Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent – December 5, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We who live here on Whidbey Island know that sometimes when we go off island, it can be difficult to get home. We depend on some curvy, winding roads and a narrow two-lane bridge for our journey home, and they are prone to accidents which block our way. My oldest son worked at the Port of Anacortes last summer and one afternoon there were two accidents which turned his 20-minute drive into a two-hour long ordeal. It is awful when you are stuck in that back-up, especially when you are tired or stressed and you just want to be home.
Just a couple of Mondays ago I was down in Edmonds to begin cleaning out my mother’s apartment a couple days after she died. When I was done for the day, I wanted nothing more than to just be home. Before leaving, I happened to check my phone and saw that a semi had been tipped on its side from the wind and was leaning precariously on the railing of the Deception Pass bridge. Thankfully the driver was OK (other than probably needing a new pair of pants) but I knew that it would snarl up traffic getting back onto the island for hours. And so I hopped on the Mukilteo ferry instead, where I was whisked directly to Whidbey Island in a nice, straight, unobstructed path. I was home in no time.
In our gospel reading from St. Luke this morning, we hear Luke quote the prophet Isaiah as a way of describing the work of John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Isaiah had written:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘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 smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
This part of Isaiah Luke points us to comes from a time when the people of Israel were in exile. They were in captivity in Babylon. They had been made to leave their beloved “island” of Israel and couldn’t get home.
This physical distance was real enough, it is something that actually happened in history, but their physical distance from home also reflected what they saw as a spiritual distance. The people of Israel saw their time of exile as a time of being far away from God. And so they longed to return. They longed to go home – both home to Israel, and home to God.
Isaiah promised the exiled people of Israel that they would return! This prophet of God promised them that there would indeed be a homecoming. And this homecoming, Isaiah said, wouldn’t come in a roundabout way, full of curvy roads and narrow pathways. This way home which was being prepared for them wouldn’t be crooked or hilly or rough or obstructed. There wouldn’t be any hindrances to block their way or even slow them down! They were going home on a straight, level highway of God’s own making.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Fast forward several hundred years. The people of Israel were physically home. The came out of exile and returned to Israel. But now they were being oppressively ruled by Romans instead of Babylonians. In our gospel reading St. Luke reminds his readers of what the political situation in Israel was like. He tells us the brutal Roman leader Pontius Pilate was serving as the governor of Judea. He tells us the conniving, murderous Herod was ruler over Galilee. He tells us the self-serving Annas and Caiaphas were serving as the high priests. And just as had happened in Babylon, many had turned away from the one true God and were increasingly comfortable with the pagan gods whose statues were popping up all over Israel. The people of God were physically home, but spiritually, for all but a remnant, they were still in exile, still far from God.
But then came a voice. Then came a new prophet, the last and the greatest of all prophets: John the Baptizer. St. Luke describes John as a new Isaiah. John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He called the people to turn away from those other gods. He called them to turn towards the one true God, the God who loved them, the God who had rescued their ancestors, the God who was coming to save them once and for all.
God was preparing a way home for them. God was now preparing a straight, smooth highway back to himself. John was preparing the way, but Jesus Christ would be the road itself. Jesus would be the straight path. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
That sinking feeling we get when we’re coming home from the mainland and see brake lights backed up all the way to Lake Crescent can serve as a metaphor for our lives at times. Sometimes we face obstacles. Sometimes we feel stuck and helpless. Sometimes we feel trapped in the dark, with nowhere to turn, nowhere to go. Sometimes we feel a deep longing and don’t see a path forward.
There are times we are in the same situation as the people of God after they’d returned to Israel from Babylon, when the world around us seems dire and hopeless and our leaders seem impotent or corrupt or both. Like the people of Israel, even when we are physically home, our hearts can be far from God. We might even start flirting with the false gods all around us.
But today a voice comes to us. Right on schedule for the second Sunday in Advent, right on schedule as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the last and best prophet, John the Baptizer, makes his appearance to tell us the Good News that a way home is, and indeed has been, prepared for us. In Jesus Christ, God has given us a smooth pathway back to him, There are no obstacles. There is no traffic. Through Jesus Christ God has forgiven our sin, so that’s not in the way anymore. Through Jesus Christ, God has cleared out every roadblock.
John prepares the way, and calls us to prepare the way, but Jesus himself is the way. Jesus is the way back to the home we long for. Our faith in him is the ferry which whisks us in a straight, unobstructed path home to God. You don’t need to stay stuck in exile. Put your trust in Christ. He will bring you home.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church