiting for all along, the child who is the king, the victor.
Yes, I’m ready now. I almost can’t wait. I love a parade. Amen.