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Straight Roads

posted Dec 10, 2018, 3:45 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Dec 10, 2018, 3:49 PM ]

Luke 3:1-6

Perhaps you’ve noticed that people think in amazingly varied ways.  Just when I think I’ve got someone figured out, they do something that blows my mind.  

Long ago I learned that one of the secrets of building deep and satisfying relationships is the capacity to be curious rather than knowing.  The “knowing” person assumes that he understands pretty well how most people think; what they want; how they’ll react.  The “curious” person assumes that people are fascinating and often unpredictable; she relates with people in ways that demonstrate eagerness to understand what they want and how they’ll think and how they’ll react.

I want to be the curious person and not the knowing person – but it’s hard, to be honest.  It is deeply ingrained into almost all humans to assume (without really thinking about it) that most people will naturally think about things pretty much as I do.

Years ago, I was serving a church and a situation arose that prompted me to ask the congregation for a significant change in our terms of employment.  There was one member of the Church Council who was convinced that this suggested change was a very bad idea.  It happened that he worked from a public location and many church members regularly passed by his desk.  As they would pass by he’d engage them in conversation about this matter.  He’d shared his deep concern and ask what they thought.  Most (apparently – obviously I only knew of these conversations from what others reported to me) nodded politely and moved on.  This church member left these many conversations pretty deeply convinced that nearly all the church shared his concern.

The matter was ultimately to be resolved by a vote at the Annual Meeting.  This member (with whom I maintained a decent relationship) came to me before the meeting and in an oddly conspiratorial tone whispered to me, “I hope you’re preparing yourself.  Your proposal will never pass.”

But when the votes were counted, the proposal passed.  Not unanimously, but neither was the vote close.  It was something like 48-4.  I happened to get a look at the Council member’s face when the vote was announced.  He was stunned.

Did this make the Council member a “bad person?”  Not at all.  He and I continued to work together and do so quite well.  But the story illustrates very well the difficulty of separating one’s own strong feelings from the assumption that everyone else must feel pretty much as I do.

The fact of the matter is, people very often DON’T see things the way I do.  The astute person recognizes that and adopts curiosity as their primary learning mode rather than certainty.  The wise person is much more into asking questions than in announcing facts.

What might any of this have to do with Advent?  Perhaps this:  Whether or not Advent is perceived as something to be eagerly desired or something to be wary about depends a lot on perspectives so personal as to be hard to predict.

Last week after worship one of our faithful members wondered whether the sermon was my version of “fire and brimstone.”  Well…. to be honest I hadn’t thought of it that way…. not at all.  But upon reflection I think that member was right, and I’m grateful for the question.  It helped me learn something about myself.

Here’s the danger about any one sermon – it’s never the entirety of the Gospel.  Any single sermon is almost always like that ancient story that most of you have heard many times – the story about a committee of blind folk who were taken to experience an elephant and then asked to describe it.  One of them – the one who felt its trunk – said that an elephant in like a hose.  Another had embraced a leg and that one said an elephant is like a column.  Yet another had leaned against the animal’s side and he was quite confident that an elephant was like a wall.  The final member had handled the elephant’s ear and she reported that it was exactly like a carpet.  If there were more members, they might have grabbed the tail and described it as a rope or felt a tusk and described it as a spear.

An elephant, of course, is like all of those things.  But an elephant is NOT entirely like any one of them.  That’s part of the danger of preaching (or many other complicated things) – no single sermon fully contains the Gospel.  In fact, any single sermon – taken out of context of years of sermons – probably distorts the Gospel.  

So, let me repeat my Advent question:  Is it good news or not such good news that God just might show up when we are least expecting her?

The answer, as you’ve all figured out, is that it depends.  In the case of the crossing of the Red Sea, the unexpected coming of God was very good news for the Hebrews, but not so much for the Egyptians.

In today’s short text we are introduced to the most famous Advent preacher of all times – John the Baptist.  John went about the countryside outside Jerusalem behaving oddly and preaching provocatively.  Most of what we hear from John’s mouth sounds like black and white certainty – though late in his life he reveals a moment of deep (and I think, endearing) uncertainty, when he sends a messenger to Jesus asking whether he was the one for whom they were waiting, or whether they needed to keep looking.

Why did this matter to John?  Because John was the remarkable leader who knew that life was not about himself.  Over and over again, John insisted that his message was about “the one to come” – it was about Messiah – it was not about John.   Here in Luke 3 we are introduced to John’s preaching with a metaphor from civil engineering.  It’s actually a quote from Isaiah.  In ancient days as well as today, mountains and valleys are lovely to behold, but they are impediments to travel.  Today, thanks to Alfred Noble and his invention of dynamite and thanks to heavy machinery builders like Caterpillar and John Deere, high ridges can be cut through and deep valleys can be filled and level roads can be built to facilitate travel through the mountain and over the valley.  Such a road can be made straight and level – as opposed to a road which would otherwise be crooked and steeply sloped – and therefore difficult to traverse.

In a nutshell, here’s the point:  Has life ever been difficult for you?  Are there days – maybe even yesterday, or (God-forbid) perhaps tomorrow or next week when a crisis will erupt in your life or in the world generally and you will need God?  On our better days, we all know that a life of fullness and meaning cannot be lived by oneself.  We need others – we need God.  The fact is, we need God every single day – though when things are “okay” it’s easy to forget that.  And the fact of the matter is this: without fail, God wants to help.  God is never reluctant to care for God’s beloved – for you and me.  God wants to come to each of us and to be exactly – not necessarily what we want – but exactly what we need.  But sometimes there are mountains and valleys that stand in the way of God getting to us, and those mountains and valleys are – as it turns out – of our own making.  To put it bluntly – God can rarely get to me, unless I let God in.  God can rarely serve me and show his love for me unless I let down my defenses and open myself to God’s care and grace and love.  

That, perhaps, is what Advent is about.  Advent is about tearing down mountains and filling valleys so that God can come to me and provide care and grace and power and whatever else I need to live life to the fullest.  These mountains and valleys take many different forms – they may be pride, they may be busyness and work, they may be unfortunate histories, they may be wealth, or grief or pleasure or numbness.  Almost any human experience can be a barrier to the coming of God.  God wants to come to every human – but God mostly gets to those who tear down mountains and fill in valleys – whatever those barriers might be.  

Perhaps this season of Advent is a time when God is inviting each of us to take stock of our lives and figure out what might be blocking us from a deeper experience of God.  And then, whatever it might be, we must ask for God’s help in dynamiting the barrier and ask for God’s help in taking the dynamited debris and use it to fill in valleys.  

It’s never exactly easy to do this, but let me assure you, neither is it impossible.  For with God, nothing is impossible!

I started by suggesting that it’s dangerous to assume we know how others are thinking – none of us can know for certain whether our friend longs for God or dreads the thought that God might come.  Perhaps we can start by longing for the good God of life to get into our own lives and to change us.  Perhaps that’s the necessary starting point.  And when that happens – who knows? – God may use us to get to others!  It spreads, you see!

Come Lord Jesus.  Come!  Amen.