During the Advent season we are considering how “Hope is Alive” in our world today in
spite of the fact there are many signs of hopelessness all around us. This Second Sunday of
Advent is often called “John the Baptizer Sunday” because the gospel lesson is always about
John and his emphasis on preparing the way. It is reflected in the Christmas carol we sang a
few moment ago, “Angels from the Realm Glory”.
In September, Andrea and I went on one of our Wyoming adventures. After eating lunch
in Glendo, we took highway 111 toward Laramie Peak. After traveling a few miles on that highway
we realized we were driving in rural Wyoming. The scenery was beautiful, we saw some wild
flowers, a lot of grazing areas, then, I’m not sure what happened—either we blinked at the wrong
time, or sneezed, because the nice paved highway we were on, wasn’t. The road (if you could
call it that) suddenly became terrible.
It appeared that it had not prepared properly nor maintained adequately. It was deeply
rutted, full of rocks and sharp turns. It made it very difficult to drive. Andrea and I decided that
it was best to drive that road in my big bad boy truck rather than in her car, which is still back in
Then just as quick as we were on a not drivable road, we found ourselves on a smoothly
paved road that brought us to I-25. We were miles from anywhere and had been trying to drive
this nearly impassable road for at least forty minutes and then we hit the paved road. I don’t
know who planned or prepared that road. Maybe it was a rancher, or a mountain man who said
one day, “I’m going to build a road, because I am somebody!”
It is not uncommon for us to prepare the way for the “somebodies” of life. We may roll
out the red carpet, sweep the walk. Play a trumpet fanfare, salute, or shine a spotlight on them.
Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah (40:3-4) who calls out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make
straight in the desert a highway for God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every hill
made low, and the rough places made plain.”
This probably was not the inspiration for that rancher or mountain man on the road near
Laramie Peak, but it may well have been the inspiration for Malachi, writing a couple hundred
years after the prophet Isaiah, as he longs for a great king who will lead his people back into
relationship with God. He speaks of a messenger who will prepare the royal processional way for
this king. However, Malachi sees his messenger preparing the way for the king not in constructing
a highway, but in opening the hearts and spirits of the people.
He is described as a refiner’s fire and fuller soap. These are very strong images. The
refiner of silver sits and intensely watches for refining is exceeded in the slightest degree, the
silver will be ruined. The way the refiner knows the process of purifying is complete is when he
can see his own image reflected in the silver. Perhaps the implication of this image is that when
we are faithful to God, hard times, trials, and difficulties may refine us to that we reflect God’s
image and others can see that image in us. The reference to the fullers soap is not a reference
to a product sold by an early Brush Man, although they probably went door to door even back then.
The word “full” is from the Anglo-Saxon “fullian” meaning “to whiten”. The process of “fulling” involved pressing or scouring cloth in a mill using an alkali and boiled fat soap to bleach
and clean wool. Malachi’s messenger prepares the way of the king by calling us to clean-up and
purify our hearts and minds so we can receive him.
Our gospel lesson today is the introduction to John the Baptizer’s prophetic ministry. John,
like Malachi, calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by a change in our hearts and our actions.
John has been called the Scrooge of the Biblical story. Instead of saying, “Bah! Humbug!” he
says, “Repent!” Have you ever seen John the Baptizer’s face on a single Christmas card? We just
don’t get too excited about his message of repentance. But we should!
This passage in Luke is the setting for the Kingdom of God in relation to the reign of
human rulers. The call of John clearly reflects the call of the Hebrew prophets. Earlier, Luke has
written about John: “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn
hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the
righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (1:17). This is Luke’s way of
saying John is the beginning of God’s salvation for all peoples.
The baptism that John practiced was probably a water ceremony borrowed from the
Essenes that expressed both the individual’s repentance and God’s cleansing. It was believed that
the water ritual was not spiritually effective apart from genuine repentance. So, what we have in
John the Baptizer is a prophetic call in a strong emphasis on repentance, or ethical renewal, or a
changed life. He is both generous and demanding. He is generous in that what is offered is
extended to everyone. No one is excluded. No one is beyond the reach of God. He is demanding
in that we all have fallen short of the glory of God so all must turn and repent.
One of the popular concepts that gets a lot of play in our time is the idea of a “margin of
error.” We most often hear this term used in relation to surveys. A survey will have a margin of
error of plus or minus five percent. What this means is the survey could be wrong but still
considered right: if they were close. We husbands need a generous margin of error on a whole
list of subjects. For most of us preachers, the margin of error ought to be plus or minus twenty
minutes, the length of a typical sermon. The thinking here is sometimes we are right, sometimes
wrong, sometimes good, sometimes bad; but we ought to get some credit for at least trying.
My guess is John the Baptizer’s margin of error would be zero percent. John preached a
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Everyone must turn from their old sinful ways. This is the only preparation that will allow us to
from their old ways, only then could they receive the embrace of Jesus.
John’s role is still part of the mission of the church today. It is still our task to call people,
all people, to turn from hurting themselves and others, to receive the life-giving love of God in
Christ. We are to turn from addictions and other self-destructive behaviors. We are to turn from
using others to meet our own selfish desires, from abusive language and demeaning and violent
actions. Our church needs to be a place where we do not tell people they are wrong, but help
them turn their lives from destruction to hope.
Through prayer, spiritual direction, education, small groups we help each other prepare
the way for Christ to enter our lives by turning away from anything that takes life away, and
toward those things that affirm and give life.
Part of our Advent preparation may be that in moments of quiet, we finally come face to
face with our true selves, and realize our need to turn our lives. This is Peace Sunday in
the Advent calendar. There is a peace that is found when we confess and repent of our hurtful ways.
When I was a kid, and probably when you were kids, our family put out a class of milk
and a plate of cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. A few years of doing that, my father asked
me and my siblings, “Do you think this is bribing or thanking Santa?” It makes you think. Are we
bribing Santa? My father said, “You bet, and I’m sure Santa isn’t fooled!” Do you remember the
song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?” It says for goodness sake.
That’s what Jesus wants us to do. It is the only way to live. Live your life thanking God,
not trying to bribe him.
Friends, that is preparing the way! Let us continue to be in prayer, confessing our hurtful
and harmful ways of living that distance us from God and each other. As John Wesley, the founder
of the Methodist church would say, “How is it with your soul?”