2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son Zechariah in the desert.”[Lk 3:1-3]
The gospel of Luke provides an historical context for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. We are presented with seven names and five regions; some sound familiar, others not so much. But who cares? Why didn’t the writer save us the history lesson and just say “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”?
Luke was a brilliant writer who wanted his readers to grasp the theological significance of the Word of God coming not to the powerhouse of governors in Roman occupied Palestine or the appointed tetrarchs and high priests in their temples, but to a poor and humble man, a seeker of truth who lived in the desert and survived on locusts and honey [MT 3:4]
What else has Luke told us about John the Baptist up to this place in the gospel? We know he was the only child of a priest named Zechariah and a woman named Elizabeth who was thought to be barren. We know that his conception was announced by an angel named Gabriel to his incredulous father as he offered incense in the sanctuary of the Lord. Luke also tells us that Gabriel informed Zechariah that his son (who Gabriel said would be named John) would be great, and among other things, “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” [Lk 1:16-17]. We know that Elizabeth felt the unborn infant, John, leap in her womb when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, greeted her. And we know, as today’s reading tells us, that the word of God came to John in the desert, after which his mission to fulfill the heraldic prophecy of Isaiah began.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” [Lk 3:4-6; Is 40:3–4]
In the first reading for the second Sunday of Advent, the Prophet Baruch envisions the long-suffering, exiled Israelites returning in glory from the East and the West to a restored and splendorous Jerusalem, rejoicing because “they are remembered by God” [Bar 5:1-9]. In the verse which inspired John the Baptist’s mission the Prophet Isaiah prophesied that the way to God would be made smooth and straight, free of obstacles and barriers. John understood his mission clearly: he was to prepare the way of the Lord so that all people could follow in the light of God’s glory. For him, the first requirement was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” [Lk 3:3]
Repentance. Who likes this word? Nobody, that’s who. But it is true that many of the rough and winding roads we traverse are of our own making, and it is true that we hurt others along the way. We do damage that separates us from God. Like John the Baptist, the task of every disciple is to prepare smooth and straight highways not just for one’s own spiritual journey, but for all people so it is accessible to anyone who wishes to come along.
We’re talking about forgiveness and reconciliation here.
The desert is a place of diminished distraction. It is a place we go to get away and clear our heads. In the desert our senses are enhanced; we are acutely aware of the vastness of space and our solitude. But for the hint of critters scuttling through the sand, the desert is silent. It can also be dangerous. A desert experience, whether it is literal or figurative, is similar to a spiritual retreat. Away from the metropolis, away from the hubbub we go inward to examine, renew and rebalance ourselves. Vulnerability is central to both desert experiences and retreats and this makes both risky; without distraction we come face to face with our hopes and fears, our dreams, our failures and our losses; and the clamor of our thoughts force us to acknowledge those things we need to repent.
Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.[Psalm 126:6]
Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways, permit yourself the freedom to change directions, to repent and forgive, and leave open a space into which the Word of God can enter. Advent offers us such an experience. Let’s take advantage of it.