The Word This Weekend – December 9, 2018
“Advent II: Gather at the River”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ” (Luke 3:3-6)
Advent continues. These four Sundays, and the weeks that surround them, bring us ever closer to the event of the coming of the Christ into our world. Along the way we are reminded of the ultimate coming of the Lord at the End of Days, we join John the Baptizer at the edge of the Jordan, and we travel with the Holy Family as they journey far from home and safety to birth the Savior of all -- the one named Jesus.
On Advent II we are transported to the riverside, the Jordan River to be precise. Luke the Evangelist notes the imperial and regional rulers of the day, including the Temple leadership of Annas and Caiaphas. But it’s a different sort of Priest who stands at the river, even as his mission is to announce and prepare for the arrival of a different sort of Ruler – the Christ of God.
“Come to the River,” he cries out, “come blaze a pathway for the coming of God!” This strangely attired priest of the new covenant comes not with knives to slit the throats of goats or lambs, but with the promise of cleansing water and forgiving balm. He appears many miles from the seats of power, ecclesial as well as imperial, along the long valley road from Galilee to Jerusalem, to announce and inaugurate a new and everlasting regime: a Royal Highway for a regal Savior of all.
I’ve been to that river as well – twice in fact. On my second trip to Palestine in November 2012, our group approached the traditional site of John’s baptizing work from the Jordanian side of the river, an area aptly named Bethany Beyond the Jordan. We gathered at that river, trudging through about a quarter mile of brush, until we reached a clearing, a wooden dock, and the Jordan stretching north and south before us. From that Jordanian vantage point, you can see the territory of Israel just across the river. That alone tells you all you need to know about the historic divisions of this region – so near, yet so far, in every way imaginable.
A number of us had decided to take this opportunity to swim in the Jordan, to remember our Baptism, and experience something of what those early “John-hearers” might have witnessed there at water’s edge. These days the Jordan River is pretty polluted and sludgy, and I remember rethinking the plan to dive in. Yet plunge we did, several of us. And -- notwithstanding the several days of rashes to come – I haven’t regretted it a bit.
What does one bring to the water? I thought about that as I submerged, as I prayed over my cohorts and myself, and as I cherished being in that singular and symbolic natural Bath of the Holy Land. What drove John’s original audience there to the middle of nowhere? I mean, the great Herodian Temple of Jerusalem offered forgiveness and remission. The blood of mammal and bird, the rising smoke of incense and roasted flesh, all this was part of a sacrificial system to assuage the wrath of the Divine.
So, why forsake the institution presided over by Annas, Caiaphas and their ilk? Could it have been that these high priests and their institution had become so corrupt and compromised by that time, so as to have inspired in their populace not faith, but doubt and suspicion that a once-honored institution was collapsing under the weight of its own greed and profiteering? Could it be that the thousands who journeyed South from the Galilee, or East along the desert highway from Jerusalem to this verdant wadi, were willing to place their trust more securely in the Son of Zechariah and Elizabeth – possessed of an authentic priestly lineage far more legitimate than the Jerusalem elites could claim? Or was it simply the promise of new life offered by that Elijah-like “Voice in the Wilderness” – that the long awaited Advent of Moschiach was in the wings, and that an expectant people should cleanse their hearts and souls in readiness for his coming? Regardless of the reason, to the river they came, at the river they gathered.
And we latter-day Advent people come as well. We come to the river, to repent of our broken lives and tattered spirits. As one contemporary hymn puts it:
We come with self-inflicted pains of broken trust and chosen wrong,
half-free, half-bound by inner chains, by social forces swept along,
by powers and systems close confined, yet seeking hope for humankind.
We come at Advent, and at every other time in our lives, because we have heard and acknowledged the divine wisdom as expressed in the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: “When Christ our Lord and Master said, ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of the faithful should be repentance.” We return again and again to the River of Life, the baptismal Flood, that the old Adam in us might be drowned and the new creation be brought forth, in faith toward God and in fervent and unrelenting love of our neighbor.
So come, my friends, on this Advent weekend and every God-blessed day of our lives – along a Trail of Tears made newly bitter by every generation’s corruption, hatred and fear. Come and traverse the rocky road made smooth by the Via Dolorosa, the impassable pathway ground to powder by the saving work of the Galilean, the long Green Mile of mortality made a Highway for the Saints by the Risen and reigning Christ. Come to the Table of blessing, the Word of forgiveness, and the River of hope for a thirsting, sin-sick humanity.
Come and wash, come and be washed, for it’s Advent at the River. For us and for all!
With You in God’s Good Work,