Make straight the highway for our God
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 80, Philippians 4:4-7, St. John 1:19-28
Up the Revolution!
One of the most interesting seminarians I’ve met was a fellow named Butch. Butch was not a seminarian in the usual sense of the word; he never took a course for credit as far as I know but he certainly audited a long catalogue of them. But then, there was nothing usual about Butch.
He had a fine grasp of history and a keen interest in the Scriptures. Butch was a white-haired retired Army officer, but I figured he landed in the wrong branch because he swore like a sailor . . . as to both quantity and quality.
I assure you this was not the norm in the hushed corridors of Cranmer Theological House. The rest of us weren’t monks, but sometimes we seemed to be trying to be.
But Butch didn’t care. The last time I saw him was a few years ago, at synod in Dallas. We greeted each other in a hallway at the hotel and Butch launched – in his customarily animated way — into an oration about counseling a fellow cancer patient:
“Here’s what you do. You stand in front of the mirror and you say to that cancer inside of you, ‘Listen, you . . .’”
I’ll stop here because if I continued I’d have to bleep out more than Rosemary Woods deleted. The presence of bishops and other august personages had no effect whatsoever on Butch. He was who he was. I loved the guy. And I was grateful I was not his priest.
I bring him up today because of a talk he and I had one day. We were speaking of issues of the day in the tones of the political conservatives we were when, somehow, we discovered we had both begun as liberals. And what’s more, neither of us was about to apologize.
We came of age, Butch and I, in the 1960s. Thinking back over that time, we agreed that institutionalized racism – in a significant part of this nation, legally codified racism – was wrong, and we were right to denounce it.
That the Vietnam War – perhaps in conception and without a doubt in execution – was wrong, and we were right to denounce it. That many among our leaders were corrupt, and we were right to denounce them.
Sometimes, those out of power hold the moral high ground. So say Butch and I. So says John the Baptist. And – here’s the crucial thing — so says Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus is a God of order, but He will not sacrifice biblical principle for the sake of order. So doing, we would enshrine a lie, cast deceit in concrete. That is the way of “the Jews,” as they are called for the first of many times in John’s gospel in the first verse of our text for today.
The term refers to the leaders of Israel and, most likely in this case, to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. They have sent a delegation – priests and Levites – to brace the Baptist on the banks of the River Jordan. Who do you imagine you are? What do you think you’re doing?
One of the Sanhedrin’s important functions is the tagging and removal of false prophets. Indeed, some have risen and fomented rebellion, and have been dealt with.
But this Baptist is a special case. His father Zechariah ministered in the temple. John, descended from the priestly caste, could take up the role of priest . . . but he operates more like a monk. He did not rise through the ranks of the religious establishment; he presents no credentials.
And there’s more. Any insurrectionist worth his copy of the Saul Alinsky bible knows one stirs insurrection in the cities. But this one called John pursues his work out yonder in the wilderness, at various locales on the Jordan’s banks.
What is his mission? He baptizes. What manner of ritual is this? Israel knows of proselyte baptism, but John is baptizing the circumcised, Jews – members in good standing of the synagogues and the temple, even Jerusalemites, those purest of practitioners.
Those who come from beyond the pale need cleansing to engage with the covenant people of God, but those born into Israel are by their very nature clean. Are they not?
John’s baptism is an affront to the religious authorities. What do those who bear the mark of the covenant need with the empty symbolism of a rite nowhere prescribed in Jewish practice?
Make no mistake, the priests and Levites who have confronted him on the Jordan’s bank can hear the muted message beneath his words. He has invoked Isaiah, who prophesied of one crying out in the wilderness who would prepare the way of the Lord.
But that prophet of old did not stop there. He went on to interpret the coming of the kingdom of God to earth in the language of a second exodus. But what does Israel need of escape? She needs to remain in place, right where God planted her, and throw off the yoke of Rome.
Exodus talk reeks of danger for the authorities’ home-brewed religion. Orthodoxy is their prized possession. And orthodoxy is what those in power say it is. This orthodoxy is perverse, decaying . . . and proper, because they proclaim it so. Who is John the Baptist to say them nay?
No one, really.
And because he is, he is God’s man for a time such as this. For who is the One for whom John prepares the way? The greatest revolutionary the world would ever know. One who would foment an insurrection that would explode the world religious order and then reshape it in His image. He will be the Head of His body the church.
The Sanhedrin suspect sedition . . . and their concern is well-placed. Jesus is coming to free His people from bondage to sin and death. He will overthrow an order that values privilege over righteousness, wealth over compassion, prestige over holiness. He will cast down the powerful and exalt the humble . . . and usher them into His banquet that has no end.
One who comes to make all things new will win no favor from those who have a vested interest in preserving the old. The rulers of Israel would tamp down this revolution; the Baptist would fan its flames.
John anticipates his Lord ideally in another way as well. Look at how the fourth gospel presents the Baptist: no mention of his lineage, arrest or death. Matthew, Mark and Luke can fill in those blanks. John the Evangelist relates that God sent this man and that his ministry is baptism, full stop. His relationship to the One who comes after him is what matters here.
