Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘coming’. For Christians, Advent is much more than just the run-up to Christmas. It is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, when we also look forward to Jesus’ return, at the end of time. This season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his second coming. It is perhaps worth noting that, as we prepare for the coming of the King, the hangings and frontals in our churches are purple – the colour associated with royalty.
The readings for the first two Sundays in Advent focused on God’s intervention in human history, by sending his Son “who became flesh and blood and moved into [our] neighbourhood” (The Message) and the preparations made for that extraordinary event. As we progress through Advent, to Christmas and beyond, we are invited to learn from those who were around at the time of Jesus’ nativity, and to join in with God’s plans in our 21st century setting.
Prophets were rarely popular – the hard-hitting messages they had to proclaim ensured that! – and John the Baptist was no exception, with his talk about the need for repentance. Yet people flocked to hear him, because he stressed, always, that he was pointing towards someone greater than himself. He was preparing the way. He knew that he was not the main act. He was simply the forerunner, the messenger. After him would come the One who was the Message … the One who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
God will bring his people home
John the Baptist’s role is foretold in Isaiah and brought to fulfilment in Luke. The promise of comfort for God’s people; their sin has been atoned for and the way forward will be made smooth. We marvel at God’s love for his rebellious people and his yearning to bring them home.
The people were waiting expectantly (Luke 3:15) Is Advent a time of expectant waiting for us? Or do we simply regard it as the run-up to Christmas and thus miss the point completely?
Comfort for God’s People
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfareis ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 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.’”
I may have said in the past that in the courtroom setting advocates sometimes challenge each other to use certain strange words in their speeches to the judge. Today I’m going to do the exact opposite and give you an assurance that there will be one word which will not be used in the next 18 minutes despite it being the word of the week. Nothing in this sermon will be nebulous! Or vague!
Jesus in real-time
First, thank you for the Luke reading. Apologies for the complicated names which had to be read out. Blame Luke. But actually, don’t blame him. There’s a reason those names were included. The book of John is very keen on strong concepts and ideas; a book written very much for Greek thinking people and very much a book which we in our modern society and our more abstract concepts are able to understand. The book of Mark is all action, hardly catching breath from beginning to end, a real storybook page turner. The book of Matthew was written predominantly for a Jewish readership and has many references back to the old Testament and Jewish concepts to appeal to its readers. Then there is Luke. Very different. He was a doctor, probably also a surgeon, undoubtedly with a good level of education and with a clearly forensic approach. Sometimes his book reads like a professional report, perhaps an autopsy on how death was likely to have occurred, perhaps an analysis of how someone may have had an injury or illness. He is concerned with facts, verifiable information, corroborative detail. He knows that what he is writing must stand up to a critical and perhaps dubious readership. So more than the other authors he fits what happens into actual current affairs, to fix the date and events occurring at the time.
So, the new Testament reading isn’t just stories plonked anywhere, anytime, anyplace, any situation, some fictitious setting where what matters is the story and not the back story. This is Jesus in real-time. This is Jesus of time and place. This is Jesus historical fact alongside other historical facts, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas. These well-known figures would have been remembered by readers of Luke’s account a couple of decades later. It puts John the Baptist in a specific time. So, let’s have none of this nice fairy story amongst singalong carols nonsense. In Luke’s gospel you are reading a professional report based on eyewitness accounts, in historic facts. This is Jesus in real-time, real person, real events and we should not have any anxiety about saying this
The wilderness passages
These two readings contain a common passage. So, when Luke was writing his report, presumably he went into his file manager, found his Isaiah, and did a simple cut-and-paste on Isaiah chapter 40 in verses 3 – 5. Well yes and no. Yes, he reports what John the Baptist quoted but no it’s not exactly what is recorded in Isaiah.
Sometimes in our law work it is necessary to take a clause from an agreement or a court order and put it into another document. And junior lawyers come to me and what they have done is they have paraphrased or loosely adopted what was in the original. And every time I say don’t do it. It gives rise to the risk of disputes and litigation between the original wording and the paraphrase or loose adoption of the original. Always use the original.
But sometimes it is deliberate. A slight but crucial variation on the original to make a point.
And I think this is what happened with John the Baptist using the Isaiah passage. I can’t believe this is simply an error by Luke or by those who subsequently translated. I confess I only noticed myself as I studied for this sermon even though I have read it, and heard it read, many times.
Let me explain.
In Isaiah, the people of Israel have been transported to Babylon. It occurs between chapters 39 and 40. A voice cries out. Not identified but it doesn’t matter here. It says, in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway for our God. Some translations say: prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Where is this highway for our God? It’s in the wilderness.
