Devotional Message: The Second Sunday of Advent (12/9/2018)

Lessons

Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9
St. Luke 1:68-79 (78)
Philippians 1:3-11
St. Luke 3:1-6

Prayer of the Day

Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Text for This Sunday

3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler 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 region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

5 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;

6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

St. Luke 3:1-6, New Revised Standard Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Message: To See the Salvation of God

St. Luke’s third chapter begins with a roll call of the political and religious elite. From Pilate and Philip, to Herod, to Tiberius; from Zechariah, to Annas and Caiaphas; we receive the briefest of glimpses as to where the center of power is located in the first century; where the center of society is set. Then the scene dramatically shifts. John, the one who is sent by God to prepare the people to receive the Messiah, is found in the region around the Jordan, in the wilderness, just as Isaiah said would happen (Isaiah 40:3-5). A voice from far outside the locus of political and social importance, a voice from the wilderness cries out: “Repent! Prepare! Make ready for the coming of the Lord!”

It is a dramatic image. Valleys are filled,  mountains and hills are made low, the crooked is made straight and the rough ways made smooth. Before all flesh will be able to see the salvation of God there is a lot of work to do. This is major construction. We’re talking I-70 westbound towards Glenwood Springs. We’re talking $100 million to restore the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Can it really take this much work to open up a way for God to travel into the center of a person’s heart; into the center of a person’s life?

We Lutherans, of course, chafe a bit at this kind of talk. We love to speak of God taking the first step towards us. We love to speak of receiving our faith as a gift from God. We lift up infant baptism as an example of when God’s grace is bestowed upon us, without us even being aware of it. We proclaim, with Brother Martin, that, “by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with its gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.” Can it be that we have to tear down mountains and build up valleys, if we are going to experience the power and promise and presence of God? What is it that we have to do? How much of it do we have to do? How likely is it that we’ll succeed?

That said, there may be a different way to read this passage. Did you notice the verbs? The string of passive verbs? As John describes what must happen, we learn that it “shall be filled… shall be made low… shall be made straight… [shall be] made smooth…” Perhaps it is not that we need to get out our shovels and backhoes and start the effort. Perhaps it is, à la Luther, that this is, in fact, the proper work of the Holy Spirit: working on us, making a straight, smooth way for the way of the Lord into our hearts and into our lives and into our homes.

If this is the case, then it informs how we understand our own role in these matters. Our habits of discipleship — our spiritual practices — our involvement in faith formation — all of this is an effort to make ourselves vulnerable to the work the Holy Spirit so deeply desires to accomplish. To make, into our hearts and lives and homes, a straight, smooth way for God to come. And because “by my own understanding or strength I cannot…” it is by the grace of God, finally, that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Here is the heart of John’s message; the heart of Advent; the heart of God’s desire for each of us. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Inspire our Advent practices. Fill our hearts with faith.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel

  1. What did Isaiah mean with these words, some eight centuries before Christ was born?

  2. How did John the Baptist understand the connection between these words and his ministry?

  3. What preparation did John declare was taking place, to get people ready to meet Jesus?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel

  1. What discipleship habits or spiritual practices will I use that can open my heart to the arrival of God?

  2. To what extent does my faith development depend on my own efforts? On the efforts of the Holy Spirit?

  3. When has God unexpectedly made a new beginning in my faith life, with or without my own participation?