There’s a voice in the wilderness crying, a call from the ways untrod:
Prepare in the desert a highway, a highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low;
Make straight all the crooked places where the Lord our God may go!
This Advent hymn perfectly captures the excitement of the herald on the desert road, calling people to prepare a way for the coming king.
Even today, in desert landscapes the long roads from one town to another always need repairs after a winter’s winds and rains. In Jesus’ day, the major Roman roads were made of stone, but throughout the empire other roads were still tracks through dirt and sand. So at the end of each winter, the highways needed to be made smooth again…. the rock slides cleared off, the deep holes filled…..the drifts of sand swept away.
The prophet Isaiah, whose words are repeated again and again in the New Testament
(although we may recognize Isaiah’s words from Handel’s Messiah!) says –
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:3-5
And now the prophecy is retold by Luke, with John the Baptist as the herald. Like all heralds, John’s job is to clear the way for the One who is coming next. But also — and here John the Baptist sounds a new note — those who serve the coming king will not only smooth out the rough places and fill in the potholes so the king can come to his people: this king is going to turn the world upside down.
We hear this in the second verse of the Advent hymn:
O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people the coming of their King.
Like the flowers of the field they perish, like grass our works decay,
The power and pomp of nations shall pass like a dream away.
John the Baptist is proclaiming the same message as Mary in her song, the Magnificat:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…
for God has looked with favor on his lowly servant…
God has scattered the proud in their conceit,
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. Luke 1: 46-55
Both Mary and John are proclaiming that God will lift up the lowly, cast down the powerful, give food to the hungry, and command the satisfied to share their bounty. (Our world has made some progress towards God’s kingdom over the last 2,000 years, but we still have a long way to go — and so God is still calling us to join in the task of clearing the way.)
Luke’s Gospel has 24 chapters, and every chapter proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
It’s not just Luke’s last chapter, where he describes two of Jesus’ disciples, walking in sorrow away from Jerusalem. On the road to Emmaus they meet Jesus, their Risen Lord. Luke 24:13-35
It’s not just Luke’s first chapter, where he describes the angel Gabriel, visiting a poor young woman named Mary, telling her she will bear a son, whose kingdom will never end. Luke 1:26-38
It’s not just the eleventh chapter, where Luke collects Jesus’ teachings on prayer: the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4) and the prayer of persistence (Luke 11:5-13); or Jesus’ own prayers in his Last Supper, which we find near the end of the Gospel (Luke 22:14-20).
And it’s not just Luke’s middle chapters, where he records some of Jesus’ greatest parables: there’s the great banquet in chapter 14, to which the host invites not his family, nor the rich and powerful, but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:7-14).
And there’s the joy of God the Father in chapter 15, which Jesus portrays through the parables of the lost and found: the lost sheep, the lost coin — and the prodigal son (Luke 15:3-32).
I’d like to encourage you to read Luke’s Gospel this year: for the history that Luke tells us… for the stories he collects … for the parables he remembers… for the prayers he gives us … and above all, for this Gospel’s truth and beauty.
On most Sundays this coming year, we’ll be hearing from Luke’s Gospel. But the readings will jump around, as we move from Sunday to Sunday, and the sermons you hear after the Gospel will be from the preacher’s point of view. (Just as you’re hearing my point of view today!)
I’d like to encourage you to read this Gospel from beginning to end, so you can see and hear the whole story. Read just a bit at a time…. then meditate on what it means to you.
And then, when you come back to the Gospel, pick it up where you left off.
You can read the Gospel on your own, or with a member of your family, or with a friend, or a group of friends. But – and this is so important – I encourage you to read this Gospel without consulting the experts first.
Yes, that’s right – whether you’re alone or in a group, listen to your own heart first,
before you listen to what some book says about it – even if books written by the greatest scholars.
Why should you listen to your own heart first?
Luke, you may know, also wrote the Book of Acts. Acts is not only the second volume of Luke’s masterwork, it is the book that records the work of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit poured out on you and me.
In the second chapter of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God declares,
it will be that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
(Acts 2:17-21, Joel 2:28-32)
That same Holy Spirit will always meet us in the Gospels – speaking first to our hearts, then to our minds, and finally to our innermost souls, calling us to keep working to prepare the way of the Lord.
I learned this lesson the hard way.
In seminary, I always read the experts before I wrote an essay or a sermon, to be sure I got my facts right – because that’s what my professors were looking for.
But a few years after seminary, I signed up to take week-long course at the College of Preachers, on the grounds of Washington’s National Cathedral. (The pictures of George Bush’s memorial service at the National Cathedral this week brought back memories of the times I visited and studied there.)
The first course I signed up for was to be taught by one of the Episcopal Church’s
leading experts on preaching, and the author of many books on Christian education for all ages.
That first afternoon, the classroom was filled with clergy from around the country and from several denominations, all of us eager to meet this popular author in the flesh.
Then the speaker arrived – a simple, unassuming man with a very quiet voice. (A greater contrast with John the Baptist you can’t imagine!)
He began the session by talking about the power of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Scriptures to teach us, and inspire us, and guide us. And he finished the session by telling us this:
“Never read the experts first – always read the Scripture first.
“Listen to what the Spirit says to you in your own heart…
“You can always trust the Spirit to speak to you…. and if you don’t hear it right, you can trust the Spirit to correct you.
“The Spirit will speak through the commentaries, yes – and the Spirit will also speak through others who may be reading with you…. but…
“Always listen to the Spirit first.”
This author of many books wasn’t telling us that books and knowledge aren’t important, he was just saying that books and guides are not enough. We need to begin by listening to the Holy Spirit speaking in our own hearts, and only then listen to what others have to say.
This coming year, let’s prepare the way for the Spirit’s coming into our own hearts, into our own lives, into our own communities.
Let’s roll away the rocks, sweep out the sand, fill up the potholes, and straighten the old crooked pathways…. to make room for the God who yearns to turn our hearts, and our world, upside down.
Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – December 9, 2018.