Compelling Headline

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Luke 3:1-6

It was one of the biggest goofs I’ve made of late and the whole congregation saw it. A few months ago, after the death of one of our members, I tried to send out an email blast to the congregation providing the Zoom link for the funeral. The church office made the transition to the Constant Contact format for email blasts back in the early summer. I hadn’t used the format by myself yet, but I thought it can’t be all that difficult to figure out. I went into the program and selected one of their pre-made templates for sending out important but brief emails. I inserted all of my information into the different fields, including a button for the Zoom link. I proofread it all, made sure the times and dates were right, no names were misspelled, and pushed send and the notice about the funeral service Zoom link went out to over 400 email addresses. Easy-peasy, right?

The only problem, which I discovered only after I pushed send, was that I hadn’t filled in quite all of the pre-set fields with information. Most significantly, I hadn’t inserted anything where I was supposed to put the subject or headline. So instead of opening with a brief subject line about the funeral service, which I had, of course, intended to be very serious and professional and pastoral, the email opened with the huge words, in gigantic font: “Insert Compelling Headline Here.” Technology always wins. The staff got a nice laugh out of that one and, graciously, no one in the congregation responded in any way. “Insert Compelling Headline Here” is no way to announce the details of something so solemn and important. But the send button had been pushed and it was out there. “Insert Compelling Headline Here” is what I was stuck with, like it or not.

John son of Zechariah, like him or not, is the compelling headline for Jesus Christ. And where is he inserted? It’s not in Jerusalem, or in Rome, where you think he’d belong, where he might, you know, be in constant contact with the powers that be, where he could easily blast the city with the news of a coming king. Rather he is way out in the wilderness, in the region around the Jordan, a place off the beaten path.

It is interesting to look at photos of the Judean wilderness. People tell me it is some of the most godforsaken territory they’ve ever seen. Dry and barren, desolate and unforgiving. The prophet Isaiah had foretold it this way, but it still sounds like a bit of a goof. This is where God inserts his compelling headline for the Lord who is on his way? So it seems.

All four of the gospel writers include John as some kind of precursor to Jesus of Nazareth, a voice crying out in the wilderness telling everyone to prepare the way of the Lord. Luke goes to extra length to give us all of the specific information about when his headline comes. And he starts at the top, working his way down to the local scene. The Emperor was Tiberius, the governor was Pontius Pilate, and the ruler of Galilee was Herod, and the high priests were Annas and Caiaphus, and so on. Our two congregational archivists, Barry Westin and John Hartmann, who work tirelessly to record our Council minutes and do things like convert old photos and drawings into a digital format for generations to use in the future, can explain better than I can why this list given by Luke is so important and helpful. It gives us some real context. It let us know what other things were going on during this time when God’s word was making an entrance.

As one of my colleagues says, Luke’s attention to detail reminds us that the story of Jesus is not a “Once upon a time” story. John Son of Zechariah appeared  preaching and preparing the way for Jesus at a specific time in human history and in a specific location. So often there is the temptation to treat faith like it’s the lesson from a fairy tale or the moral of a story (“be kind to your neighbor”) or that God is an abstract concept that we decide to accept or reject. The gospel writers do not do this. They don’t present argument for or against God’s existence. They, and especially Luke, are just concerned that we understand particular things happened. Particular historical events occurred in the timeline of the world and faith, then, is way of responding to that news. For Luke and the early Christians especially, faith in Jesus was not something to be arrived at philosophically but a new way they lived their lives after hearing that certain things had taken place—most notably the resurrection of a man who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, was buried, and rose again.

That account, of course, begins, in large part, with John son of Zechariah hanging out in the wilderness while Pontius Pilate was governor. Here, of all places, the Word of God comes to John. And it begs a response. Paths need to be straightened. Valleys shall be filled in and mountains will be flattened. It’s like everything is being evened out. John is quoting the Old Testament prophets, who were likely talking about real highways in the desert. But with his themes of repentance and forgiveness, the preparation takes on a more personal, internal meaning. The Lord’s arrival among us involves clearing things away in our hearts, making our spiritual landscapes less convoluted, more straightforward, easier to travel.