Fast forward to John. We certainly have a voice crying out but this time John tells us where the voice is. It is a voice calling in the wilderness. What does that voice say: prepare the way for the Lord. Place undefined and certainly not necessarily in the wilderness
This is different. In one it is prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. In the other it is the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. What is this and what does it mean for us?
Well of course at one level it could be simple syntax. And don’t worry: this is not a sermon about syntax. But many of you will have read the popular book about 15 years ago which said it all in the title: eats shoots and leaves. With a comma after eats, it is someone, say a cowboy, who has a meal, gets up, shoots the baddie and then departs. Without a comma, it is something such as a giant panda whose diet consists of shoots and leaves. Syntax matters. But syntax is a very recent invention. It certainly wasn’t much developed in the time of Isaiah and not much more developed in the time of Luke. Indeed it was still making progress in the time of Shakespeare. So one simple answer is that Isaiah or John or Luke was careless with their syntax.
I don’t buy this. First, Scripture is divinely inspired and created and whatever human failings of the authors, we have a God who created all things including the semicolon. I believe that the spirit of God inspired the authors of holy Scripture both originally and those involved in the translation process and, as we now have it, simple errors are not there. Secondly, John the Baptist had a message. He had gone out into the wilderness where many had gathered around him and it was there where he was preaching. I think he adapted Isaiah. And I don’t think we should be critical.
Because surely both are relevant to us today. First, to prepare a way for the Lord, to prepare for his coming, to speak his gospel, into a wilderness situation. Secondly, for us who are in any form of wilderness experience to cry out the gospel message, yes to those also in the wilderness but particularly those in the comfort of their armchairs without an awareness of their need for that gospel message. Let me look at each.
But first what did wilderness mean. What did Isaiah intend? In the old Testament it is interchangeable with Desert. This is not the sand dunes of parts of the Sahara. This is rough sand and rock with some patchy vegetation. It would include areas where one would find, with difficulty, some grazing. It would be, in hot climates, a place often without water. It was mountainous and hilly. It was certainly the area between the Lake of Galilee and the dead Sea and the area between Jerusalem going down into Jericho and the Jordan Valley. Rough areas, difficulty in sustaining life, harsh surroundings, not a place most would want to live or stay very long.
And we have used that word in many ways. We think of people like Churchill having his wilderness years. We think of people once in power now in the wilderness. In terms of resources, we think about areas of the country which are wildernesses or deserts without fast broadband or effective social services or libraries. For people with mental health problems we think of them being in a wilderness all on their own. We do not live in a wilderness in the Surrey Hills nor is there any wilderness remotely close to us here. But it’s a concept in regular usage.
What was Isaiah thinking about?
The voice crying out is in the form of a Herald. Make way, make way, the King approaches. But a king is in a royal palace. The king has a red carpet laid on stone or straw or wood. Isaiah has something very different in mind for the king who will be coming, the saviour and Messiah. This God, this King is far greater than has ever been known before. Look at all of the barriers in the way and yet he overcomes them all. A way is prepared in an area of shifting sands and rubble where paths rarely last long. Moreover, it’s a straight highway. Not following the contours. Not diverging around the bends of rivers. A magnificent straight highway. Isaiah goes on. He says every Valley will be lifted up and every mountain made low. I had thought originally that this was in praise because the reference to lifted up. But I believe what it means is that the very landscape will be flattened, valleys filled in and mountains no longer an obstacle. Here is an incredible example which would have been understood by everyone then who had undoubtedly spent time frustratingly making little progress in travelling in the wilderness because of the contours and landscape features. Now there would be a straight highway.
I’m reading a book on Watling Street. It goes from Dover and the white cliffs up to Anglesey in North Wales. Originally created as a pathway by the ancient Britons, Celts and Druids, it was taken over by the Romans. But they got rid of all of the obstacles, and produced a straight flat highway. Ariel photographic evidence shows where the original route went slowly and laboriously around the landscape which the conquering Romans just ignored and overcame.
Our God is that conquering God who can overcome the landscape, the hard terrain, the obstacles and creates a straight highway to salvation.
We are all in different ways, and at different times in our lives more than other times, in the wilderness, struggling to find our way, struggling to find the path forward, struggling up mountains and down valleys. This may be in our relationships, or lack of relationships. This may be struggles with our work or finding a sense of purpose in our life. It may be a wilderness of physical illness or being unwell in any other way. It might be that we realise we are in a spiritual wilderness, and we think we can find some semblance of a way out, a way forward, and we want to but just can’t. In our wilderness, whatever that may be, the way of the Lord is straight, level, and leads out of the wilderness. Wanting to find that way of the Lord, seeking it with our heart and our life commitment means we will find it. That is the promise of God to all of us all the time.
