06 December 2010

What Blocks Your Journey to Bethlehem?

Matthew 3: 1-12

Second Sunday of Advent/ 5th December 2010/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

Last Sunday, I invited us to look at Advent as a journey.  Not Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.  Not the Magi’s journey following a star.  Although their stories are never far from us, they set the pattern or template for our lives, I invited you to consider Advent as your journey toward the place of birth, toward your birth or rebirth, maybe even God’s journey toward you.   Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the Magi, their stories are given to us to shape the story of our lives.  And like all good stories, there’s movement.  The Christian life has often been understood as a journey.  Think of the medieval search for the Holy Grail.  Think of John Bunyan’s (1628-1688), Pilgrim’s Progress (1678/1684).  The truth is, when we get mixed up with God or God gets mixed up with us, things change, people change, the world changes.

            Yes, God accepts us as we are, but God never leaves us there.  God’s acceptance of us always includes a summons – to heed the summons means the direction of our lives inevitably change.  The summons sets us off on an adventure.  Perhaps, then, we might think of Advent this year as the Lord summoning you on a kind of journey:
            Where is the road to your Bethlehem? 
            Consider your life, where are you on that road toward birth? 
            Where is God birthing something of Christ in your life? 
            What is Jesus trying to birth in you? 
            Why were you born? 
            What does your life mean? 
            Where is the Lord trying to take you? 
            Where are you being led? 
            What road are you being called down?

            The image of the road is all over scripture.  We find it here in Matthew’s account of John the Baptizer.  He stands in the wilderness of Judea calling people to repent – meaning, literally, to change their minds – then with a new-found perspective and clear head, set forth on the royal road. 

            “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  John didn’t come up with this slogan.  He got it from Isaiah.  Actually, Matthew’s John misquotes Isaiah.  Isaiah reads, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh” (Isaiah 40:3).  Matthew has Isaiah say, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord make his paths straight.”  Isaiah’s focus is upon the way, the road; Matthew’s focus is John as the voice in the wilderness who prepares the way.  The point here, both for Isaiah and for John, is a way has to be prepared.

            We need to keep in mind that Isaiah’s reference here is the movement of God’s people from Babylon back to Judah.  Isaiah envisions a time when a new highway, a new road will be cut, as straight as any Roman road blazing a new trail back.  The Romans always cut straight roads between two points, when they could.  (Along the border between England and Scotland you can always tell when you’re traveling along an original Roman road because they are straight, they don’t meander around hills and dales.) The way, the road, the highway of God is the road of a new exodus, which means, in Greek, a way out; it’s the road that leads from captivity to liberation, it’s the road that goes from oppression to freedom, it’s the way from exile to home.  This is God’s royal way; it’s always God’s way.  Isaiah said, “A highway shall be [in the desert], and it shall be called the Holy Way…and it shall be for God’s people” (Isaiah 35: 8).
God will be transported along that path, leading God’s people to the place where they might start again, to their place of rebirth.
            John comes as that trailblazer, the one who cuts a new path, who prepares a way.  Matthew has John the Baptizer spewing all kinds of venom against the Sadducees and Pharisees, that “brood of vipers” as he puts its, preaching to them and to the crowds, “Repent!” Sometimes it’s difficult for us to “hear” a text like this.  It just sounds so harsh – and it is.  Even the word, “repent” smacks of Bible-thumping tent revivalists uttering warning.  But what if we reframed the way we look at this text.  What if heard the word repent said in love?  What if we heard repent – change your mind – as a gracious invitation?  What if the change of mind, the change of heart, the change of perspective John calls us toward is actually the first step in preparing the way of the Lord?  One of the ways we can prepare for the coming of the Lord is to repent – to change mind, heart, perspective.  If all of this leads us to the Lord, then we can say it’s because of love.

