“Prepare the Way of the Lord”
December 9, 2018, Advent 2C
the Rev. Todd R. Goddard, pastor
East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches
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.”’
Sixty-six years is a long prison sentence.
Sixty-six years is a long time for one to be found guilty
And to be punished for law-breaking behavior.
This is how long our ancestors suffered for their sins.
This is how long it took to be cleansed of evil.
The prophet Isaiah, a spokesperson on behalf of God,
Warned our king
That the nation would be punished for
Wicked behavior, rebellion, corruption, and iniquity.
(See Isaiah 1)
Isaiah was no fortune teller.
He was simply an obedient bullhorn for the Lord to speak directly to us.
Prophecy was known from within our Hebrew experience
As revelation, the message from God,
Delivered by God’s hand-picked chosen.
God is always true to His word.
The hammer of divine judgment fell in the year 605 BCE
When the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated our ancestors
In the Battle of Carchemish and laid siege to Jerusalem.
Appeasement payments only held off the inevitable.
The protective city walls fell and we were utterly and completely defeated.
Nebuchadnezzar initiated three successive waves of deportation.
Our defeated families were deported
To prisoner of war camps, located deep within Babylon,
On the shore of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,
547 miles to the East, as the crow flies.
The first wave of deportations was in 597 BCE,
the second was in 587, and the third was in 582.
Sixty-six long years from judgment to release.
We were freed in 539 BCE
At the hand of Cyrus the Great, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor.
Sixty-six years is more than three generations.
How long would the Lord’s punishment last? To children? To grandchildren? To great-grandchildren?
At what point had justice been served?
“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
- Psalm 137:1-4
It was during this period of life in exile,
Life in the prisoner of war camps,
That the Lord approached the tribe of Isaiah and his descendants;
The family of the great prophet, and others who joined with him and his tradition.
The words of the Lord
To a young prophet in the Isaiah tradition
Are recorded, starting in Chapter 40, extending through Chapter 55.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
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 40:1-5
Our debt had been paid.
Israel had been redeemed.
The voice crying out set the stage
For Jewish messianic expectation:
Redemption is at hand!
Prepare the way for the Lord
For the Lord is coming to redeem all people.
The expected messiah is propagated by other Jewish prophets,
Most namely Malachi,
Following the return of the exiles,
Restoration of Jerusalem,
And the reconstruction of the Temple:
“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”
- Malachi 3:1-3
For the next four-hundred thirty years
Malachi’s messianic expectations simmered
In Jewish theology, beliefs, and practice.
After a time of prosperity
The Greeks, first, then the Romans,
Followed the example of the earlier Babylonians,
Conquered and enslaved our land and people.
Messianic expectation caught fire like started with gasoline.
Zechariah, a righteous and devout priest of the temple,
Husband of Elizabeth,
Was filled with this frenzied messianic expectation
For he had the words of Isaiah and Malachi written in his DNA.
The angel Gabriel visited him,
Not in a dream, but in person, at the altar of incense in the temple.
Gabriel confirmed Zechariah’s messianic expectation:
Although Elizabet was of post-menopausal age,
She would become pregnant
And give birth to a boy, who Zechariah was to name John.
John would be the one to lead the effort to prepare the way for the messiah.
It isn’t every day one is visited by an actual angel!
John was born, just as promised.
Zechariah cradled his infant son, John.
As we experienced in our Call to Worship, Zechariah prophesies,
Just as Gabriel instructed:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
- Luke 1:76-79
From Isaiah to Malachi, to Zechariah
Prophecy had undergone significant evolution.
A prophet had been transformed
From a future teller,
To a divine messenger, a spokesperson for God,
To one chosen by God
To recognize and pronounce the fact
That God is at work, acting in our midst.
Was that God was stepping through the heaven and earth divide.
God was coming to all nations, to all people,
To redeem all people from sin,
To give knowledge of salvation,
To give light to those in the dark,
To give life in the shadow of death, and
To guide us into the way of peace.
Our messianic expectation was being fulfilled.
His name is Jesus, the Christ.
The one leading the way for Jesus,
Was John, warning all the world to repent and make personal preparations,
For God was already at work in our midst.
In the post-messianic era leading up to today
What would become of the role of prophet?
What is to become of prophecy?
And, what is our role in it?
The role of prophet and the work of prophecy
Continued to change following Jesus,
His passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Prophet and prophecy advanced with the Holy Spirit.
God has given to us the gift of the Holy Spirit
To work in us, individually,
And to work through us collectively,
To empower and direct the Church moving forward.
The work of the Spirit, as detailed in Luke’s second book,
The Acts of the Apostles,
Reveals that God continues to be present and active in humankind,
God continues to redeem and save.
The Holy Spirit continues to overcome darkness with light
And bring life to the dead.
Our prophetic challenge today
Is to witness to this reality,
To reveal to the world just what it is that the Holy Spirit is up to,
That the glory of the Lord will be revealed to all flesh.
Christ came to redeem, to purchase the sins of all the world.
Christ promised to come again, to save all the world into God’s eternal kingdom.
This becomes our prophetic testimony,
The prophetic testimony of the Christ’s universal Church to the world.
It is the power and direction of the Holy Spirit that makes it all possible.
Dearly beloved, take a look around:
Can’t you see?
Can’t you feel the Spirit at work in our midst?
Of course, we can!
Make your testimony,
Witness of your experience
To a world
For Christ to fulfill his promise and return.
This is our prophetic voice!
Claim your voice!
Shout it from the mountain top!
Prepare the way for the Lord to come.
By our convincing testimony
Bring down the mountains
And fill in the valleys.
By our witness
Straighten out this world once and for all.
Make ready for Christ to return.