Is Your Chair Turned?
The Voice is a singing competition based initially on only the person's voice. A person sings to the backs of 4 judges. They have 90 seconds to decide if they will turn their chair indicating they want that singer on their team. The Gospel reading took about 150 seconds. Did your chair turn?
Is your chair turned toward a voice that hadn't sounded for hundreds of years? After going dark for about 400 years with no further Word from God than what we have in the Old Testament, the Word of God came to John in the desert. The Voice didn't sound in the Temple where the Old Testament Church was headquartered or in Jerusalem where the State presided, and it didn't sound in an easy to get to populated area, but in a desert where you had to do more than turn to hear it. You had to travel. This Word to John was preliminary to the Word made flesh appearing. In the words of Hebrews 1, John was the last of the many and various ways God spoke in the past before in the Last Days speaking to us in His Son.
And this Voice is rooted in history. If you think the Koran, the Veda, the Book of Mormon or another book that claims to be divinely revealed truth is on equal footing with Scripture, you have more regard for the History Channel than history. Did you turn your chair enough to hear how ponderously Luke dates the Voice in history? "The dating of John's appearance follows the manner of ancient historians" (Marshall, 133). Check out Thucydides (2:2), Polybius (1:3), or Josephus (Antiquities 18:106). The voice of John is one of the hinges on which history turns, so much so that God dates it no fewer than 6 different way (Barclay, 31). British historian Sherwin-White said that the "'internal coherence of the lengthy formula cannot be challenged for accuracy'" (Fitzmyer, I, 455). In the words of Paul the voice you heard didn't sound in a corner (Acts 26:26), apart from world history but it is history. In Peter's words, when we turn toward the voice of Luke or John we aren't following cleverly devised fables ( 2 Peter 1:16).
Nope, we're following history. And we're seeing the fulfilment of Daniel 2. Daniel predicted that God would send a kingdom to bring to an end all worldwide earthly kingdoms. Here Luke lists from top to bottom the ruler of the known world, the local Roman governor, the 4 regional authorities appointed by Rome, and the head of the Old Testament church. But the voice of Luke doesn't focus or speak about them or even John. The voice speaks of a King coming who is King of kings.
Is your chair turned for this voice? A voice that was foretold 800 years before it sounded. With the exception of people, we tend to revere old things. A vase that is 800 years old is something to see. An ancient dwelling from 1218 is a sight to see. The Magna Carta is 803 years old and it remains one of the most famous documents in the world. Well the Isaiah Scroll that is part of the Dead Sea find of the 1940's is over 2000 years old. And it speaks about the coming of the voice we just heard in the Gospel. But the voice of John speaks about Someone Else. And here's where it gets really good.
The voice speaks about Yahweh of the Old Testament coming in Jesus of the New. We hear this when the voice changes what Isaiah wrote 800 years before. Isaiah wrote "Prepare the way for Yahweh make straight paths for our God." John changes it to "make straight paths for Him." And who the Him is, is revealed to be none other than Jesus born of Mary. Yahweh is coming to His people. The One who walked with Adam in Eden, met Moses on Sinai, Elijah on Horeb, was David's Shepherd, and Abraham's Shield is none other than the Jesus John is sent to prepare the way for. Don't hear the voice as modern people do a fairytale, a good story, a narrative. Hear it as what it is - history. The historical account of God almighty coming to His people in the person of Jesus.
And before He gets there, like an earthly king does, He sends His herald out in front of Him. Luke says the voice went into all the country around the Jordan "heralding a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Anybody who is not walking in repentance is walking outside of his Baptism. Baptism doesn't protect those living outside of it. And you are living outside of it if you are excusing your sins, defending your sins; even if you're promising to do better from now on, you're walking on dry, dusty land not swimming in water. And if your chair is turned you hear the voice saying, "Repent." So what does repentance look like? It's preparing the way of Yahweh, making straight paths for Jesus. Prepare the way from heaven to earth; straighten out all the crooks and turns of your life. Level hills, fill in valleys, smooth washboard roads.
