Sheepscott Community Church December 5, 2010
Isaiah 11: 1-10
Matthew 3: 1-12
8 The King’s Highway
In biblical times, when a person was setting out on a journey, he was expected to tie up any loose business ends, make sure his will, with the disposition of his estate was in order, and finally to bid goodbye to his family and friends with the expectation of possibly not returning. The reason for that dire preparation was largely the condition of the roads and the thieves who lived among the rocks and crannies of the bleak desert wilderness through which those roads wended. In relation to the gospel of the Good Samaritan, we have previously considered the dangers of those roads, and the additional shine they gave to the credentials of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help another human being who had been set upon by the storied thieves, and thus had endangered himself.
The roads themselves were nothing more than narrow animal trails, and it was the donkeys, which we meet again and again in the scripture, who could ably pick their way along those trails in more surefooted fashion than their human masters. I expect the situation can be compared to descending the Grand Canyon on horse- or mule-back, the only way to approach that precarious descent/ascent.
So, you have a picture of this inhospitable wilderness with its even less hospitable roads. By contrast, in the time of King Solomon, 10th century B.C.E., the King ordered the roads approaching Jerusalem covered with basalt, a dark, dense igneous rock from lava flow that gave a smoother surface and black appearance to the road. The King’s purpose in putting down the basalt was to demonstrate his riches and his largesse, but also to make it easier for pilgrims to reach Jerusalem, and to facilitate his own travels. All such surfaced and artificially made roads were originally built and maintained for the use of the King, and so, they were called The King’s Highway. The ancient historian Josephus included that in his history of the period.
The King’s Highway. You did know I was going somewhere with that, didn’t you? Our address here is 8 The King’s Highway, Newcastle, Maine. We have three weeks to repair the highway before the King arrives at # 8. Considering the gospel this morning, John the Baptist has given us a formula to get that highway ready for the King, to prepare the way, and repentance is the watchword. ”Prepare the way of the Lord,” John declares to his listeners. “Make straight paths for him.” Make ready the road by which the Lord is coming.
How do we do that? How do we make straight those paths? By asking before God, What do I need to repent of? How many times did I not say the kind thing, but rather the easy sarcastic remark? How many times did I make a joke at someone else’s expense? To guide us we can simply lift the series of commandments right out of the first chapter of Isaiah: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
John the Baptist was probably originally dedicated at the Temple by his observant parents. If you recall, his father Zachariah was a priest. This is not unlike our being baptized, christened or dedicated by our parents as infants. But it was John’s own resolve, the product of brooding and prayer, that led him to the understanding that life for him was more than acceptance of what the days might bring, of letting life happen to him. A life was given for a God-ordained task, and John disciplined himself toward this holy end. He chose a desert as his place to draw close to God. He was ascetic in his dress and in his eating habits and dwelt in solitude. Unlike ourselves, he was a stern realist in matters of right and wrong. We debate relativities; John would argue to err on the side of scruple rather than laxity. He was the embodiment of integrity in daily life, and although we might not even want to strive for the level of holiness that was his way of life, it’s good to have such a model to inspire and translate as we can into our lives in the twenty-first century.
A bit more asceticism, self-denial wouldn’t hurt any of us, and the more difficult it is, the more opportunity we have to think about the value of sacrificing a measure of our own comfort or leisure for the sake of another. Here, you have the last piece of chicken. I’ve already had enough. Something as simple as that is what Jesus did to the max, and what John practiced before him. Each of these men accepted a life lived in and for God, and for others, as God directed.
Indeed John, who was purified by his experience in the desert, came not with some opinion of his own, but with a message from God. He pointed beyond himself. He showed evil for what it was. He spoke the truth and wasn’t afraid of offending anyone. He also rebuked sin and was a signpost to God, pointing the way to those who were willing to repent, and were convicted of their own sin. He not only rebuked sin but challenged those who came out to hear him to be what they could be. He called people to higher things and did not appeal to their baser nature, the lowest common denominator of what it means to be human, characteristic of so much of the discourse we hear today.
This conversion to higher things, to higher ideas and ideals, is possible not because of the spiritual capital of the past. “We are sons of Abraham!” the Jews said to John, a claim that any Jew believed would be enough to save him or her. Abraham’s status was unique because of his goodness and his favor with God, his merits sufficing not only for himself but for all his descendants as well. And here is this prophet come in from the desert dressed in animal skins, living on locusts and honey for his food, he comes along and announces that the Jews cannot count on that historical spiritual capital, as God can raise up children for Abraham from stones on the ground. Outrageous! No one had ever talked that way.
He pointed the way to the One who came after him, whose sandals, as he says in the gospel, he was not fit to carry. John is making it clear to his listeners that he is not the bottom line, the final answer, that in fact another would come after him who would baptize not with water, as he did, but with the Spirit and with fire. It was he who would be the answer. John’s whole attitude was one of self-obliteration, not self-importance. That’s what happens when you spend years in a desert being purified, whatever form that desert might take: loneliness, ridicule, sickness, rejection, all of which can constitute a kind of desert of purification, suffering, that makes a way for the King, prepares a way, a straight road, an open door at number 8 The King’s Highway.
But what of this Spirit John talked about, this Holy Spirit who would baptize with fire? Before we can receive that Spirit, we have to produce fruits of repentance, as John said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he called a brood of vipers. He wasn’t much of a sweet-talker. The fruit of our repentance is not merely a sentimental sorrow, but a real change of life. And in this area we need to go in fear of trading on the mercy of God when it comes to going halfway with repentance, as in, a little bit of this sin, a little bit of that, there’s time enough to repent when I’m older. Remember the message from last week: You know not the hour or the day when the Son of Man will come.
Do I mean to put the fear of God in you? I guess I do, and in myself. But more to the point is to instill a fear or dread of not fulfilling the call on our lives, the call on the gift our lives are. What we really need to walk in fear of is our own habits of indolence and self-indulgence that interfere with fulfilling that call on our lives, that interfere with our relationship with God, whose Spirit longs to show us the way to greater and greater life.
It isn’t so much God’s judgment on us, it’s our own judgment on ourselves which we project on God. God is all-forgiving, all-loving. Not so, us. Not so, us. We are more inclined toward judgment and vengeance. In any case, the instrument of mediation between God cast as judge, and ourselves cast as the accused is that repentance, genuine, life-changing repentance. No matter what we have done or haven’t done, no matter the depth of shame we may feel over something hidden in our past, which we’ve consigned to the deepest of our inner rooms, no matter that we have sealed that room shut, when we express to God our sincere sorrow for what we have done, whatever the full reality of the spriitual dynamics involved is, the seal on that door is immediately broken, and the light floods in on that shriveled, unloved part of ourselves that has been under wraps, hiding for so long.
The light that floods in is that shed by the King, who has arrived at number 8 The King’s Highway, our house of worship. No entourage, just himself. If God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, how much more will he raise us up as flesh and blood beings who are bent on being God’s people, whatever it takes, demonstrated by our willingness to repent?
When we repent, we make a way for the Spirit of God to enter into our life situations, that our own weakness may be clad with the power of God so we can do those acts that are the fruits of repentance without self-consciousness and with joy. And we, like John the Baptist, can live as God’s message, reflecting the image of the Creator, our own personalities fully developed in the truth of who we are.
As we contemplate our lives before God in these weeks of Advent pilgrimage not to the Jerusalem of Eastertime, but to the Bethlehem of Christmastime, let us prepare ourselves with prayer, and that right now, before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.