(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
This Sunday is the second Sunday of Advent. As we prepare to celebrate God becoming human like us, we think about what being human means.
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.
Here are eight humans to think about. Seven people have titles: one emperor, one governor, three rulers, and two high priests. Seven people placed in positions of power. Seven people the world declares to be important. The word of God comes to none of these seven. The word of God comes to the eighth.
These seven humans peer down from their positions of power and say, Who? Who is John son of Zechariah? He has no title, he is not in a position of power, the world does not declare him to be important. He is no one.
But the word of God comes to John.
We notice that John is in the wilderness. He is in a place that is wild, a place that is not ruled by humans, a place that belongs to the realm of God. This is where the word of God finds him.
When the word of God comes to John, what does he do?
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
He cannot keep it to himself. He has to proclaim it to all who will listen. Be baptized, he says. Repent and be forgiven, he says. Why? What has he heard?
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘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.’
What is all this straightening, and smoothing, and levelling? What is going on?
Prepare the way of the Lord, Isaiah says. Make his paths straight. Isaiah is giving us work to do. Make a straight path, make the distance between us and the Lord shortest possible. But how? How can this be done? John the Baptist has already told us how. We repent. We turn back to the Lord.
What about the work of filling in the valleys, and lowering the mountains and hills? What about making rough ways smooth? Is this our work, too? It does not seem likely. Isaiah speaks these words long before bulldozers and dynamite. Flattening the landscape is is impossible work for humans. This has to be the work of God.
This is what repentance does. We allow God in. We allow God to get about doing God's work. We allow God to take the consequences of our sin and flatten them.
What are the consequences of sin? Our sin can puff us up to lofty heights, full of pride, looking down on others. Our sin can put large obstacles like mountains in other people's paths. Our sin can lower us into the muck, doing things we are ashamed to speak aloud. Our sin can drag others down into the valley with us, and gets us stuck in habits difficult to break. Sin distances us from God.
But repentance allows God to change all that. We look up from our valley of our shame, of the things we regret and cannot change, and who do we see? It is our God with arms outstretched to lift us up. We look down from the teetering heights of our pride, and who do we see? It is our God, with arms outstretched to catch us, saying, "Come down here with me. I am coming to your house today." It is our God who becomes human like us to walk us up out of the valleys and down from the mountains to be with him.
So, in Advent, we look into the wild place of our heart, the place not ruled by humans, the place that is the realm of God. We listen to the Word. We repent. We allow God in to flatten the landscape so that we may see the salvation of our God.