A Highway Fit for a King
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
If you missed last week, here’s a brief recap: Advent is the season of the Christian year when we prepare for the coming of Christ. Obviously, it’s when we put up our Christmas decorations and sing Advent hymns and Christmas carols and relive the story of his birth in Bethlehem.
But that’s only one way to celebrate Advent. We also look for his Second Coming. And, as we heard last Sunday, there are plenty of scriptures that tell of a day of judgment when Christ will come back to earth to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords.
And then there’s the scripture for today. It’s not about the birth of Jesus or the Second Coming; it talks about recognizing Jesus as the Christ in the here and now. The scene is that of John the Baptist out in the wilderness preaching Good News that the long-awaited Messiah is coming and, if you’re smart, you’ll prepare for him a highway fit for a king.
So, the point I tried to get across last week was that we need to sing the Gospel story in all three verses: Past, present and future tense. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. In his book, Let Us Break Bread Together, Fred Gealy puts it this way:
“What does it mean to say that God comes? … It means that we live only as God comes forth to meet us, bringing us ever and again fresh gifts of life … We cannot live on God’s previous gifts of life any more so than our bodies can be sustained on the food we ate yesterday. Our lives are set in expectation, and every day is meant to be an advent day, with fresh supplies of grace richly provided … Therefore, we dare pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’”
Now, let’s turn to the gospel lesson for today. Luke writes,
“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea,
and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,
in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias,
in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2).
Question: What do the following dates have in common?
• July 4, 1776
• October 29, 1929
• December 7, 1941
• November 22, 1963
• January 28, 1986
Answer: Each points to a specific time in which something historic took place. The signing of the Declaration of Independence, the stock market crash, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the day the space shuttle, Challenger, blew up are all moments frozen in time.
In just the same way, Luke wants us to know that the Word of God came to John at a specific moment in time: “It was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius …” And this is important, because it makes it perfectly clear the gospel of Jesus Christ is no fairy tale, myth or legend.
In other words, he didn’t say, “Once upon a time …” or, in the words of Star Wars, “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away …” He said, “It was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee … etc.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a historic fact. He died for you and for me, and he rose from the grave that we might receive the promise of eternal life. As that reality sinks in, we, too, are able to say something to the effect:
“I was living in Hope, Arkansas. George Bush was in his second term in The White House. Mike Huckabee was Governor. The Razorbacks were 10 and 3 and on their way to the Capital One Bowl in Orlando … when I heard the voice of God calling my name.”
It happens. And when you experience the power and presence of God first-hand your life is transformed. It becomes for you a moment you’ll never forget, like remembering where you were and what you were doing when you first heard the news of 9-11.
God comes at particular moments in time, often when we least expect it. That’s the first point. And God comes in particular places, often in those places we’d never imagine. Luke writes,
“… the word of God came to John,
the son of Zacharias
in the wilderness.”
The wilderness? Can you think of a more unlikely place? I would’ve guessed the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s where I would’ve expected God to speak, not the wilderness. Have you ever been to the Judean wilderness? There’s nothing there but rocks and sand and scrub bushes.
Yet, it was in the wilderness that John heard God’s voice calling his name and telling him that his cousin, Jesus, was the Promised Messiah of the Jewish faith.
That ought to tell us something about what we can expect as we look for signs of God’s coming in this season of advent: God often appears where you least expect him.
Do you know this old joke? One of the Cardinals tells the Pope, “Your holiness, I bring you good news and bad news.” “What is it, my son?” the Pope asks. “The Messiah has come!” announces the Cardinal. “That’s wonderful,” the Pope says, “So, what could be the bad news?” The Cardinal says, “He’s calling collect from Salt Lake City.”
God often appears in the most unlikely places and, especially in this day and age, we need to be careful not to get locked into thinking that God can only appear in predictable ways.
Last fall I spoke to an interfaith gathering on the campus of Texas A&M. It was a pretty diverse group. There were Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Ba’Hais, Buddhists and more. About a dozen of us were asked to talk about our faith and how it related to the others. I said two things: First, as Christians, we believe in Jesus Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”(Jn. 14:6) At the same time, we’re well aware that our understanding of Jesus is culturally driven. In other words, to North Americans, Jesus looks a lot more like Robert Redford than Osama Bin Laden. And to think, he didn’t speak English?! And so, while we believe that he is the only way to salvation, we confess that our understanding of him is limited and may well be somewhat distorted.
The other thing I said was that this same Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me,” also said,
“I am the good shepherd.
I know my own, and I’m known by my own;
even as the Father knows me, and I know the Father.
I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep, which are not of this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice.
They will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:14-16).
