I mentioned last week that this season of Advent brings in the Year of Luke – in the coming year, we will take most of our gospel readings from Luke’s account. Luke uses the first two chapters to introduce this story of Jesus’ life and work. In chapter one, we meet a young girl named Mary, and her relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are expecting a child in their old age. We also meet the angel Gabriel, who will tell Mary she is to become the mother of God’s Son, while Elizabeth’s son will be a prophetic voice that goes before Messiah into the world.
But as I also mentioned last week, a theme running throughout this gospel is the theme of reversal, and we will experience it during Advent by beginning at the end, as we did last week, and moving toward the beginning, as we will do next week. Today, we are in chapter three, and Luke introduces us to the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, known to us most often as “John the Baptist.”
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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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. 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” (Luke 3:1-6)
John the Baptist serves as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He points us back to the words of Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets. He comes from the wilderness, he calls sinners to repentance, and he proclaims the Word of the Lord with power.
But John points us forward to the New Testament, too. That long list of rulers Luke gives us? John isn’t joining their illustrious line – he’s standing up to it. John’s message is in direct opposition to Roman oppression and the legalism of the Jewish high priests. Yet, John doesn’t go to Rome or Jerusalem to confront these established rulers. He stays out in the wilderness, the place where God has met his people throughout history.
Three years ago, before we knew anything about COVID or how it would impact every one of our lives, Michal Beth Dinkler wrote: “It doesn’t take much effort to imagine our world as a desert. Scarcity, isolation, hunger, and violence seem to rule the day. The pain and injustice around us can make us wonder whether God is at work in this wilderness. But Luke suggests that the wilderness is precisely where God provides what we need, so that we can now be the ones “crying out …, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
The world does seem dark these days. There is so much antagonism, so much conflict, so much anger. And so much weariness. We’ve been on high alert for nearly two years now. That’s exhausting. Yet, this is where and when God calls us to be heralds of good news. Pastor April Fiet, whose candle lighting liturgy we are using this year, writes:
“As I reflect on the last two years, I realize we’ve all been acutely aware of how much we need peace. Pandemic, job loss, stay-at-home orders, loss of loved ones, grief over activities canceled, major life events postponed to safer times. We’ve weathered uncertainty, fear, pain, learning how to do our jobs all over again, and what-ifs largely without the comforts of things that normally perk us back up when we’re experiencing difficulties: time with friends and family, trips to a local coffee shop, wandering the aisles in a store, listening to live music. The last two years have been tough. For pretty much everyone.
The second week of Advent comes along and invites us to look for God’s peace. But, how do we experience God’s peace in a time when there is no peace? What does it look like to explore the idea of peace in a chaotic and uncertain time?”
April goes on to explain that “both the Greek and Hebrew words for peace (eirene and shalom) have more to do with wholeness than with quiet or rest. Eirene comes from the verb that means “to join together” or “to tie into a whole.” Shalom is about wholeness and goodness in the relationship between things. Perhaps, our calling in a world without peace is … to participate in the work of tying things back together. In peace-less days, we are called to be peacemakers, with all of the grit and difficulty that will entail.”
There are some really good Christmas hymns we hardly ever sang, even before we stopped singing in worship to protect one another from spreading disease. There’s a reason we didn’t sing those hymns too often. In our efforts to welcome people who might not have a church background, but who tend to show up on Christmas Eve, we tried to limit the carols for that service to songs most people would find familiar and easy to sing.
But that means we missed out on some great hymns and carols that challenge us. As a result, we missed out on being that voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote just such a hymn in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. His wife had recently died, and his son had been critically wounded in the war. Longfellow wrote from a sense of despair. A despair not too different from what some of us have been feeling over the past many months. Here are the words Longfellow wrote:
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace of earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Matt LeRoy writes, “Christians are strange people. In the midst of tragedy we often find ourselves reaching for a song. Not in naive denial. But as an act of defiance. A protest against the way things are. A prophetic and poetic vision of how they could be, should be, will be. Advent teaches us to sing in the dark. With the stubborn hope that the Light is on the way.”
That’s what John the Baptist was doing. He was pushing back the darkness with the defiant, stubborn hope that the Light was on the way. John’s call to repentance is much more than an invitation to express regret for our wrongs.
In the Old Testament, when God’s prophets called the people to repent, it was usually in order to avoid punishment or hardship. Repentance was hardly ever connected to forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament.
Yet here is John, preaching the need for a change of mind and heart, for an inner transformation that shows up in fruitful living. John’s call to repentance is a call to transformation, and that transformation is directly connected to the forgiveness of sins.
And here’s an interesting detail: the word translated here as forgiveness also means “release.” It’s the same word Jesus will use in chapter four to state his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me … to proclaim release to the captives and … to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).
This kind of release from our sins doesn’t undo them. But it does cut us loose from them. This forgiveness, this release from sin that goes hand in hand with our repentance paves the way for a life lived in God’s grace, a life of peace.
This is the good news, my friends. In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. In Jesus Christ, you can be released from your sin. It no longer has any power over you. In Jesus Christ, you are redeemed by God’s grace – that unmerited love you can never earn, but God pours out on you. In Jesus Christ, you can find peace.
 Michal Beth Dinkler, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3894
 April Fiet, https://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/advent-for-uncertain-hearts-week-2-when-there-is-no-peace
 Matt LeRoy, https://www.seedbed.com/a-borrowed-song-protagonist/
 Word Biblical Commentary-NT, vol. 35A, p. 143.