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Preparing the way of the Lord: Advent, Peace, Luke 1:68-79
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the passage we just read in Luke, chapter 1.
Traditionally, this second Sunday of Advent is focused on John the Baptist, and on peace, which is a bit strange, you know? At least at first glance. John’s life is the furthest thing from what most people would call peaceful. Living in the desert, eating bugs, people come out to him and he preaches repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It was a message that made the rulers of Jerusalem nervous, because the last guy who preached the coming of the kingdom of heaven led a rebellion that threw the nation into war and turmoil.
Everyone knew, John was trouble. He spoke like the prophets of old, and he didn’t care who you were, he would tell you to your face exactly what you needed to repent of. He was executed by the king because John had told the king to his face that marrying his relatives was sinful and wrong. John was trouble—the best kind of trouble. The kind that prepares the way to real peace instead of polishing injustice until it looks nice and calling it peace—that’s what we usually do.
The rulers of Jerusalem didn’t want John’s trouble, they wanted what Rome called pax Romana, the peace of Rome, where Rome ruled over most of the known world with so much violence and cruelty that no one dared rebel. It was a peace that benefitted only Rome and cared nothing for the people they ruled. A peace built on executions and beatings, and violence. They called it peace, but it didn’t look anything like what the Bible calls peace. The biblical kind of peace, the word Luke uses here is eireine, and he’s quoting Isaiah, who would have used the word shalom. Part of the reason we have such a hard time recognizing peace in the life of John the Baptist is because when we think about peace, we think pax Romana instead of eireine, instead of shalom.
Sometimes trouble, like John’s, can help a city move from pax Romana to shalom. Luke tells the circumstances surrounding John’s birth—his birth in many ways parallels the miraculous birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, at what I would argue is another of the most pivotal moments in the history of the earth.
John’s birth is like Abraham’s in order to bookend the promises of God, to tell us the covenant given to Abraham, that promise made so long ago is being made again—God hasn’t forgotten it, not in John’s day and not in ours. Far from it. God is still coming to save his people, still coming to bring peace on earth, to live with us and be our everlasting light.
John’s mother, Elizabeth, is barren, which in that culture meant that she and her husband, Zechariah, John’s father, would have been shamed, considered cursed by God, without descendant or name. And similar to Abraham, an angel appears, telling Zechariah his wife will conceive, and Zechariah has the same doubts Abraham did, he says it’s not possible, your timing is wrong, you’ve waited too long. And as an assurance of his promise, the angel takes away Zechariah’s ability to speak. For months, he’s silent, through the conception and birth of this miraculous child, and when they went to circumcise the child, the very sign of the covenant given to Abraham, he’s allowed to speak again, and he says this:
Read it with me again, in Luke, chapter one, starting in v. 68: [Luke 1:68-79] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Here in this advent season, we’re learning to wait and long for the return of the Lord, because when Christ returns, he’s making all things new, and deeply, we know we need to be made new. But, we were talking about this on Wednesday, we’re not meant in this life just to sit around waiting for the Lord to return. We, like John in our passage, are meant to prepare the way of the Lord, a way, according to our passage, which leads to peace.
Now, church, having just finished a series in Isaiah, hopefully we recognize this image, the way of the Lord. Isaiah prophesied that in the kingdom of God, there is a single way, a road, going through every nation on earth and leading to Jerusalem. He called us pilgrims, travelers. The redeemed could walk along this way and know they were journeying to the peace of the kingdom of God. Jesus, in the course of his ministry, claimed to be this road, to be the way of the Lord, himself.
In Isaiah’s day, there weren’t separate words for roads and paths and trails, because there wasn’t much of a practical difference between a road and a trail. Most people travelled by foot, so every way was just kind of a trail.
By the time Luke is writing, there were what we would call roads, actual paved roads with a sidewalk and a curb. In fact, roads were the cutting edge of technology, so new that there still wasn’t a separate word for road in the New Testament.
During the Pax Romana, Rome wanted to maintain their armies to discourage and crush rebellion, but they weren’t actively at war, so many times the soldiers had nothing to do, and without anyone else to fight, they would fight amongst themselves. So Rome decided to give them a task, have them build roads to connect important cities throughout the empire, and usually all of the roads started or ended at the capital, which is why to this day people will say “all roads lead to Rome.” The Roman roads are actually what a lot of historians point to as the reason for Rome’s longevity, their thousand-year reign, because they could get soldiers and supplies back and forth startlingly quickly.
The Roman engineers were nuts, too, about the roads being straight. Most of the paths of that day were winding, which makes sense. If you’re on foot, and there’s a forest or a mountain between this town and that one, or a river, or a bayou, you just walked around it, or over it. Not Rome.
The built enormous bridges and viaducts. They had four levels of foundations underneath every road. They had people out surveying to make sure the road was straight, leveling ground, diverting water, draining swamps. They sent legions of soldiers into forests with axes to cut pathways through the forest. They had legions of soldiers using hand tools to tunnel through mountains, tunnels large enough for two carts to pass each other on the road, all to prepare the way, to make the way straight.
Luke says John is this way. He’s like a soldier laboring to prepare a road, only John’s road wasn’t going to lead to Rome or maintain the pax Romana. John’s road would lead to the salvation of his people. And John wasn’t going to use the same tools as the Romans, either—the rebellion the city leaders were all so afraid of against Rome, violence and bloodshed. No, John’s road was going to lead to a salvation for his people through baptism and the forgiveness of their sins, v.77. And John’s road would lead to shalom, peace, real peace, completely unlike the pax Romana.
