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Sunday December 9, 2012
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead

Luke 3:1-6

How's the Topography of your Soul?

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

What you see and hear in this liturgy this morning at Saint Thomas makes for quite a contrast with what you see and hear outside on Fifth Avenue. Outside, Happy Holidays has been in high gear since Thanksgiving. We wish the merchants, their employees, and the economy well. But it’s not looking a lot like Christmas in Saint Thomas today. You walk in and hear the solemn Litany chanted. “From all evil and mischief; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath; and from everlasting damnation; Good Lord, deliver us.” Then you hear the Gospel, and the lead character is John the Baptist with his message of repentance: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. And a Merry Christmas to you! What’s going on? It feels like Lent in here!

What’s going on is this. The Church is preparing us for the birth of the Messiah, not only his entry in world history, but in our lives. That’s what Advent is about. Christ’s forerunner John the Baptist is crucial. This calls for a short Bible lesson.

The books of the Hebrew Old Testament prophets often identified the historical setting. For example: “The words of Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jereboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.” (Amos 1:1) The last of these prophets is the Book of Malachi. Malachi ends with verses prophesying that the Lord will send “Elijah the prophet before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” This prophet will exercise a preparatory ministry of reconciliation, “lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” (Mal 4:5-6) That last word of Old Testament prophecy was four centuries before Jesus.

And now, what does Saint Luke say in today’s Gospel? “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.” It sounds like the ancient prophet’s introduction, and in a way it is. Prophecy has resumed, because the Messiah is at hand. Christ’s public ministry begins with the word of the prophets pointing to him in the person of John. Jesus himself identified John the Baptist with Malachi’s Elijah-figure. (Mt 11:10-12)

The historical setting is important. It is Tiberius Caesar’s fifteenth year, between 28 and 29 AD. Pontius Pilate is the local Roman governor under Caesar. There are also, under Rome, three local regional rulers, called tetrarchs; two of them, Herod and Philip, are sons of the infamous Herod the Great who slaughtered the innocents of Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Herod the son would take his brother Philip’s wife and be rebuked for adultery by John the Baptist – for this John would be imprisoned and beheaded. And there is a religious hierarchy in place as well: Annas and Caiaphas his son-in-law. Annas, whose term as high priest had finished, nevertheless exercised influence through Caiaphas. They would condemn Jesus in a few years and hand him over to Pilate to crucify.

John performed his ministry around the Jordan River. The Jordan itself fascinates. Its very name means descent from Dan in the extreme north of the Holy Land, almost 10,000 feet up on Mount Hermon, often covered year-round with snow. This water flows down through Caesarea Philippi and into Galilee, forming the large Sea of Galilee; then, at the bottom of the lake, the Jordan resumes and makes it way to the Dead Sea, where it ends, in a desert wilderness at nearly 1,300 feet below sea level, the lowest spot on the earth.

Why all this history and geography? Because the Incarnation of God’s Son, the Messiah, was real, taking place in history and geography. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

John’s message was simple, and it was as old as the prophets he personified. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low. This is more than geography or topography. It is the transformation, the repentance, of the human spirit. Pride and arrogance will be brought low; the haughtiness of men shall be humbled. The humble and meek will be exalted. The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth. The culture of the human spirit will be re-worked to prepare the way of the Lord.

So now the message is personal. You and I are its objects, just as were the first hearers of John the Baptist, confessing their sins at the River Jordan and receiving John’s baptism. Advent is a good time to examine ourselves and pray for change in whatever is amiss in the temper and disposition of our souls – whether it be pride and vanity; ingratitude and envy; greed and covetousness; anger and resentment; lust and gluttony; or sloth and indifference – to mention a few obstacles. Then let us ask the Lord to fill us with love; and we cannot begin to love God if we have no love for our fellow human beings. Love describes who God is and what God reveals in Jesus Christ his Son. Let us heed the Advent prophet and repent and prepare the way of the Lord. If we do, we shall have a truly joyous Christmas.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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AdventSaint John the Baptist