Advent Fire

Our God makes a way where there is no way. In the gospel according to Luke, the story begins with the birth of two boys, John and Jesus. One is the son of an old couple, well beyond child-bearing age, the other the child of a virgin. Both boys are called by a name given by an angel. John’s name means the Lord is gracious, and Jesus’ name means the Lord saves.

When John was born, his father, Zechariah, who had been mute throughout the pregnancy, sang a prophecy, praising God for remembering the promise of redemption for God’s people. Both boys, one not even born yet, would live to fulfill God’s saving purposesfor Israel and the world.

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.

Our God makes a way where there is no way. There had been a long silence, one lasting much longer than Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

From the day that Israel’s ancestors had come out of the land of Egypt, God had sent prophets, day after day, and they spoke God’s word to God’s people. Beginning with Moses and Miriam, there had been an unbroken chain of men and women, who were paying attention, generation after generation. They knew how to read their culture, and at the same time they were like lightning rods, ready to receive a word from God like a bolt of truth too hot and too bright for hearts unaccustomed to divine speech. They paid attention to the world in which they lived, with hearts fine-tuned to the voice of God.

The last of the prophets had been Malachi, sometime after the end of the Babylonian exile. Had God stopped speaking or was no one there whose heart was ready to listen?

Many generations after Malachi, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – something happened.

We listen to the roll call of all these big names of men of importance and considerable power, and we are prepared to hear something equally important and powerful. We are ready for the kind of report usually introduced by, “We are interrupting our regular programming for this breaking news…”

Something had happened, something big, somewhere in one of the global centers of power, we assume. What had happened?

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

You know not a single station interrupted their regular programming for that. CNN didn’t report it, nor did Fox or MSNBC. They are busy making sure everybody knows every detail about Tiger Woods’s short drive to the fire hydrant. Something had happened, something whose magnitude doesn’t register on the scales of our cable news.

The word of God came – not to Caesar or one of the governors or rulers or high priests, not to one of the ones used to journalists taking notes whenever they open their mouths, but to John son of Zechariah – and not in Rome or Jerusalem or New York or Hollywood, but in the wilderness. After a long silence, the word of God came to a man on the margins of might and importance, on the periphery of reality as defined by rulers and pollsters and talk show hosts.

The word of God came to John (whose name means the Lord is gracious) son of Zechariah (whose name means the Lord remembers) and John began to speak of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. John didn’t make the evening news or the morning papers, but the word of God came into the world, this world of palaces and temples, of tent cities and food stamps. It wasn’t a particularly promising time – it never is – but it became a time of promise when the word of God came as it once came to Moses, to Elijah, to Amos and Isaiah. The word of God came and the wilderness became once again a place of hope and transformation.

Our God makes a way where there is no way. When Israel was in captivity in Egypt, the word of God came to Moses, and the people, weighed down by the yoke of oppression and exhausted by years of toil, stood and raised their heads, because their redemption was drawing near. In the wilderness, the prophet declared, the Lord would make a way and lead them to freedom. And against Pharao’s stiff-necked resistance, the Hebrew slaves followed God’s call through the desert and the sea to the land of promise; in the great exodus they became God’s covenant people.

Generations later, Israel was again in captivity in Babylon, and the word of God came to Isaiah. The prophet declared that the Lord would end their exile, gather the displaced, and bring them home in a procession of great joy on a highway through the wilderness. Sounding like the foreman of a road building crew the prophet shouted, “Make a road for the Lord, and make it straight. Fill in every gulley, every pot hole, and grade the land until it is level. Where it’s crooked, make it straight. Where it’s rough, make it smooth. This is the road to freedom, this is the way home.” And once again the people followed God’s call to the land where they would be free to serve God without fear.

Generations later, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, the land of promise occupied by Roman legions, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. It wasn’t a call to get ready to leave, nor was it a call to arms – it was a call to repentance, and John sounded just like Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord.

Another exodus was in the making, and those who heard the call crossed through the water as their ancestors did when they first entered the land. It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those who passed through the water didn’t change where they lived, but the transition was no less dramatic, because they changed how they lived.

The world was still governed by Tiberius, Herod, and Pontius Pilate, but the reign of God was drawing near. John called them to lean into that nearness and begin to live there. His father had sung at his birth,

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Now is the dawn, now is the time to lean into the daybreak and begin to live in its light. John calls us to repent – not just to look back and feel sorry for what we have done or left undone, but to turn and look in the direction of sunrise – people, look east, the day is near! The Savior is coming – lean into the advent of God’s reign and begin to live there!

Prepare the way of the Lord. Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to us? No, God has a way of making a way where there is no way. Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to others? No, God has a way of making a way where there is no way. We are the ones in need when it comes to preparing the way of the Lord.

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose name means the Lord saves. It doesn’t mean the Lord comes to visit us in our exile and make it a bit more bearable. God in Jesus comes to us calling us to follow Jesus on the way from oppression to freedom, from sin to righteousness, from violence to peace, from the long shadow of death to the gates of life. Jesus comes to us to be for us the way into God’s future, and to be with us on the way.

Our preparing the way of the Lord is not a seasonal exercise like decorating the house for Christmas. Preparing the way of the Lord is our daily discipline:

What must I do to recognize the road blocks that keep me from following Jesus?
What must I do to notice the deep ditches that separate me from others?
And what must I do to direct my feet to the bridge of reconciliation Jesus has built for us?
What must I do to hear the word of God in the hustle and bustle of my days?
What must I do to keep my eyes on Jesus when so many other things compete for my attention?

Preparing the way of the Lord is not a seasonal exercise; it’s a daily discipline.

My life is pretty cluttered these days, and I know I’m not the only one.

What I hear John saying is, “Brother, you gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re preparing a way you don’t want to be on.”

I have carried an image with me these past couple of weeks, and I know it’s for a reason. I’ve been looking at a manger with so much junk in it, there’s no room for a baby. It’s an image of my cluttered heart. It’s the image of a life that is no longer leaning into the breaking dawn.

I keep hearing John, “You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, or chances are you’re working in pharao’s brick yard or in Caesar’s circus. You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re preparing a way you don’t want to be on.”

I’m grateful he got through to me. His words are like fire indeed, refiner’s fire. May it burn.