Mountains and Valleys

SJF • Advent 2c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness… +

HAVE YOU EVER experienced a grief so deep, been plunged into the depths of a despair or sadness so dark and unrelieved that you thought you would never get out of it? Or have you ever faced a difficulty so massive, a problem so insoluble, so impossible to get around or to get over, that you simply felt immobilized and helpless? I’m sure that all of us here have had such moments in our lives, such experiences, such feelings. But I am also sure, precisely because we are here, that somehow we found the strength to overcome whatever it was that plunged us into gloom, or blocked our ability to get on with life. Something happened to each of us to bring us up out of the depths; something happened to remove the obstacle from our path. Someone brought us a message of hope, someone’s simple word or action suddenly put things in perspective, and helped us out of the pit of despair, or helped us over the obstacle.

This is the message of Advent. Into the darkness, a light has shined; every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill made low, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This was the message of John the Baptist, the Word of God that came to him long ago in a particular time and place, a time and place that the self-conscious historian Saint Luke is at such pains to pinpoint in our Gospel today.

What John was saying, and what Luke was saying, is that God acts. Things change — and not just because that’s the way of the world — but because God leads and guides and urges the world along, wooing us like a lover when we feel most unlovable, bringing us up from the valley of despair, helping us by taking our hand to lift us up over the mountainous obstacles we face, when we feel most helpless.

The reason John and Luke could be so confident that God acts is that they could look back over a whole long history of God at work in and with his chosen people, his chosen bride, Daughter Israel. John and Luke could look back to the prophet Isaiah, just as did the author of the book of Baruch. The prophecies in Isaiah encouraged Judah when the people were in captivity in Babylon, just as the prophecies in Baruch comforted the children of Israel when they were under the domination of the Greek Empire. Whatever the current state of things, these prophets promised, God would restore the fortunes of Zion. Jerusalem would put off her widow’s weeds, uncover her veiled head and put on the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. Rather than being crushed by a mountain, she would climb it, stand upon the height and see her children coming home safe and sound.

God would set things right; God would act; things would change, as God had acted and things had changed before. Long before, God had moved the heart of Cyrus to end the captivity in Babylon, to allow the people to return from weeping by Babylon’s strand, to restore the fortunes of Zion, to rebuild the Temple. God had inspired the Maccabees to throw off the domination of Antiochus Epiphanes, that wicked man — to cleanse and rededicate that same Temple, and as a testimony to God’s presence with his people in those days, God had provided the miracle of the Hanukkah lights, oil enough to light the menorah in the Temple for eight days of rejoicing when it appeared there was only enough oil for one day.

So it was that John the Baptist could proclaim the old words of Isaiah with confidence, words whose significance would not escape his hearers: Israel had been liberated from Babylon, she had been freed from the domination of the Syrian Greeks; and she would be freed from the domination of the Romans, too.

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But John meant more than this. Those who saw John the Baptist only as a political zealot, proclaiming rebellion against Rome, would have missed the greater part of his message. He was not talking about the liberation of Palestine from Roman rule, the return of the scattered exiles. He was talking about far more: for he said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John was not simply testifying to a coming political settlement, even a restoration of the Jewish monarchy, as so many Zealots hoped. Nor is this what Luke is getting at by reeling off all the names of rulers from Rome to the tetrarchies of Palestine. On the contrary, Luke is setting firmly in place one end of the great arch that will run through his Gospel and end in his account of the Acts of the Apostles, a great arch of triumph that begins in Palestine but ends in Rome; an arch of triumph that begins among the Jewish people, but ends among the Gentiles; an arch of triumph for the anointed one, the Messiah, to enter through and into historical fact, announcing the good news of salvation not just for the Jewish people, but to Jew and Gentile alike from one end of the known world to the other, so that all flesh would see it together.

This is the great good news of the first Advent: God is about to be revealed in human form, as a human being among human beings. God is about to appear as a particular Jewish child born in a particular Palestinian place, and we glimpse him today in the Gospel, grown to manhood some thirty years later about to be recognized and affirmed by John the Baptist, the herald of his coming, and all flesh — Jew and Gentile alike, slave and free, rich and poor — shall see the salvation of our God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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No, Luke is not just talking politics. Nor, harking back to the questions with which I began this sermon, am I simply talking about God as the answer to deep depression or despair, to feelings of helplessness or inertia, as if God was simply the latest anti-depressant! I, too, am talking about the salvation of God, the healing grace of God who not only anoints our wounded hearts and lifts our wearied spirits, who not only fills us with joy when all we can see is sadness, but who appears as a light in the darkness, glowing first as a tiny candle, that sends out rays that pierce the gloom, and illuminate the night of sin with celestial brightness, so that all humanity can and will one day finally see the salvation and grace of God that have come among us. God lifts our spirits not simply to the level of earthly comfort, but to heavenly joy, lifting us from the death of sin to eternal life.

For John’s proclamation, after all, was to a world caught up in sin, enslaved by sin; to which John offered a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. The human condition since the fall of Adam and Eve was such that everything had become an obstacle: life was a succession of deep, dangerous valleys and high, hazardous hills, unnatural boundaries that kept people separated from each other and from God. For that is what sin is: that which separates us from God and each other. And the church’s mission, proclaimed by John and begun by Christ, is to heal that separation.

John the Baptist echoed Isaiah and Baruch, crying out that one was coming who would level the mountains and fill in the valleys with their bulk. The very obstacles would thus become the means to movement. The mountains too high to cross would be torn down to fill in the chasms too wide to leap. The stones of the wall that people constructed to keep people separate from each other, would be reconstructed into a bridge to help them cross and enter in.

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This is the message of Advent. The salvation of God is coming, and all flesh shall see it together. We who have already seen, know and can tell who that salvation is; it is Jesus who is the bridge, the healer of the breach, the restorer of all that is broken. Jesus levels the mountain whose mighty bulk fills the valley of the shadow of death, making the way plain and level so that all might cross over. His own body, whose members we are, is the means of reunion, return and restoration. He is himself the healing of the wound inflicted when Adam and Eve first tried to separate themselves from God by becoming gods themselves.

For it is in Christ, that we find our true identity as brothers and sisters. It is in Christ that the valley of despair is filled and the mountain of resistance leveled. It is in Christ that the old divisions are overcome, in whom, as Paul said, there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, male and female. It is in Christ that the healing of salvation is begun and continued, in and through him.

As we traverse this Advent season, let us embrace the spirit of repentance that invites our Lord into our hearts, where he can work to remove the mountains and fill the valleys of our lives through the power of his love and the healing of his grace; that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, to whom be all glory, now and for ever.+