Would you shower, shave, groom to meet the President? Would you clean your house, your garage, mow your lawn, pick up trash to welcome him? I think you would. Do you think meeting the Lord Jesus Christ requires less preparation? Think of all the spiritual trash you've got laying around? Think those sins of thought and word, let alone deed, don't leave a mark? If you only meet your Lord every now and again when He comes in Word and Sacrament, do you think you even know how to prepare? Are you one of those people who think: this is how I dress, this is what I wear, this is what I look like: deal with it? That may cut it in these postmodern times when wear clothes' is the only dress code, but if you think you can meet God Almighty with: "I'm sorry; this is just the way I am", not only have you not heard the voice but you're not repentant. The forgiving waters of Baptism aren't running over you but dirty, soiling sand is.
Is your chair turned now? If so, listen to the voice indicating a new reality for penitent sinners. It's called "terraforming." Terraforming is a science fiction concept dating to the 1940s. It's physically reshaping a planet so that it is earth-like and able to support human life. Terraforming is a good picture of the power of the Gospel to make a new reality. Long before this was a sci-fi concept it was a Biblical picture. Isaiah 35 speaks of God coming to rescue you which results in the desert rejoicing, flowers blooming in the wilderness, and it becoming as fertile as cultivated fields. Streams of water will flow through the desert, burning sand will become a lake, dry land filled with springs.
First, the voice shoves your face into the reality that sinning against your Baptism of repentance means you're living in a desert. You need to prepare for Yahweh and to straighten the paths you have made torturously crooked by your sins and sinfulness. But then the voice switches from imperative which is law to indicative which is Gospel. You must prepare; you must make straight paths gives way to every valley will be filled in and not only every mountain but even every hill shall be made low. The crooked will be straight and the rough smooth, and all flesh will see the salvation of God.
You're not hearing Gospel if you think the Voice is giving you a plan for preparing to meet your God. Yes, he orders it; he demands it; he requires it, but then he switches to two future passives to indicate what will take place. Every valley that you have dug with your misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice will be filled in by Jesus' blood and righteousness. Every mountain and hill you have erected between you and God by your arrogance, pride, greed, lust, and gossiping will be leveled by Jesus' holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. If you can see there is no way that you can prepare the way for the holy God to get to you and there is no way you have the ability to make straight paths for God in flesh and blood to meet you, you're ready to hear what the Gospel indicates. The roads you made crooked by your lying, faithlessness, and excuses have been straightened out by the cross of Jesus bulldozing out the twists and turns. And as for the roads made rough by your misusing the Lord's name or by hallowing your name instead of His, Jesus' blood has paved them.
Terraforming is a physical picture of a spiritual reality. We get a pale picture of this in Austin most years when wildflowers explode across our fields or when after months of drought the Highland Lakes fill up. In your Baptism which is for the forgiveness of sins, you have been washed into this new reality. By faith, you are to see a new reality. Here Yahweh walks with you in a new Eden and Jesus is your Good Shepherd. And this reality is for literally "all flesh." Usually when Scripture uses flesh it is describing man according to his fallen nature. God's salvation then is not just for holy people, not just for good people, not just for whom you think it can be, but for all flesh, all mankind, all sinners.
The voice says it this way: "And will see for themselves all flesh the salvation of God." People think Christianity is an internal thing, an other -worldly thing. The voice says all flesh will see God's salvation. What did Simeon say when he scooped up the Baby Jesus in his arms? He said, "Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word. For mine eyes have seen Thy Salvation." And when do we sing those words in the liturgy? After God Almighty once more in the Person of Jesus has come down to our altar and into our very mouths in Holy Communion. Simeon's Song has been in the liturgy of the church since the 4th century. The Spanish liturgy of 5th to 7th centuries places it where we have it, and it was in Lutheran liturgies as early as 1525 (Reed, 379, 441).
We're back to history. The voice was predicted in 800 BC and we have a real physical copy of that prediction from 125-100 B.C. We have a 1st century historian dating the arrival of the voice with a precision equal to any of his peers. And you,, 1,969 years later, hear the voice live. Did you turn your chair? You know why they turn their chairs on the show? To see the singer. Not here. We turn to see God's Salvation. Having seen Him not only in our flesh and blood, but on our altar, and even in our hands and mouths, we depart in peace into a transformed reality. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20181209); Luke 3: 1-6