            Why do we need to be changed?  Because very often it’s the thoughts of our minds and the disposition of our hearts and the limited-views of our perspectives that actually stand in the way and block our ability to set off on the path that leads to the way of God.  That’s probably why John is so furious with the religious establishment – the Sadducees and Pharisees – who have come out from Jerusalem into the wilderness of Judea to monitor what John and his followers were up to out in the desert.  Sometimes it is actually the religious establishment, the priests and ministers and the religious communities that follow them who stand in the way of what God is trying to do in the world.  Sometimes it’s religion itself, along with false piety that obstructs the movement of God.  As odd as it might sound, the Bible is no friend of religion (the religion word isn’t even found in the Bible!). 

            John and his followers are out in the wilderness, far from the religious authorities, seeking renewal in the desert.  John calls them a “brood of vipers.”  This is a strong word.  It’s a phrase that was common in the Greco-Roman world.  In Ovid’s (43 BC – 17/18 AD) Metamorphoses (8 AD), Pentheus sees a reveling mob rush out of a city to celebrate some new religious rites, he shouts against them, “You sons of the serpent, you offspring of Mars, what madness has dulled your reason?”[1]  The phrase has also been recently tied to the apocalyptic Jewish religious sect called the Essenes who lived in the wilderness of Judea.  This phrase can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and links John to the Essene community at Qumran – a community formed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah to save Israel from Roman oppression.[2]

            And speaking of Rome, the ideology of the Roman Empire is never far from any chapter of the New Testament.[3]  Many of the titles given to Jesus at his birth were the same titles given to Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) throughout his life.  At the age of 48, Augustus was given the title Pontifex Maximus:  the great bridge builder.  It was a liturgical title – he became head of the college of priests.  He was the chief priest who was charged with the task of maintaining peace with the gods (pax deorum).   He was seen as the mediator between heaven and earth.  Pontifex Maximus can also be translated, Preparer of the Road – as in the road to the gods.[4]  That sounds remarkably like the role given here, not to Jesus, but to John the Baptist, preparing the way, not for or to the gods, but the way of and to the fullest manifestation of the God the world has ever known – to Jesus, the Christ.

            It’s the way, the road, the path that leads to Jesus that matters most.  It’s the way, the road, the path to God’s way that matters most.  God’s way – and not Caesar’s – is the way that leads us from captivity to liberation, from oppression to freedom, from exile to home, the way that leads to birth or rebirth – the way to Bethlehem.

            As we journey to the Table this morning, as we reflect on the way of the Lord, let us consider our journey:
            Who is the Baptizer in your life? 
            Who calls you repent? 
            Who helps to prepare the way? 
            Who is the one challenging you to change – your mind, your heart, your perspective in                              order to move toward the direction of birth? 

            While I’m at it, I’ll lift up a few more questions for us consider as we make our way to the Table:              Who or what is standing in your way toward the Lord? 
                        Are there things within your own faith and practice, in the way you imagine God                                      to be, that are blocking your journey to Bethlehem? 
                        What’s hindering you? 
                        What’s holding you back? 
                        Is it maybe all the stress and strain and busy-ness that comes with this season? 
                        Is it the expectation that it has to be a Christmas worthy of
                                                                                    Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)? 
            Perhaps it’s the disappointments and losses of this year or from over the years, ache and sorrow from ages past that come into painful focus this time of year.
            Maybe its fear – fear of really trusting God, trusting yourself to let go, to fall into the arms of God, to step out and venture toward the God who through Christ has made and is making God’s way to the place of encounter and birth.
            Maybe it’s the fear of repenting itself. 

            John wants us to go to Bethlehem and his job is to help us along the way.  As the Holy Spirit once said to his father, Zechariah, “And you…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.  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” (Luke 1: 76-79).  John wants us to go to Bethlehem.  In the meantime, let us to the Table of the Lord, to receive bread and wine for the journey.

[2] See Charlesworth, 359ff.  As found in the Thanksgiving Hymns (from Qumran) and in the recently published Dead Sea Scroll 4QMysteries (4Q299 Frg. 3aii-b).
[4] Every Roman Emperor since Augustus held the title Pontifex Maximus.  Emperor Gratian, in 381, is the first to decline the role.  It was then taken up and used regularly by the Pope.

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