The evangelist trills of Jesus with a poetic lilt . . . but prose will suffice for the Baptist. How is he defined? In the negative. Who is he? He is not the Christ. Not Elijah. Not the prophet, the “one like me” of whom Moses spoke.
Well, who then? “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Merely a voice. This is that second way in which the Baptist anticipates so beautifully the Christ. He wears camel’s hair and lives off the land, a lowly figure . . . out there in the wilderness.
Who better to make straight the way of One lowly born in a manger to parents of mean estate, One who will humble Himself unto death, even death on a cross?
He who comes after him, the Baptist explains, is the One “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”
A disciple must serve his master in every way, just as does a slave . . . save for one thing only. He is not bound to remove shoes and wash feet. That is work so menial that only the slave is required to do it. But, says John the Baptist, not only am I willing to serve my Lord in so humble a way, I am too lowly to merit even that service to Him.
He is no more than a voice. The voice is the medium, the Word is the message. I am come, John would have us know, as the vessel that proclaims the Truth that is to follow. Pay heed, repent, believe . . . for the kingdom of God is at hand.
Way back when, St. Augustine wrote, “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives forever.
“Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart . . .
“When the word has been conveyed to you,” Augustin continues, “does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts . . .”
So wrote Augustine.
Indeed, the Lord Himself says of John, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
The kingdom of heaven is here. It arrived when the Lord ascended and His Holy Spirit alit upon the earth.
And we have beheld wondrous things the Baptist did not see: the Lord upon the cross, crucifying sin and death; arisen from the tomb, upon the Emmaus Road, on the seashore with His disciples, ascending into heaven. We are greater than John. If we are greater than John, we should be more humble than he.
The world is lying to you, o man . . . again. It tells you to trust in yourself. It tells you you are trust-worthy. Are you?
Trust the One who made you. You could not make yourself. Can you remake yourself? Trust the One who knew you before you were. Now that you are, will He not love what He has made you to be? Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord. He will lift you up.
He is coming now. He is almost here. In Advent, we await the arrival of Truth in the world. He is coming . . . coming to die for you . . . but first to live for you . . . to show you the way.
What is the way? Humility is the way upward to God who is above all things; it raises you up to Him. Pride, the elevation of the self, sends you spinning away from God on high and so casts you down.
Was it not ever thus? In the beginning, God placed man in the garden and forbade him one thing . . . a good thing, for the fruit of that one tree was pleasing to the eye and sweet to the tongue. God denied man one thing, a good thing, to point him to a greater good . . . obedience.
The humility of obedience is the elixir for your sin-sick soul.
The Baptist and the Christ stepped into a world bathed in the pax Romana – the peace of Rome – but still an agitated age in that little backwater called Palestine. Among the Jews, expectations of the Messiah varied.
The Greek Christos comes from the verb chrio – I anoint — and translates the Hebrew mashia – Messiah. The Christ was the One anointed by God . . . but anointed to do exactly what? Opinions covered a spectrum stretching from Dan to Beersheba, but all agreed that in some way He would enhance the worldly position of Israel.
The idea that He would come as the fulfillment of Israel, the true Israel – making God known among all the nations – disturbed the thoughts of a paltry few in the nation. Like countless generations of Jews and Christians who would succeed them, they put their own stature first and God’s glory second.
They rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ not because He defied God – how could He? – but because He, like His forerunner – defied the leaders of Israel. What God desired was exactly what the Baptist had launched and the Christ would perfect – an uprising of humility.
John the Evangelist gives us a gospel laden with the vocabulary of jurisprudence – “testimony” and “witness” and “trial” – and he offers John the Baptist as his star witness to the authenticity of Jesus as the Word made flesh. The voice proclaims the Word.
This John, after all, had stood in the Jordan and, after he baptized Jesus, had watched the Spirit of God descend dove-like upon Him . . . but more than that. The Spirit had alit on others in Old Testament times, but now comes something new: He abides with Jesus, who is the Christ, the Anointed One.
Yet as we have seen even the Baptist would harbor doubt . . . and see it resolved . . . and pay with his life for his witness of the Truth. His testimony is as vital in our day as in his own for the opposition’s argument never changes:
Jesus is a man of high principle and a great teacher . . . but not the Son of God. Oh, He might instruct you . . . but He cannot save you.
For to hail Him as the promised Messiah is to humble ourselves and submit to Him. The human heart, unfettered by Spirit and Truth, knows no end of self-seeking. It aches to aim its worship not upward but inward.
So harken to the voice that you might come to the Word that dwells in the heart. John is the revolutionary, o Christian, you are called to be. Yet you are greater than he. Fall to your knees and, looking upward, hail Jesus as divine Savior, Lord and King.
God loves you, o sinner. He wants to lift you up. What greater honor could He bestow on you than to make you a forerunner of the One who comes to save the world? Who am I? My name is Not-the-Christ. Amen.