December 17, 2017 – The Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
God has been in the news a lot lately. Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, the pope has endorsed a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer. But I’m talking about the special election of a U.S. Senator that we all just endured. That unpleasantness kept our state and the role that religion plays in our version of politics on the televisions and radios and social media feeds of people across the nation. People in our part of the world talk about religion almost as much as we talk about football, but, when I hear other Christians talk about the religion we supposedly share, it makes me wonder whether we actually worship the same God at all.
We read the same Bible. We worship the same Lord. We say the same creeds. We pray the same prayers. But we can’t talk about who God is and what God wants and what it means to be faithful to God in a way that shows the world that we have a God worth believing in. Instead, when we talk about our faith, we use such diametrically opposed soundbites that we cannot blame the world for thinking that we care more about following our own ways than God’s ways. Of course, the problem isn’t God. The problem is us. The problem is that we take who God is and what God wants and bury those principles beneath that great human invention that is the real problem: religion. And that problem is as old as the human race.
It may sound strange for a preacher like me to start a sermon by decrying the fundamental flaws of religion, but that is the heart of the movement that Jesus came to start. And, today, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we see in the showdown between John the Baptist and his interrogators how the conflict between religion and faith becomes the backdrop for Jesus’ arrival and public ministry.
“Who are you?” they asked. But first, who were they? They were the priests and Levites who were sent by the Jewish authorities to ascertain what was behind the ministry of John the Baptizer. Think about that for a minute. The authorities in Jerusalem, who represented a mixture of religious and political powerbrokers from the capital city, sent priests and Levites, who were the official representatives of the religion of the day—out into the wilderness, down to the Jordan River, to find out what was going on. They had witnessed droves of people leave the city and the surrounding villages and the temple and synagogues where their religion was enshrined to go and hear the prophet and be baptized by him in the river. It seemed that a religious revival was taking place, but no one had bothered to invite the religious authorities. And those authorities wanted to know why.
“Who are you?” they asked. Given the exchange that follows, maybe a better way of translating their question would be, “Who do you think that you are?” John the gospel-writer doesn’t tell us exactly what was meant by their question, but the answer that John the Baptist gave them says it all: “I am not the messiah.” In other words, the preaching that John was doing and the baptism that he was offering represented such a substantial break from the run-of-the-mill religion to which everyone was accustomed that they expected that the person who would do those things would have messianic authority. They didn’t think that John would actually be the messiah, but they didn’t think that he would deny it either.
When he did, they tried a different option. “Are you Elijah?” they asked .And John said, “No, I’m not.” And they said, “If you’re not the messiah or Elijah, you must be the prophet we have been waiting for—the prophet-like-Moses who is promised to come.” But again John denied it, saying, “No, that’s not me either.” At this point, all of their suppositions had been rejected. John did not fit into any of their expectations. “Who are you, then?” they asked. “Give us an answer for the people who sent us.” And John replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
That might not sound confusing to those of us who are accustomed to hearing Isaiah 40 being applied to John the Baptist and his ministry, but, to those who heard him quote the prophet, these were perplexing words. To describe himself and his work, John had picked an ancient prophecy that told of the mountains and hills being flattened, the rough places being made into a plain, and the difficult, rugged terrain being turned into a highway that would connect God’s people with their God. But, when those priests and Levites looked around at the rag-tag group that was gathered around John, they wondered how and where this could possibly happen. What proof could John give to back up this bold prediction? “If you’re not the messiah or Elijah or the prophet, what are you doing baptizing all of these people?” they asked. And John shook his head and thought, “No wonder these all of people have come out into the countryside to hear what I have to say. The people are desperate to find the path that leads back to God, and the religious authorities from the city have no idea that it is staring them in the face.”
In the minds of the religious authorities, there were only two ways back to God: the slow, familiar, undramatic progression that religion represented or a new, speedier path that could only be brought by a God-sent figure like the messiah or Elijah or the prophet. Since John the Baptist promised the people a highway to their God and the salvation that God would give them, they figured that he would be a messianic pretender or at least lay claim to some special prophetic identity. But John claimed neither of those things. Instead, he offered them a third option that they hadn’t considered. John believed that the eight-lane expressway to God and God’s salvation didn’t need to wait for the messiah to show up before it could be opened. John understood that the job of the faithful was to see and establish that superhighway not as a response to the messiah’s arrival but in anticipation of it. John’s preaching and baptism were about preparing the way for the anointed one to come into the hearts and lives of God’s people. The religious authorities may have known that it was a distant possibility, but they had all but forgotten what it meant to watch and wait with urgency for the coming of God’s salvation.
Are we doing any better? The job of the faithful is to be the voice that cries in the wilderness of life, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Is that what you hear your church doing? Is that what you hear yourself doing? When someone asks you what your church or your faith stands for, what do you tell them? Some churches stand for morality. Other churches stand for tradition. Some make an idol of inclusion. All of us to one degree or another have swapped unadulterated faith in God for something that is mediated by man-made religion. If the institution in which we worship has decided that a slow, familiar, undramatic progression toward God is good enough until Jesus comes back, then we are guilty of a grave sin. If we are more interested in connecting people with ourselves than connecting them with the awesome, uncontainable power of God, then we aren’t preparing the way for the coming of Christ. We’re blocking it.
God is in the transformation business. God is about the work of bringing good news to the oppressed and binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives and offering release to the prisoners. If we’re waiting for Jesus to show up before we make that our business, we have missed the point entirely. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to come back before we repent of all the things that stand in the way of God’s dream for the world. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to come back before we acknowledge that we’ve spent far too much time and effort and money and words convincing the world that we are God’s favorites, that our branch of religion in the one God likes best. Now is the time to get out the business of religion for religion’s sake and embrace the coming of our savior by laying down a highway between God’s salvation and the world that desperately needs it.