In our wildernesses, a way has been prepared, straight, level and able for us to walk even in the rough places. We are not alone in our wilderness. The Lord walks on his highway and invites us to join him.
Then we have John the Baptist. He knew this passage well. It is a so-called messianic prophecy. It foretells the coming of the Lord. And he knew he had been sent as the messenger. The Messiah was not potentially years or decades ahead. He knew the Messiah was coming now. Perhaps because of persecution in the cities, John and his followers lived in the wilderness. John saw himself as the answer to the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 40. It was his role to call out that the way of the Lord was now coming soon. He proclaims a baptism which leads to forgiveness of sins. He goes on to say that baptism itself without true repentance which showed itself in good deeds was no real baptism at all.
For him and his work and calling, Isaiah chapter 40 was fundamental and is at the very start of Luke’s record about John. But John does not say he is preparing a path in the wilderness. John deliberately in my opinion slightly changes the text of Isaiah to say that the Herald calling that the coming king is now calling from the wilderness; not that the way is through the wilderness. I believe we too call out to those around us but from a different place to them.
We are in the world but not of the world. We live our lives in the culture of this world but our minds and bodies have been transformed by the counterculture of the kingdom of God. We march alongside those around us but our earphones are playing a different tune. We have hopes and ambitions alongside our work colleagues and neighbours but our hope and expectation is spending eternity with our saviour. We are in a different place, however much we may ourselves realise it
Moreover sometimes we need to gather together, come apart from the world, to regroup, to consolidate, to think carefully and clearly, to commune better with our saviour God and to understand better the message for our friends and all with whom we walk in this world. We do that on a Sunday morning. We do it in our home groups. We do it at other times.
And we should not be surprised when abuse and criticism is directed to us. To us in our own separate place, where our kingdom values apply. When we are looked down on, condescendingly and sometimes even pityingly for having this so-called faith in Christ. When we are written off by others as, like John, a merely an insignificant voice calling out from the wilderness.
Remember that Jesus totally endorsed John as the messenger. That Jesus himself went into the wilderness many times, to think, to pray, to reflect and to be quiet with God the Father. That Jesus had his wilderness times, tempted in the wilderness and yet holding onto Scripture. Most of all Jesus entered into the wilderness of isolation from God when he died at Easter and yet victoriously overcame death and sin on our behalf on Easter Sunday.
We should have no worries about seeming at times to be a voice calling out from the wilderness.
And what was their message
Finally, what is that call? Isaiah and John agree. Isaiah says: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. John says it much more briefly. And all people will see God’s salvation.
Isaiah and John were both messengers, waiting for the coming of the Lord. The technical advent, coming. We are waiting for the carol service this evening. We are waiting for Christmas Day. We are waiting and preparing to celebrate Jesus birth. But we are not waiting for the coming of the Lord. What Isaiah and John looked forward to, we look back on. It has happened. The Messiah, the saviour, the Lord, has come. As we will hear in the carol service readings, he became flesh and blood and moved into our neighbourhood, to quote the paraphrase reading from The Message. He lived among ordinary human men and women. He lived as an ordinary human man and woman. He had all the same problems and issues which we have known and may yet face us. The same temptations. The same troubles. Different in type with a different culture and environment. But essentially the same. This baby Jesus grew up as we grew up. But he was perfect. He lived without failings and sin. He lived to be our saviour. We await the celebration of the coming of Christ but the real celebration is not so much the coming but the being as us and the saving of us.
For centuries since Isaiah and John, man has believed that human capacity for reason and ingenuity was our guarantee of greater and greater progress. It was inherent in Greek philosophy. It was the European Enlightenment. It was the French Revolution and indeed some might say the American Revolution however much wrapped up in Christian language. Political and cultural ideologies and beliefs systems have tried to find the best way for living, individually and together, in a way which satisfied. In our present time, two very popular books, homo sapiens and homo Deus, ironically written by a Jewish professor at a university in Israel, have filled imaginations of what man has accomplished and could accomplish.
But it has failed and will fail. Our human capacity alone is not enough for us. And all this while, out in the wilderness a voice is crying. Offering us an alternative. An alternative to our confidence in ourselves alone. To share in his work of re-creation. To build the highway so that any who want peace, reconciliation, comfort and forgiveness can walk straight and flat to the saviour.
Christ invites us this Christmas to come to him, to join him, to walk his highway, to find his peace, his comfort and joy, his new life