A sermon based on Luke 1:67-80 and Luke 3:1-6 preached on December 6th, 2015
About 20 years ago I was confronted by a truth that was staring me right in the face. The only problem was I couldn’t see it. I didn’t have eyes to see it.
I was in Honduras with my home church. We were at the end of our 2-week long mission trip where we slept on dirt floors in a ramshackle schoolhouse made of mud and sticks and a corrugated tin roof. It was the first time in my life that I had seen poverty.
At the end of our 2-week journey, we’re staying in a much different place in Honduras—a hotel in Copan with A/C and hot showers and mattresses. And we got together that last night of our trip to reflect back on all that we saw and heard and learned. My pastor Charlie, the leader of our group, asked us a question that still echoes through me. He said,
Once we get back home, what do we do about the suffering and the poverty we’ve seen here?
I was quick to respond by saying,
We pray for the people of Honduras.
Sure. Why not? Prayer is good. How could a pastor have a problem with that? But Pastor Charlie spoke up right away and confronted me, saying,
Sometimes a prayerful response means taking action to create change—doing something real and practical.
I shared this moment on social media this week, and I reflected upon how that moment changed me. It really did flip my whole life upside down. I had never been challenged that way before—and even though Pastor Charlie’s words were spoken patiently and kindly, they were also confrontational and uncomfortable for me to hear. That moment caused an itch in me that I still can’t fully scratch, and I am immensely grateful to Pastor Charlie for planting that annoyance—that discomfort—inside of me.
Sometimes we need someone to come alongside of us and awaken us to the truth that stands right in front of us, a voice who acts as an alarm clock, waking us up from our slumber.
After I got home from that trip, I began to be pulled in an entirely different direction. I didn’t know exactly where I was being led, but I had this sense that God was leading me along a new and completely different pathway, and all I had to do was listen, follow, and keep watch.
In my first 3 years of college, I was a part of a Christian campus ministry called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. When I came back for my senior year after that trip to Honduras, I never went back to IVCF—not once. I couldn’t go back. I was done with the kind of Christian faith they had taught me. It was an individualistic faith that was only concerned about how to get to heaven when our time on earth was through. It was a sentimental Christianity—the kind that makes you feel all warm inside like a Hallmark card. I was done with the sort of Christianity that sought more to comfort than confront.
During my senior year in college I read more books than I had in the past 20 years combined. I hardly touched my textbooks that year. Instead, I picked up book after book on theology and the bible, and I couldn’t stop—I didn’t want to stop. I was searching for truth after believing so many lies.
What I learned that night from Pastor Charlie was like an invasion—but a good one, an invasion of truth, an invasion of light. It knocked me off my center completely, and for a long while I didn’t know which way was up, but I knew that God was right there with me in the center of my confusion. I was ready to see something new, and God was giving me the gift of an unquenchable thirst—a nagging hunger—a feeling of complete discomfort. God was invading me with a new way to see, and it was rude of Him, and perplexing to me, confrontational, mystifying, yes; but at the same time holy, and wondrous.
Why does Luke spend so much time—half of this passage—mentioning all the political and religious rulers of the day? The whole first paragraph is full of hard-to-pronounce names. What is Luke trying to say? In order to understand what Luke is trying to do here, let’s re-interpret his entire first paragraph using something a bit more modern:
In the 7th year of President Barack Obama—when John Kerry was Secretary of State and Paul Ryan was Speaker of the House, and the Republican Majority leader was Mitch McConnell. When Earl Ray Tomblin was Governor of West Virginia, the word of the Lord came to none of them. Because none of them were listening. Instead, it came to a guy who lives way out in Wayne County whose name is John. And this guy, John, he baptizes people.
Luke takes the time to list all these important-sounding people only to say that absolutely none of them have any clue what God is really up to. But he also lists all these names because they help us place what God is doing in a definite point in human history. It’s important to Luke to make sure we know that God acts at a very specific time, during the reign of a very specific emperor, in a very specific place, in very specific ways, using very specific people. Luke wants us to know the eternal God, who exists beyond all measures of time or place chooses to enter into the small and very specific spaces of our lives and do something new with us and among us.
John the Baptist was a startling man. No one had every seen anything like him. He was profoundly uninterested in the religious rituals of his day. He was unimpressed with the goings-on in the Temple in Jerusalem. He had enough of this idea that folks were good with God just because they grew up going to church, saying all the right prayers, and believing in all the right things. None of that seemed important to him. In fact, John came to wake people up from all of that. He noticed how easy it was for us to become settled in our religious ways—sleepwalking through our lives; settling for sappy religious platitudes instead of taking the chance to be confronted by a God who is always doing something new and surprising.
John the Baptist was an alarm clock. In the fullness of time, with Jesus here and living among us, John’s call to repent—to change our hearts and lives—should shock us awake and knock us out of our beds. Now is the time for us to wake up to God! The holy is here and ready to invade us! Are we prepared to be startled by God’s truth?
Advent is an interruption. An invasion. God enters into our history through the side door when we’re all expecting a knock on the front door, and God speaks through an unknown prophet, this crazy messenger with an even crazier message who won’t leave us alone until we start taking him seriously when he says we all need to be ready because the time is here—God is here among us.
Advent is a season of detours. It’s an invitation to walk in a different way, to see that in the day to day routine of our lives where everything seems ordinary and time just marches on from one minute to the next, that something else is happening. That there’s this voice calling to us from far out in the wilderness—it’s a nagging voice that most of us would rather ignore. It’s a voice urging us to wake up from our unmindful ways of moving through our lives. This voice, it keeps tugging at our ears, saying to us over and over again something about shifting direction, walking in a new way, listening deeper, seeing more. Being guided along by something other than our own sense of direction. Do we wake up to that voice, or will we continue living in the middle of the slumber of our lives?
This last Wednesday in our Advent bible study, we talked a bit about direction. There was a study done not too long ago where a German researcher named Jan Souman blindfolded more than a few volunteers and asked them to walk in a straight line for an hour. Without exception, no one could do it. From the very start, they veered off in one direction or the other, and within a few minutes they were walking in circles—all the while thinking they were walking in a straight line. According to Jan Souman’s research, there is only one way to walk in a straight line: by focusing on something ahead of us, outside of us—a building or a landmark. Without external cues, there’s something in us that makes us turn from a straight path. And here we have John the Baptist, the direction-giver, pointing us ahead, declaring that with this Jesus, the One who is coming, the crooked will be made straight. Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.
In order to for us to keep on the straight path that God wants for us to walk upon, in order to keep being faithful to God’s call upon our lives, we need external cues. We need a voice shouting out to us to repent, to change direction. We need correction. We need our vision checked. And sometimes, we need to be confronted.
It was in a hotel in Honduras 20 years ago that I was confronted by Pastor Charlie’s words. They were painful words for me to hear at the time. It would have been much easier for me to continue believing that nothing inside of me needed to change after seeing all that I had seen while visiting Honduras. It would have been much easier for me to go back home and live my life just as I had before, but I couldn’t do that. Pastor Charlie was my John the Baptist at that particular moment. An alarm clock. An urgent and daring voice who spoke up to confront me, to wake me from my slumber.
The voice of John the Baptist is a reminder that in order to be ready to see Jesus for who He truly is, we need to be shocked awake, that the truth of God sometimes feels like an invasion of our comfortable ways and our convenient notions of how the world works. In order to make way for the truth who is Jesus, we have to be willing to have all our assumptions of what God is like bulldozed out of the way.
Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight! The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth…and all of humanity will see God’s salvation!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!