Sunday, December 08, 2013

Second Sunday of Advent

Matthew 3
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

You could argue that he was a cross between George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rosa Parks, with MLK thrown in to complete the picture. I think it is safe to say that we are unlikely to see another Nelson Mandela any time soon, and his death gives us a clear sense that a moment in history has passed.

We, of course, have been privileged to witness this unfolding story. Imprisoned and seemingly rendered powerless, only to become the moral conscience of an age. Released and expected to reverse the fortunes of the people, only to work for truth and reconciliation. Governing and expected to govern for as least as long as his prison sentence, only to retire and work for peace.

You might argue that his passing comes with unexpected timing, with churches around the world this morning reading Matthew 3 on this second Sunday in Advent, and hearing an echo of this modern story:

This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness.”

From the wilderness of a lime quarry on Robbins Island to the halls of power, Mandela maintained the same dignity and sense of humanity that allowed him to speak with such authority. No longer crying in the wilderness, now among the saints in light.


Whenever we try to understand one thing in light or another thing, we are making an analogy. It is a look at similarities, in an effort to case some light on the thing we seek to understand. Two ‘fathers’ of their country (in my comparison) may be separated by 200 years, but thinking of one in light of the other helps us put them into perspective.

Two weeks ago I spoke of John the Baptist as the new Elijah, drawing a comparison between the righteous anger these two men expressed. And closely related to analogy is typology, trying to understand things by putting them in categories, organizing them by types. Both John the Baptist and Elijah fit in the angry prophet category, that is their typology, and we can stop there if we wish, but it seems Matthew wants us to see more.

Typology here extends beyond a type of people or the type of role they undertake, and includes the type of story we read, the goal of the story, and how we can understand later events more clearly if we categorize them with earlier stories.

And Matthew makes it simple. In fact, all the Gospel writers want us to see that John the Baptist is fulfilling the role that Isaiah defined so eloquently 500 years earlier:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, saying,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

This quote that we sing and say with such frequency is found in Isaiah 40, the transitional chapter in Isaiah, the beginning of the latter half of the book that some have called the ‘fifth Gospel.” So important is Isaiah that when we stop to count, 27 of the 37 Old Testament quotes found in the letters of St. Paul are quotes from Isaiah.

You will remember how chapter 40 begins, because George Frideric Handel wants you to:

Comfort ye,
comfort ye my people,
saith your God.

This is the comfort promised as the exile in Babylon ends, as pain is ended, and the people are allowed to return. And the words of comfort continue:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

There is loving regret here, similar to the regret that we spoke about last week with our old friend Noah. God promised that never again would the earth be destroyed, that the rainbow promise would stand for all of time. Likewise, the path for exiles to return has been carefully set, hills made low and valleys filled, as the glory of the LORD has been revealed.

So the story of John the Baptist is a retelling of Isaiah 40, the exiles are leaving corrupt and sinful lives in the cities and towns and making their way into the wilderness, to hear this message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Through John’s baptism they are cleansed to return and serve God, and prepare for the coming for the one for whom they wait.

But there is still more. The Bible continues to sing and make meaning, this time pointing back further still:

There's a voice in the wilderness crying,
a call from the ways untrod:
prepare in the desert a highway,
a highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted,
the lofty hills brought low;
make straight all the crooked places
where the Lord our God may go!

Scholars tell us that this is a reference to the Exodus from Egypt, taking us back in time again, and that, in fact, much of Isaiah is a retelling of the foundational story of the Jewish faith. Listen to Isaiah 43:

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

The path from Babylon to the new Jerusalem will not be just another passage through the desert, it will be a reenactment of the Exodus itself, and God will once again lead them, and protect them from peril, and give them springs of water to drink. Once again, everyone will know that the people belong to God, their strength and deliverer.

Now, some or all of you are aware of the miniature degree in theology we have been working on here at Central, for nearly six years: the same informal degree in theology that Dr. Jim among others is still wondering if it will turn itself into something useful like a clergy parking spot, or an abundance of foolish titles and letters.

Way back on the first night of our look at the Bible, I suggested that there are in fact only three key themes in the Bible, and that mastery of these three themes will unlock the Bible like a key or what Dan Brown would call a code. The three themes—exodus, exile and Emmanuel—not only begin with the same letter but are fully present in the third chapter of Matthew.

A voice in the wilderness says prepare the way of the Lord’s coming: Emmanuel
The glory of the Lord will be revealed as those far from home will return: Exile
A path in the desert of now clear, a highway from bondage and sorrow: Exodus

We are reading the greatest collision of Biblical themes found in the Bible. And it has all come down to this moment in time: captives are free from sin and death and ready to witness to the Lord’s coming. Make a straight path for him, make a straight path, prepare the way of the Lord.

May God continue to lead us on a journey that defies time and place and can only bring us home. May God bless us through the rest of our Advent wandering, until we find rest in the little town of Bethlehem, Amen.


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