February 1, 2015
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
It’s that time again; time to climb the mountain. We don’t begin at the base of the mountain though. We start the ascent at the famed “River Jordan,” miles away from the base of the mountain. This is no metaphorical mountain we are speaking of. Though we can’t precisely identify the GPS coordinates, this mountain is in a real place on a real map. In fact, this whole story is anchored in the granular details of history. Our story begins not with “once upon a time,” nor with “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away,” but with an actual date, “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Caesar Tiberius,” and a host of rulers’ names like Herod, Philip, Lysanias. After the governmental power holders come the religious authorities, Annas and Caiaphas.
Onto this stage of world history, the Word of God, on its way to the whole world, comes to John, the son of Zechariah. Now here’s a curious note. The Word of God does not come to the halls of power in Imperial Rome, or to the appointed sovereign leaders of the provinces. More surprisingly, the Word of God does not come to the duly appointed religious authorities; the High Priests who rule over the Temple of God. The Word of God comes, we are told, “in the wilderness.” Don’t miss this– the Word of God came not to the halls of power nor to the religious establishment but to an obscure, eccentric, outlier of a prophet named John. This Word lands on the stage of history in the middle of nowhere.
The ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah, streaming live in the power of the Holy Spirit, through the witness of a new voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord. . . .”
Reading on we find the soldiers of the Imperial Army and the leaders of the religious establishment making their way to the wilderness. The Word of God, even in its most seed like expression, has enormous gravity. This Word can set a bush on fire in the middle of nowhere and change the course of world history. This Word can land in an animal’s feeding trough in a back alley of Bethlehem and change the course of eternity.
This Word can be resisted but never controlled. Whenever and wherever this Word shows up, everything changes. It unleashes the holy disruption of the Kingdom of God, causing the reversal of wrong and the restoration of all that is right. Valleys filled in. . . mountains made low. . . . crooked ways made straight. . . . rough ways smooth. . . .
The Word of God meets us unexpectedly, catches us off guard, exposes our unreadiness and calls us to repent– which is to say, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight paths for him.”
Step one of this preparation? Release our expectations and ready ourselves for encounter. Something is about to happen that will be so astonishingly beautiful to some and so unnervingly infuriating to others, we will have to behold it to believe it.
We may think we’ve come this way before, already covered this ground, been here and done this, read the stories, prayed the prayer, sealed the deal, got the bookmark and the t-shirt, but we haven’t. We may be on the same path but it is a different journey every single time. That’s the nature of pilgrimage. We are neither tourists nor tour guides. We are followers, apprentices of Jesus, disciples, pilgrims.
The Word of God gives us our bearings in the wilderness of this world. Tomorrow holds an earth shaking event. Let’s posture our souls in a way where we can see it afresh. We are headed to the mountain but not before we go down to the river to pray.
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