That was perhaps the biggest thing I noticed when my My family moved to here to Richmond from Pittsburgh, the city where my wife grew up and where I spent about six years serving a congregation. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Pittsburgh, but it’s been said that in that city there is always at least one hill between where you are and where you need to be, and there’s not a straight road in that town. I was a runner back in those days, and was astounded at how easy it was to run in Richmond! Richmond was a running town like I’d never seen—almost everyone I met was in a running group. Even Epiphany had one back then. In all my years in Pittsburgh I don’t think I ever had one running partner. People probably considered me out of my mind!

The Lord wants a straight path to us—an easy run—right into the heart of you and me. He comes to take up residence in our lives, to bless us with his love and mercy, his compassion and wisdom. He comes to set us free, to save us from our enemies and those who would wish us harm, as John’s father, Zechariah sings.

And that way is prepared for him through the act of repentance. Repentance can be thought of as the act of bringing low those places in us which have gotten too high, those habits which may have made us aloof from the needs of others, as well as identifying those areas in us which have been tucked away in darkness, like a valley. Repentance is literally from a Greek word that means to change perspective or change directions, and what is road straightening and mountain-lowering but a form of changing perspective?

Our worship services almost always begin with a time of confession and forgiveness as a way to help us repent. “We confess our sin before you,” we pray together, “for that which we have done and that which we have left undone. We fail in believing that your good news is for us.” It’s easy to hear and say these words and think of sins as actions we’ve undertaken, a mental checklist of specific deeds we’ve committed or shied away from. But perhaps John and the prophet Isaiah want us to use words and practices of repentance, whenever we say them, like excavators and dump trucks, removing mountains and filling in valleys within us, opening up our perspectives, getting us ready, so that the word of Christ may come to us.

Removing mountains and filling in the valleys within us, being willing to take ourselves down a notch or two, opening up horizons, is very different from the dominant spiritual movements today. Right now most people it seems are more into digging trenches, re-drawing battle lines, hunkering down behind bunkers in order to take shots at the other side. John’s compelling headline about Jesus is that there are hills and valleys crooked roads within us that need to be made straight first.

Three years ago from right now this congregation was poised to begin a huge building campaign that we hoped would make the road to Christ here easier to travel. The vote to build and secure the loan hadn’t happened yet, but the final plans had been basically hammered out and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. One of the last additions that really caught us by surprise was the sidewalk along our property out front along Horsepen Road. The Building Team and Council were irritated, quite frankly, that the county was requiring us to create and pave it at our expense. Our architect was willing to apply for a variance so we wouldn’t have to pave it, but the builder and a couple of civil engineers on our team said they’d never grant it. We factored it into our plans and jokingly called it the Sidewalk to Nowhere, since it doesn’t link up to any other properties that we border, and indeed if you look out there, you’ll see it is literally the only strip of sidewalk anywhere along Glenside or Horsepen. Our church is in a sidewalk wilderness!

Well, three years later and hardly a day goes by when I don’t see someone walking on that sidewalk. It beats all I’ve ever seen.  One day last week I even saw a runner running on it, and last September there was a man taking a rest at the base of our cross. I don’t know where they come from and I don’t know where they’re going, but the way has been prepared, the rough place made plain, and people are using it.

That is the message that John announces. In a world that is so broken, so lost, so full of fear and doubt, the Lord will come. God’s Word came to John in the wilderness, God’s Word traveled straight to the cross God’s Word is coming to you today. He comes to give you forgiveness, to set you free from your enemies, to guide your feet into the way of peace. Make a way in your wilderness, for God can and will come to you, seemingly out of nowhere.

And then saved and set free, you are able go forth and—you guessed it, it’s not a goof— insert the compelling love of God anywhere.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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