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Holy Roadworks. 

Advent 3 Common Lectionary Year C

Luke 3: 1-18

Rev Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

There are plenty of you here who getting used to this transplanted Lancashire Brit as your minister. A slightly odd (some would say confused) accent  is one trait, but another one  is this: us Northerners tend to be blunt! We call a spade a spade, and when bad things ‘appen to us or to the world, we call that “a right mess.”

But John the Baptist puts us northerners in the shade! Never (nevah!) would I begin a sermon like he does: “You brood of snakes!” He hisses at you! “Oo told you to flee from the wrath to come?!”

I mean, really!! If that’s what they taught in the Wilderness school of prophetic preaching, I’m glad I went to Lotus land Vancouver instead!

What gets me about this, though, is that Luke says there were crowds who came to listen to him! Luke’s version of his sermonizing doesn’t exactly endear one to the Wildman of the wilderness. But something must be going on that people flocked out of the towns of the Galilee to hear him, and  take him seriously enough to be dunked in the Jordan by him, emerging dripping wet newborns into a life of repentance!

I think I can be forgiven for wanting, as a preacher to stick with Ainslie’s half of the reading, rather than Rod’s:  far less less insulting to work  with John’s  holy road works, preparing the way for the Prince of Peace to come than cursing children of Abraham.

But blunt calls to blunt I guess, and every time I wandered along John’s desert highway, his voice kept calling me back to his snakepit sermon. That, and those who hung around long enough to hear it through to its fiery end, and even get into it enough to call out questions.

It seems at first that Luke doesn’t tell us much about them; -  far less about them than all those highfaluting Romans he lists in great deal at the beginning. Luke calls them simply “those people”, (the hoi polio) crowds.  But Luke isn’t being careless, but deliberate. We are supposed to notice that the ones who are listening, and responding to John are the unnamed moved and shaken of history, the labourers of the land, the shop-workers, the factory workers, the Tot-time Moms, the Morning Connections ladies, the church choir people….. the ones fed up with government corruption, fed up with a legal system gone wild, the ones terrified that some gunman will open up on their children on a December Friday afternoon. The ones who know pretty well the landscape of wilderness, if by wilderness John means those places far away  from equitable productivity, far away from distributive justice, far away from  peace, prosperity and liberty of body and conscience.

It’s these people who are hearing in John’s fire and brimstone expostulations not hell on earth, but the dawning possibility of  heaven on earth. You’d be forgiven for missing it; it seems so upside down.

Peterson’s  The Message has John yell “It’s your life that must change, not your skin!” That vaguely southern accent of Peterson masks the bluntness of John’s favourite word, and probably one that will make you squirm more than the snakes did; “Repent!”

Few of us want to hear that word at all, and none of us wants to hear it in the third week of Advent when we are still in the warm afterglow of the tidings and joy of last night’s carol service, the smell of gingerbread from the kitchen, the anticipation of chestnuts roasting on an open fire…. and all that jazz!

But then again, John is blunter than a Lancastrian, and doesn’t give a figgy pudding for the tinselled Christmas we want in our northern winter.

“Repent! Change your life!” He yells. And not surprisingly the rag tag hoi polloi ask him, “How?!” Are they incredulous,  ironic, genuine?

Who knows, but, ee!, this is where it gets exciting!!  Because John has answers!

This prophet of God, this holy roadworker sounds a lot like my Grandad. Blunt, practical and to the point:

“Get out into your wilderness,” he says, “start building a highway for God through it one pebble at a time. Because this wilderness certainly needs God to get as close as possible.”

He tells the nobodies who have little if anything, “Share what you have, take a casserole to a friend when they are sick, hand on your kids’ outgrown clothes to someone who needs them. Knit toques for the homeless.  Compost and recycle for the sake of the planet. Babysit the kids for someone who has no family to help out, Shovel your neighbour’s snow, make gingerbread to share with shut-ins. That’s how God’s highway gets built, one mustard seed size pebble of goodness at a time.”

To those who found themselves servants of the system in some way -in John’s day it was the Judean who collected taxes for Rome. Today it is maybe someone who works for the city, or for a cash-strapped school board, or on the customer service desk of a multinational conglomerate. To these John says, “Highway making looks like this: you keep your integrity when all around are losing theirs, you don’t take kickbacks, you don’t overcharge, you keep your heart and your actions attuned to truth, be fair in the way you treat people.”

To the ordinary person tempted to give up and say “Not possible, the world is hopelessly lost. It’s not worth it!” John yells, loudly and impatiently. “No!! Don’t slither into the mess, build a highway through it. Change your world one choice at a time. those choices to love rather than get even, to give, not count cost, to bless, not curse, to trust in goodness,  your own, and God’s. Everything else is rubbish, literally rubbish.”

John may be loud and blunt, he may be wild and impatient, his degree of tact is minimal to say the least, but there’s nothing wrong with his prophetic imagination, with his perception of God’s Dream for our broken, battered and ever blessed world.

If John is impatient, desperate even, then perhaps so is God. Impatient, desperate for that highway to be built into the wilderness places so that God can come close to those places where she is most needed. We know, as does God, where those places are. We need to build that highway. One pebble at a time.

And if that’s not an Advent message we need, at this third week of waiting, then  I have no clue what is!



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