Posted on December 13, 2018 By Kristen

Advent 2 December 9, 2018

This week, Advent 2, and next week as well, the main character in the gospel is John the Baptizer, that odd forerunner of his cousin Jesus.  It was John’s task to fulfill the prophecies about preparing the way for the Messiah – Isaiah spoke of it and we hear the echo of Isaiah in our reading from the book of Baruch, “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.”

In place of the psalm in today’s readings, we have the Song of Zechariah – a song about John the Baptizer by his father.  You remember that Zechariah is a Levite, a member of the tribe of Israel that served in the Temple in Jerusalem.  And each year, one priest was to go into the Holy of Holies and perform certain rituals.  When it was Zechariah’s turn, he met an angel in the Holy of Holies who told him his wife would bear a child.  This was incredible news to Zechariah, because he and Elizabeth, his wife, had longed for children but had none.  They were getting older and it seemed that what the angel said was impossible.  Zechariah was told that the child would be the forerunner of Messiah.  When Zechariah expressed his doubt, he lost his voice and he didn’t regain his speech until John was born.

The Song of Zechariah is this father’s song over his impossibly newborn son:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

It must have been an odd life for John – he must have been told the story of his own birth, as well as the story of his cousin, Jesus.  John is set apart for God’s work from his birth and he goes into the wilderness around the Jordan River, living on locusts and wild honey, the Gospel of Matthew says, until God shows him his life’s work.

John’s work is to call people to repentance and as a sign of their repentance, John baptizes them in the River Jordan.  Washing their old life away, the people rise to live anew.

What can John’s ministry teach us?  What does it mean that the mountains are brought low and the valleys raised up, that the crooked places are made straight and the rough places smooth?

In a way, God is leveling the playing field through John’s ministry.  Rather than some being naughty and some nice, we are reminded that each of us is a mix of both light and dark, good and bad.  We are all made in the image of God and each of us chooses our own way rather than God’s way much too often.  In God’s kingdom, the high and mighty are no more righteous than the lowly, the good church people no closer to God than those who never darken our doors.  We all stand convicted of not measuring up to God’s expectations.

But before we feel lost, before the hopelessness of our situation sets in – we also see that in leveling the field, God has made it easier for us to meet God down by the river, easier to repent and begin anew.  No high mountains to climb in order to reach God.  No valleys to drag ourselves out of – in bringing the mountains low and raising the valleys, God is making it easier for us to reach the kingdom, the place where Messiah is born.

Bringing the mountains low, raising the valleys, making the crooked straight and smoothing the rough places are also descriptions of the work God does in us, through the Holy Spirit, after we’ve made our way to the river and been baptized.  The self-righteousness that puffs us up is brought low.  The valleys of despair we fall into are raised up – if God is our end and loves us without measure, what do we have to fear?

Our crooked places are straightened out, our rough places are smoothed – both of which might feel painful when we experience them…  Physical therapy on crooked places hurts but is highly effective.  And abrasive sand paper or steel wool is what a master carpenter uses to smooth the rough places.

John’s ministry is good news.  God is coming near; we’ve got to get ready.  God will make it easy for us to come, and once we come to God, our lives will change forever.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.