Just who are these other sheep who belong to Jesus? I don’t know. Yet, the very fact that there are others whom he claims as his own keeps me from assuming that I know who belongs to him and who doesn’t; and that makes me all the more willing to be in dialogue with people of other faiths. Who knows? They may turn out to be my long lost brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, the Word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness. It might just as easily come to you in Hope, Arkansas. Or to a Muslim in Turkey. Or to a Tibetan monk in Nepal. You just never know when and where God will make himself known.
So, let’s see: God appears at specific times when we least expect him and in specific places we’d never imagine. He also comes to specific individuals we would’ve never chosen.
Have you ever taken a close look at John the Baptist? Talk about an unlikely choice! Mark describes him in this way:
” John was clothed with camel’s hair
and a leather belt around his waist.
He ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6).
Last year I did a Google search on John the Baptist. You ought to try it sometime. Just click “images” and then type in the name, John the Baptist. Most artists depict him with long hair and a beard – a sort of cross between the Neanderthal Man and Willie Nelson! Who would’ve ever guessed that God would’ve chosen him to herald the coming of the Savior?
You might say God’s got a sense of humor. But then, you already knew that, didn’t you? Why, just look around you. We’re the people of God? Ha! You’ve got to be kidding! But, then we’re not the first. Just look at the twelve disciples. Jesus could’ve done better. Or the early church. The Corinthians wrote the book on conflict. Which is to say God comes to the most unlikely people you can imagine.
I wish you could meet Roger Garrett. He was one of my elders in Bryan. He’s one of the best preachers I know. He’d been a disc jockey in Houston in his early days. Now he manages a group of radio stations in Bryan and still does a morning show. He’s never been to seminary or had any formal training. Yet he preaches every Sunday at a little Presbyterian church in Calvert, Texas, and his sermons are to die for. He studies the Bible constantly and soaks up every commentary he can get his hands on. I’ve never met a more enthusiastic or well-informed Christian. Oh, he’ll never be ordained or called or recognized as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, but don’t tell me he doesn’t hear God’s voice or proclaim God’s Word.
I tell you God comes to those whom God chooses, even to folks as unlikely as you and me.
And so, in this season of Advent we watch and wait and prepare for God’s coming. According to John, the way to do that is to build a highway fit for a king:
“Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness!
Make a level highway in the desert for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The uneven shall be made level,
and the rough places a plain.
The glory of Yahweh shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.”
Remember the old highways of the past … the steep hills, the hairpin turns, the dips and the bumps that could just about take the rear end out of your car? Well, the highway Isaiah envisions is like an Interstate highway on which God, the king of all creation, will make his triumphal entry. It’s a highway in which there’s nothing to get in his way, nothing to slow him down, nothing to hinder his safe arrival.
It’s a metaphor, of course. It has to do with devoting ourselves to God so completely that we’re willing to go all out to give him a royal welcome. And the Good News is, in the very process of preparing for God’s coming, he welcomes us into his kingdom.
Are you familiar with the little fable called, The King’s Highway? It has to do with an elderly king who had no heir. So, one night he sent his servants out to place a pile of rubble on the road leading to his castle. The next day he sent word that he was in search for a successor to the throne, and that whoever best traveled his road would be the next king.
Wannabe kings came from far and near. When they got to the pile of rubble, they grumbled and complained, but somehow they managed to get around it. All the while, the king watched from the castle.
Now, it just so happened that there was a young shepherd boy named Michael who also aspired to be king. His friends just scoffed when he told them. “The king will never pick you,” they said, “Why, you’re nothing but a peasant.” But Michael would not be discouraged and so, he headed out to see the king. But when he got to the pile of rubble he stopped to clear the stones out of the way. To his surprise, when he got to the bottom of the pile, there was a beautiful gold ring with the king’s royal crest. Michael stuck it in his pocket and rushed to the castle.
“I’m sorry it is so late,” Michael whispered as he knelt before the king. Then he reached in his pocket and pulled out the ring for the king to see. “I found this on the road,” he said, “I’m sure it must belong to you.”
The king examined the ring carefully. “This ring is not mine,” he announced.
“But it must be yours,” Michael said, “It bears your crest.”
“Indeed it does,” said the king, “but it is not mine. It belongs to the one who will be seated on my throne.” Then giving the ring back to Michael, he said, “It now belongs to you. I proclaimed that he who best traveled the highway would become the new king. By clearing the road so that all may travel safely, you showed that it is not fine clothing, fancy horses, or even great wealth that make a king. True greatness comes through serving others.”
Brothers and sisters, the Lord is coming. Let’s get busy while there’s still time to prepare a highway fit for a king.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.