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Read Luke 3:1-20.

Despite the fact that we are a nation and state that believes that the people rule, we still depend on the “people at the top” to secure our hope and fortunes. We look to our elected officials to reconcile our problems. We want them to fix our problems. Even our celebrities are called upon to use their charisma and charm to fix problems. Many of them lead our causes and crusades. If nothing else they aim to make us feel better.

There is a certain security we gain from “knowing someone in power.” The old expression about “having the ear” of a powerful official means that the official will listen to you. So one way to think about power has to do with what influential and prominent person listens to us and hears what we say.

I encounter this when I am regarded as the “pastor” of a large religious institution. I have invited people to see this congregation as their church home, a place where they might be welcomed. And sometimes they express their reluctance. For some obvious reason they think they won’t be accepted. And what they often need is a Word of acceptance from someone they perceive as “in charge” of the church: the minister! And not knowing that I am the minister (I guess I don’t look the part) they tend to ask “what will your preacher think?” My reply is usually, “Well, I don’t know. He’s not too bright, but I will talk to him – he listens to me.”

If you wanted to have the ear of someone important in the first century, Luke gives you a directory in the first verse. They are the dignitaries and celebrities of early first century Judea. They are the cream of the Roman Empire and Jerusalem’s power structure. Based on our typical assumptions about power and prestige, a single word from any of these men could bring us ruin or hope.

But Luke the historian is doing more than simply giving us a chronicle of the political and religious powers of the day. He is doing more that locating these events chronologically. He is making a statement in the first verse. He is telling us the truth: the truth about power, hope, judgment and repentance. He is saying that the word of the Lord doesn’t trickle down from the upper class of the dignitaries and celebrities in the city. It doesn’t even bubble up from the grassroots. Rather, the word of the Lord comes from outside the city. It comes from the remote and barren wilderness.

And the one who proclaims the Word of the Lord is a lonely voice. John the Baptist is a prophet. He is a preacher-prophet cut from the cloth of the Old Testament. He is wearing Elijah’s hand-me-downs and his sermon for the day is taken from Isaiah. Luke is telling us the truth: We will not find hope and help by “having the ear” of a listening powerful official. We will find hope and help by having an ear that listens to the voice from the wilderness; the voice that is outside our typical structures of power and might.

Listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight paths for him. Making a smooth path for the Lord’s arrival is no small task. The low places have got to be filled in. The high places brought down. Everything is going to be leveled out.

Growing up out on a rural road we had to maintain our own road. About once or twice a year we hitched the grader up to the tractor and scraped it down the road. The wide blade would shave down every bump and mound and it would pull in clay and dirt to fill in the potholes. It was a lot of work to smooth out that road. It got in the way of what little traffic we had and it required our attention for a whole weekend.
As kids we would walk on the smooth new road behind the grader, we would pick up the big rocks the grader uncovered and toss them in the ditches. And then we would ride our bikes over the new road that somehow magically came from the old rocky road.
It may seem inconvenient to prepare the way for the Lord. The dignitaries and those invested in the power structure as it is certainly don’t want to bother with the Lord’s way. They like their mountains and valleys. But the coming of the Lord demands that we open a new way for his arrival. And we’ll appreciate it when our work is through and we walk the smooth path of the Lord’s way. Listen to the one calling in the wilderness.

Listen to the voice calling in the wilderness: Do you hear what I hear? It is a call to repent and live a life that shows that repentance. Repentance means turning from the way of sin and walking the Lord’s way.

Denial of sin has not liberated or enhanced human life. Denial of the gravity of sin leaves people disabled in the face of the world’s evil and their own shortcomings. Denial of sin has left Christians and non-Christians alike unable to understand their predicament save in terms of the misdoings of others or the randomness of existence. The denial of sin has unleashed despair, confusion, and anger.

Learning that you are a sinner, admitting that you are a sinner can be a part of the good news. When we live entrenched in the city of the celebrities and powerful rulers, confession is not a good thing. We mistakenly think that confession and admission of sin leads to scandal and humiliation. When we live in the structures of the city with the powers at the top, we mistakenly think that confession and repentance in church and religion is all about the judgment of others.

But it is different in the wilderness. In the wilderness we can hear the voice of the prophet telling us the truth. Confession may mean admitting our shortcomings and it may mean learning how we have offended God, but it also means that we know that we can be reconciled to God. The voice in the wilderness preaches the good news of restoration. Naming our sins means that can also name the forgiveness of God. Do you hear what I hear? Repentance is hope, not hopelessness. Listen to the one calling in the desert.

Listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness. He’s not the Christ. He is not the Savior. But the Christ and Savior is coming. He came following John the Baptist the first time. He will come after us the second time.
If we will prepare the way of the Lord and live out repentance; if we can be as bold in our prophetic proclamation as John the Baptist was (and those invested in the power structures as they are may not appreciate that), then we may share in the hope that all people will see the salvation sent from God.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 10 December 2006

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