Second Sunday of Advent – December 9, 1973 – CNR
In today’s Gospel-passage, St. Luke begins the story of the public ministry of Jesus Christ. With a solemnity not found in the other Synoptic Gospels, he sets the stage by relating the beginning of his story to the public figures of the day, to Tiberius Caesar and the rulers of Palestine. Something of Luke’s historical interests perhaps come into play here; ancient historians began their accounts in similar fashion. But the believer can only remark the way Luke creates a dramatic tension in this reference to world-history for the great event he now will tell: at this time, when these men were rulers in the world, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”
A good deal of the paradox of the Gospel is there contained: in a tiny country, far from the centers of power, to a strange figure in a wasteland, comes the word of God. By that simple statement, the great figures and names become mere signposts, chronological aids to the truly significant event, that the word of God has again come upon a man of Israel. The long period of waiting is over; the spirit of prophecy, the word of God, long absent from Israel, again has come with power, and the time of the Messiah has been opened.
The rest of our passage continues that message: here at last is the herald in the desert, preparing a way for the Lord, filling in the valleys, leveling the hills, straightening the crooked, smoothing out the rough, so that “all mankind shall see the salvation of God.” The day is at hand when the great prophecies, such as that of Baruch which we have heard, are being fulfilled; “For God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.” Jerusalem herself shall be renewed and receive a new name: “the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.”
We are to understand ourselves as the Jerusalem of that promise, the beginning of that worldwide community which sees “the salvation of God.” We are perhaps struck that the paradox continues. Can it be that in so insignificant a group of men and women as this congregation anything really important is happening? Are we not as far from the centers of power as was John in the desert? Are we the Jerusalem of splendor which the prophet expected? Is there a not a good deal more of the desert than of the splendor?
The answer, surely, must be, Yes. It is part of the scandal of Christianity that God makes himself known in the desert and not in the splendid and powerful city. Deserts are not only geographical places: a desert experience is central to our spiritual tradition. It serves as a symbol of the aridity and barrenness of our own efforts, of our thirst for the living waters of God’s mercy, of the need we have of all things from God. Even this advent-season is to be a desert-experience: we are to be out there with John, hearing the word in repentance, awaiting the coming in faith, experiencing the thirst of man for God.
At what time God will remove the paradox from our experience we do not know and must leave to his good pleasure. What we do know is that to be in the desert is not to be apart from God, but to join Israel and John and Jesus himself where they encountered God, there to pray for and to be ready for the word of God again coming on us that we may prepare for his coming. For the moment, it is enough to know that the preparation demanded is repentance for the forgiveness of our sins. In the desert of such sorrow, we may be sure that again will sound in our midst the powerful word of the coming of the salvation of God.