Reading Luke 3: 1-6
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that, if you want to have a tidy home, it’s a good idea to have lots of guests – guests of the expected variety, that is. There’s nothing wrong with unexpected guests, it’s just that you don’t have time to tidy up in advance – which of course is why having guests (of the expected sort) helps in the maintenance of a tidy home.
You could say that in a way the Queen plays a similar role in the public sphere. It has often been remarked that she must have the impression that all our public buildings are painted very frequently, as the smell of fresh paint assaults her nostrils everywhere she goes. Not only that: cobwebs are removed, floors are scrubbed, while outside flower beds are spruced up and lawns are mown.
She must think we live in a veritable Austria of tidiness. I haven’t been to Austria for 40 years but I do remember it being particularly neat and tidy. Perhaps it has changed in the meantime, but in my own mind it is the very epitome of cleanliness and tidiness.
The Queen’s experience is not unique, at least with regard to other monarchs. In the ancient near east, when a king proposed to tour a part of his kingdom, he would send a courier ahead of him to prepare the roads. I imagine that roads in those days had even more potholes than they do now.
In today’s gospel we meet John the Baptist and he too is a kind of courier. He exhorts his hearers by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
There’s actually a stark contrast in our gospel reading. It starts off with a list of the great and the good – the not so good in fact. First we have the Emperor Tiberius, then Pontius Pilate the Governor, then some kings – namely Herod, Philip and Lysanias – and bringing up the rear the high priests Annas and Caiaphas.
On one level Luke is giving us his credentials as a historian, perhaps trying to impress us but certainly pinpointing as accurately as he can the time when the events took place that he’s going to describe. Luke does indeed tell us that he took great pains to research the life of Jesus. He wants to be taken seriously as a historian.
But, and I’m not saying that Luke necessarily meant it, there’s something else going on. We have all these bigwigs listed one after the other – Tiberius et al – and then suddenly we have John son Zechariah out there in the wilderness – nowhere near a palace or a temple or a garrison.
The wilderness represents the opposite of worldly prestige. It’s a place without distraction – far away from the hurly-burly of getting and spending, far away from power politics, far away from the complexity and busy-ness that we seem all too willing to impose on our lives.
And in this wilderness miles from anywhere John is telling his hearers to prepare the way of the Lord. And who is this Lord they’re to prepare the way for? Well, it’s just some carpenter from a provincial backwater called Nazareth. No wonder those bigwigs didn’t welcome John or Jesus.
Perhaps being in some kind of wilderness – without the distractions we cling to – is one way in which we prepare the way of the Lord.
Now, when John says, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’, he’s obviously not talking about repairing the paths and tracks of Palestine that the eminent personage Jesus will be walking in the years ahead. It’s something more metaphorical.
We often read in our English Bibles that John urges his hearers to repent. These translations seem to be suggesting that repentance is what prepares our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Well, it’s certainly our hearts that need to be prepared.
But, the scholars tell us, repentance isn’t quite the right word. The Greek word metanoia is often translated as repentance, but it’s more than that – though not, I think, less.
One definition of the word is that it is a transformative change of heart. It’s that change of heart that will lead to a change of behaviour, but the change of heart is more fundamental.
It’s this transformative inner change that will prepare people to welcome Jesus rather than to ignore or even resist him. There’s an ethical side to it of course. This change of heart prompts us to love fairness and justice and mercy, and to hate the way we’ve perhaps been behaving up till now.
But it’s not just about replacing a bad set of behavioural impulses for a good set.
If I may be autobiographical for a moment, I think I’ve confessed to you before that I used to be an atheist. It was a long time ago but I seem to recall that I just took atheism for granted – as so many people do these days.
One day I was talking with a friend of mine, a Christian, and suddenly – and it was sudden – from being at best indifferent to the Christian faith, my heart was strangely warmed – to use that phrase of John Wesley – and I felt positive about the Christian faith.
There had been a turnaround within me. It was nothing dramatic. Outwardly, there was nothing to show for it at all. I still wouldn’t have called myself a Christian, though I think my fate was sealed precisely at that moment.
It was as if I’d had the first, faint realisation that, not only did God exist, but that God loves us and that I could love God.
In Christian terms I would say that it was the action of the Holy Spirit. I couldn’t claim any credit for it – except perhaps that there was a little chink of open-ness in my heart. Then again it was probably the Spirit that put it there, not me.
But that little chink is all that God needs.
And of course, as I’ve since discovered, it’s a constant ongoing process, in which we never turn completely to God. We all have stubborn chinks of darkness inside our hearts.
That turnaround is what the Bible means by metanoia – a heart-changing perception of the love of God. Once we have experienced metanoia, we are facing God rather than turning our backs on him.
Facing God we can perceive something of the love of God. If we continue facing away, we’ll just wonder what all the fuss is about.
If our backs are turned away we may not even see Christ coming towards us. We may not even notice him when he arrives. We certainly won’t perceive the truth that he embodies.
But turn round and face the direction from which Christ is approaching and a new, deeper reality reveals itself.