Sermon; Advent 2C; Luke 3:1-6
“Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation . . .”
So begins the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent. This Collect actually does what Collects are supposed to do – collect the disparate thoughts of individuals and bring us all into a unified focus of a worshiping body. It touches on a theme present in all the readings to give us a foundation on which to build. Today's theme and foundation is that of God's messengers preaching repentance to prepare the way for our salvation.
In the first lesson, Baruch proclaims a time when the dispersed children of God who had been taken away would return to Jerusalem. He proclaims a time when that return will be glorious and magnificent. And he proclaims that mountains and hills will be made low, valleys filled up, and the ground made level.
This morning's Canticle, the Song of Zechariah, proclaims a time when a savior would come, setting his people free from enemies and to worship God without fear. Zechariah sings this to his son, John, whom he declares as the forerunner of the Messiah to prepare his way.
And in the gospel, John fulfills his father's prophecy by preparing the way for Jesus and announcing that mountains and hills will be made low and valleys filled, reiterating the prophecy of Baruch.
We are in the season of Advent – the season of preparation. We wait in that liminal time of the already and not yet in hopeful expectation for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. All of our readings point us toward that coming. Last week it was the coming of the Son of Man at the end of days in power and great glory. Today and next Sunday it is the coming of Jesus and his ministry to the people of Israel. And in two weeks we prepare for the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form.
In one respect this has all been fulfilled. In Christianity, John is considered the last of the prophets and he came announcing the coming of the Messiah. When Christians truly follow Christ and live into his example and mission, there is a leveling of the social, political, and economic systems in which all people are seen as children of God and treated with dignity and respect. In this way the kingdom of God truly is at hand. God is present and we are free.
This is the already.
The reality, though, is much different. Yes, John came announcing the coming of the Messiah, but we have not done a very good job of living into the kingdom. The social, political, and economic systems of the world are still filled with incredibly high mountains and awfully low valleys. Too many people are seen not as children of God but as invaders and cancers to be eliminated. Dignity and respect have been replaced with fear and loathing. And even here at St. John's we are talking about active shooters and people are afraid. Imagine the fear our Jewish, Muslim, or African-American congregations have every time they gather to worship.
This is the not yet.
As I was thinking about our current state of already and not yet, and pondering the readings for today, I kept coming back to this image of the mountains and hills being made low and the valleys raised up. It occurred to me that many of us have heard this, myself included, as a physical prophecy. That is, that literal mountains and hills will be made low and the valleys raised up in a physical leveling out so that our physical journey to Jerusalem is made easy. In ancient times this was something that was done (to the best of their ability) to ensure the approaching king had an easy journey. But I'm not sure that is correct.
The more I think about it, the more I see those mountains, hills, and valleys as a reflection of the social, political, and economic systems in which we live. The mountains and hills of the wealthy and powerful. The mountains and hills of systemic racism that affords me the luxury of not being killed, profiled, or harassed because I am white. The valleys that are designed to discriminate and keep certain people “in their place.”
These are the mountains, hills, and valleys that Baruch and John were describing. These are the systems from which Zechariah longed to be freed. This is what Mary will address when she sings, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”
In last week's gospel Jesus said that there would be distress among the nations and people would faint from fear. That was part of the apocalyptic vision found in Luke 21, and it's looking forward to what we call the Second Coming. It's also why we use it on Advent 1 because Advent is that season of looking forward and preparing.
But instead of being all panicky about those end days, of wars and rumors of wars and such, what if that apocalyptic vision was looking forward to this time of leveling out that Baruch and John were proclaiming? The razing of mountains and hills and the uplifting of valleys in a social-political-economic context is terrifying to people.
It's why the upper classes fear the lower classes and economic redistribution. It's why those in power fear those whom they rule and dominate. It's why the white majority fears people with dark skin.
Leveling mountains and hills and raising valleys is more than a nice visual of smoothing out the roads to Jerusalem. It's a metaphor for the social-political-economic upheaval that occurs when we actually live into, and work to bring about, the kingdom of God.
When we actually live into kingdom ideals, when we actually love our neighbors as ourselves, when we actually strive for justice and peace, when we actually respect the dignity of every human being, then we will see mountains and hills brought low and valleys raised up. And when these things begin to happen we will be in the midst of preparing for our salvation.
We are in Advent – the season of hopeful and expectant preparation. Look around: what needs to be brought down, what needs to be raised up, and how can you help shake the world?
May we hear the words of the prophets and work to repent of the sins that created social, political, and economic mountains and valleys as we prepare for the kingdom of God to appear on earth as it is in heaven.