John the Baptist was a soldier. Whenever he walked into the room, shots were fired, things were said that needed to be said and John was the only one fearless enough to say it. He was a soldier, but he was a soldier who built roads, a person who prepared the way. When Jesus begins his earthly ministry, John sends his disciples after Christ, gave over his whole ministry. Even some of the twelve apostles started with John, and John sent them to Jesus. John even went before Jesus in a death like his, at the hands of a powerful man trying to save face.
We’ve talked a lot through this Isaiah series about hoping and waiting, and that’s good. We need to learn how to wait, and there will be times in life where there’s not much you can do besides wait on the Lord. In times of sickness, for example, waiting on the results of a test, or in a conflict, waiting on someone’s mind to change, an apology to come, a child to arrive, or the world to change. But we, if we desire to be peacemakers like John, are also called to prepare the way of the Lord.
There’s not a whole lot of difference, when you think about it, between waiting and preparing. They’re both things you do before some important event or arrival, but preparing is filled with purposeful activity, and waiting is just kind of a held breath.
My son’s been doing a lot of waiting recently. He bought a remote control car with his allowance, and the shipping on it was five days. His prayer request in our Tuesday night small group was for his car to arrive early—which it did, by two days. But I woke him up the morning I wrote this sermon and before he said anything, no “good morning,” still half asleep, he goes, “Today’s the day.” Add to that the anticipation of Christmas coming, with the advent calendars on our walls, his life is filled with waiting.
My week was the opposite. We had our area pastors’ Christmas party Thursday, and I was asked to give the devotional—to a room full of far more skilled and experienced pastors, all of whom I see on a regular basis. I spent my whole week preparing for the party, making sure we had enough food and tables and working on my devotional, trying desperately to pave the way and have things move smoothly.
That’s preparation. And we’re meant, as Christians, and especially in this time of advent, to do a bit of both. As peacemakers in the world, we’re meant to be children, anxiously awaiting, the return of Christ, counting the days, even if we have no conception of when the Day will arrive. And we’re meant to be soldiers, fighting when we have to, and when not, building roads to peace.
We’ve talked a lot recently about the weapons of the Lord, the ways he fights, and oftentimes you do have to fight for peace, take up the Lord’s armor and step into the fray. Not fighting in the sense of violence, “war is peace”—so many horrible things have been done in God’s name because we tried to use death or shame toward divine ends—but fighting with the Lord’s weapons, like John the Baptist calling the Pharisees out on their split allegiances and oppressive self-righteousness.
But we can’t always fight. Lord knows some people try. I know some people who almost seem to thrive on disagreement, and in a room full of brothers and sisters can find the one issue to make a battle and draw lines and start a war. It’s better, if you’re not at the front, to learn to build roads instead of fighting amongst yourselves. V.77 tells us how John prepared the road of peace:
“You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins…to guide our feet into the road of peace.”
Salvation, not in the overthrow of Rome, not in a new president, not in a change of laws or of regimes, not in everyone agreeing you were right all along. Salvation doesn’t come in any of those things, by that way, but salvation does come in repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Yours, mine, your neighbor’s, your coworker’s, your son’s, your daughter’s.
Of course this isn’t an easy thing. To repent, you have to know what to repent of, and to be saved you have to realize you’re dying. Frederick Buechner writes, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It’s the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart…that’s the tragedy. But it’s also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.” Before I can honestly tell you as a pastor God can save you, I have to tell you you need saving—that you, yes even the church people—are sinful and in need of grace. That’s a hard message to preach in an age of sensitivity and offense at every turn. I think of the Roman soldiers tunneling through the mountains—pastoring at times has felt that way, enormous effort for only a little headway.
The Christian witness would be so much easier if we would just use intimidation and shame to turn people to God, but you can’t use the enemy’s weapons and not end up serving him in the end. No, if we are to prepare the way for the Lord, we have to find ways to proclaim repentance and forgiveness without resorting to shame. To speak truth without any kind of threat to the relationship, or insistence on our own way.
Like I said, it’s hard. Sometimes you have to speak truth in love to someone for years before you see a shred of repentance, if ever. Sometimes people are offended at the tragedy of the gospel and shout you down before you can speak the goodness of it. Sometimes the people meant to be working alongside you fight you, hurt you, leave you to work on your own. Sometimes the work itself is like trying to bore through rock, and the progress is measured in inches.
John preached and practiced forgiveness as the way to peace; not Roman peace, but shalom. John is preaching repent and be baptized, and God will forgive your sins. We prepare the way of the Lord by proclaiming in word and deed repentance and forgiveness. Whoever you are and whatever you’ve done, if you repent, there is forgiveness enough in Christ for you. That’s the road to peace, not just inner peace or peace for you, but peace you’re able to share with the people around you. Peace you can invite others into.
In closing, I want to remind and invite you, while we are called to prepare the way, Christ is that way. Jesus is Isaiah’s road that goes through every nation and brings people to dwell with him in peace. When we do wait, Christ is the one we’re waiting for. When we’re preparing the way, he’s the fullness and end of all our work, and without him everything we’ve done is useless. “Unless the Lord does raise the house, in vain it’s builders strive.”
Peace is a thing we long for even when we know nothing of it. Especially this time of year, we wish peace to each other not knowing what we’re saying, really. But you, Christian, have an opportunity to invite people into true peace, which is my invitation to you this morning.
Even if you’ve known the Lord for years, I would invite you into repentance and of your sin this morning, and salvation in forgiveness of your sins. No matter what road you’re walking down, or which way you’ve gone, you can always come back to center your life on this road.