Luke 3: 1-6
St. Luke’s Burlington
By Stuart Pike
I have been amazed at how quickly outdoor Christmas decorations have gone up on houses in the streets of Burlington. We’ve got lights, stars, giant candy canes and next door to us lives a life-size Santa who sings to us each evening and joyfully laughs ho ho ho! Many people do this year after year because it brings to mind the many happy Christmases they have experienced over the years. It’s about preparing their homes. For some it is about making their home a familiar place of welcome for their adult children who are returning home for the holidays.
Some people are way more organized than I am. They must have the Boy Scout or Girl Guide gene in them. They are so prepared for Christmas. The concept of preparation is certainly what the season of Advent is about. So what do we prepare for, and how do we prepare?
Yes, we know we are definitely in the season of Advent when John the Baptist shows up in our readings. Like last year on Advent 2, the theme from the Old Testament and the Gospel includes the idea of the mountains being made low and the valleys being filled up to make a level highway. The idea of preparation, here is about preparing a highway, a way to travel easily.
This year in our readings we hear about two highways: one is a highway for the people of God.
This year the Prophet Baruch speaks of this level ground as the way the exiles will return to Jerusalem from their captivity. He writes to the city of Jerusalem to the small remnant of Jews who are left bereft. And he gives them a vision of hope and glory: their lost ones will return:
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. … Look toward the east, and see your children gathered from the west and east at the word of the Holy One. The highway in Baruch is a highway for the people of God to travel on. It is a way for them, who had been in exile, to return home.
The other highway is the one referred to by the Gospel lesson in describing the John the Baptist as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “prepare ye 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…”
I can hear the music from Handel’s Messiah as I think about it!
This highway is a highway, then for the Lord. John prepares and asks us to prepare a way because God himself is coming and John wants there to be nothing to impede God’s coming.
So how do we actually prepare a way for the Lord? What does it entail? When I hear John the Baptist describe the mountains being made low and the valleys being lifted up, I am reminded of the road which I travelled many times in my first parish in order to get the farthest Church in my 10 church parish. It was about 90 kms ‘way up in the mountains. It was the copper mining town called Murdochville. It was a winding road full of ups and downs. It would follow the curve of a mountain here, descend and go along the side of a river there, then cross a bridge, turn and climb another mountain, and repeat the process over and over until you got to your destination.
The local wisdom was that the engineer who built the road simply followed a bunny-rabbit! Remembering the roller-coaster ride it was – particularly during the long icy winter - I often thought that the engineer could have benefitted from a consultation with the Baptist!
John’s baptism, the Gospel says, is a baptism of repentance. This word doesn’t get a lot of use in our secular society. When people do hear it, they think “repentance” means to seriously grovel. The popular image associated with the word is one of a fire and brimstone preacher yelling at the congregation and convincing them how evil they are and how they must turn or burn! Grovel in the dust!
I haven’t tried preaching one of those yet - tempting as it is! Perhaps it is because the only truth which I see to that whole image is the idea of turning. Repentance isn’t about grovelling – but it is about movement and changing direction. Repentance is about aligning our way to God’s way. Sometimes in our life it is means making a huge change: like an about face. But more often, it is about the more day to day course corrections – making sure that we are in tune with God’s will and way for us.
This day to day repentance sounds very much like making straight the highway.
It is about taking away things: removing mountains: getting rid of whatever it is in our life which impedes our progress to God. Remove the distractions which are not life-giving. But it is also about adding things: filling in the valleys: adding a spiritual practice which fills a need enabling us to grow spiritually.
Advent is a time for you to take stock of your life and consider adding to or subtracting from it. All of it for the purpose of preparing your heart for God. Because however you understand the highway, it is one which is built in the heart. Try looking at what St. Luke’s is offering you, to enable you to build this highway in your heart.
What I love about the readings today is that when I was ruminating about two highways – one for the people to return home, and one for our God to approach us, I suddenly realized that it is the same highway!
Baruch’s highway is about us returning home. Perhaps some of us think that we never left home in the first place, but on closer scrutiny we realize that much of the restlessness of our lives has been because there has always been a call, planted deep within our heart to come home. To a deeper home than we have ever experienced so far in our lives, no matter how happy a home life we remember.
John’s highway is about God coming to us – to be in our midst. It reminds us of God coming to us in Christ at the birth of Jesus. It also speaks of our faithful hope for Jesus’ return at the end of time.
It might seem that Baruch’s highway for the people, and John’s highway for God means that God and the people are at opposite ends rushing toward a head-on collision somewhere in the middle. Only, in Jesus Christ, we realize that God and human are found in the same person. This highway of our heart is one which is travelled with Jesus beside us as our companion on the way.
In these days before Christmas then, as we prepare our homes to celebrate the holy feast of Christ’s coming, remember that the most important preparing which you can do is inside: preparing your heart for Jesus. Amen.