Preached by MJ Layton, Seminarian Intern
on Luke 3:1-6
At first glance, I don’t like this Gospel passage very much. But, before Fr Dominique and my Lay Support Team get too nervous, let me explain!
When I hear the word, “wilderness,” I think of my many backpacking trips in the White Mountains. Carrying my supplies on my back, hiking with friends, camping out, winding up and down the slopes and ridges — it’s exhausting and exhilarating, and there’s nothing quite like reaching the summit and seeing where you have come from and where you are going.
Then I read in our gospel that we’re going to level all that out? Bring down the mountains? Raise up the valleys? Smooth out the rocks and tangles?
Why on earth?!! Joni Mitchell put it quite aptly, “Why would you pave paradise to put up a parking lot?!” But even more than that, for me, the wilderness is a chance to know God more in his creation. The journey and the struggle, the mountaintops and the valleys are all important pieces of that. Why get rid of them?
But, that’s me, a 21st century woman, responding to a text written almost 2000 years ago, which itself is quoting words from about 600 years before that. As the first few verses of our passage tell us, in that a long list of hard to pronounce names, the context for our reading is that John the Baptist is preaching to the Jewish people in the first century AD, in the wilderness around the Jordan river, which at that time was something of a boundary marker for the region of Judaea. And, to John’s audience, the word wilderness meant something much, much different.
Wilderness for them would have conjured up images of their ancestors wandering in the desert for 40 years, in the very desert which lay just beyond the horizon from where John was preaching. God had rescued the Israelites’ ancestors from slavery in Egypt, but then because of their lack of faith in God, they had to wander in the desert for 40 years before they could enter the promised land, Canaan. 40 years of going up and down ridges and slopes, searching for water, eating manna provided by God, watching an entire generation die out and another one grow up in its place, one which would be willing to trust in God’s provision for them as they entered the promised land. It’s quite the consequence for sin. The long journey of the Exodus was such an important part of Israelite history, that this would have come to mind for John’s audience as they heard and considered his words. In this context, the leveling of mountains and the raising up of valleys and the smoothing out of roads becomes not a moment of destruction, but a promise, a promise that despite sin, lack of faith and disobedience, all flesh will see the salvation of God.
Here back in the 21st century, we don’t end up wandering through a desert for 40 years when we disobey God. But, our tendency to sin, and the consequences of our sin, can create a sort of wilderness for us in the here and now.
Friends, this is when our Gospel passage becomes Good News. “Prepare the way for the Lord! Fill in the valleys! Tear down the mountains! Make the way to God smooth!” This is the message of Advent, the message that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness 2000 years ago: God is coming. God will forgive our sins and heal our world. Be ready for him.
And there is one step that we can take to prepare for God’s coming while we are still in the wilderness. This one thing is the overarching message of Advent: repent, so that your sins will be forgiven. Repent. That’s it. Repentance will make the mountains feel lower and the valleys seem higher and the road we walk not quite so fraught with pitfalls.
However, it’s important that we understand what repentance is, because a misunderstanding of it can just make a personal wilderness feel even deeper and more entangling. Repentance is a turning around, a changing of mind, or maybe better, a renewing of our minds. It’s naming our sins and coming to grips with the idea that our own actions are harmful to ourselves and to others. It’s admitting that we are utterly dependent on God for forgiveness and for the strength to obey him and trust him.
The tricky part is, that sometimes we treat repentance like a chance to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be better people.” And, yes, the hope is that with repentance, our lives will change and we will trust God better and treat those around us with more love, more patience, and more respect. But so often when we attempt to change ourselves, we just end up doing the same old thing over and over again. And the more we fall into old patterns and old ruts, the bigger our wildernesses feel, and the longer the paths to God seem.
That is why such an important part of repentance is not only naming our sin, but naming that we are powerless to help ourselves out of our wildernesses. We repent, and God smooths out our paths for us. We repent, and God gives us the grace to trust him more and to love those around us more. And, taking it one step further, our repentance itself is a response to God’s grace given to us. The only way repentance can be real is if it begins with God’s grace and ends with God’s grace. Any attempt to change ourselves in our own power is futile. But God longs to offer us that grace and forgiveness and the first step towards seeing that in our lives is repentance.
And this is what the season of Advent is for. It is a season where we look forward to Jesus Christ’s return and to the time when God will make all things new. It is a season where we repent of our sins and thank God for his grace and his forgiveness. It is a season where, in the midst of our personal wilderness, we long for his coming and for the healing he will bring.
Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.