“Changing Hearts & Lives” Colchester Federated Church, December 5, 2021, Second Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:1-6)

When I was in college, my parents couldn’t pick me up for Thanksgiving one year because of scheduling issues with their respective schools.  So my grandparents drove down to North Carolina to take me home to Ohio.  Now this drive is still all-too familiar and fairly easy.  One spends most of the 8-hour drive on 77 North.  My Grandpa and Grandma switched driving once we hit West Virginia, and Grandpa went into the backseat to sleep.  My Grandma was driving (God rest her soul), and I was sitting in the passenger seat merrily watching the rainy West Virginia scenery as she sped on by.  Grandma had a lead foot that she passed on to her children and grandchildren.   

Now Grandma and I were having a heart-to-heart conversation.  We were both focused and absorbed—on our conversation, not so much on the road.  At one point I remember saying, “Gramma, this looks different than I remember, I could swear that we’re supposed to be on the other side of that mountain.”  She assured me that the rain was just making me see the scenery differently.  Grandpa woke up, looked out the window, and said, “Wow, I don’t remember that little airport.”  To which Grandma responded, “Leon, go back to sleep, Lauren and I are talking!”  More time passed as we drove along and then we saw the fateful sign.  Grandma and I looked at the sign, looked at each other, and then back at that smug sign—WELCOME TO TENNESSEE!  My Grandma looked into the rearview mirror and innocently asked, “Leon, why are we in Tennessee?” 

Grandpa sat bolt upright, yelled some expletives: “Tennessee? Where have you taken us, Mary?  Pull over, I’m driving.”  We switched drivers again.  Grandpa made me stay up front, a position I wanted very badly to relinquish at this point.  And we sped back the way we came.  The 8-hour drive ended up being an 11-hour drive thanks to our unexpected adventure into Tennessee.  Thankfully, given our family sense of humor, we were laughing about this by the time we got back on the correct highway to get to Ohio. 

Now today on the Second Sunday of Advent we hear John the Baptist quote the Prophet Isaiah in talking about making a highway for God.  Isaiah once proclaimed, “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his [God’s] paths straight.  Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled.  The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth.  All humanity will see God’s salvation.”[1]  This desert highway’s construction is the exact opposite of those misty mountain curves of 77 North through West Virginia that ended up being problematic for Grandma and me.  Isaiah imagines a straight road in the desert, God’s highway—going from Babylon to Judah with no wrong turns on the horizon.  The valleys will be filled.  The mountains and hills will be leveled.  The crooked will be straight.  The rough places smooth.  We won’t end up randomly in Tennessee the way Isaiah envisions this direct path to God.

These words were written around the time that the Babylonian Empire got conquered by the Persians.  King Cyrus eventually told the Jewish people (who had been in exile in Babylon for fifty years) that they could return to Israel.  The time of restoration was finally at hand—prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together!  No more being strangers in a strange land, no more trying to keep kosher in someone else’s kitchen, no treacherous mountains or valleys to contend with.  Now Jerusalem has no need to fear and the cities of Judah will once again welcome God.  In a lifetime of war and exile, this desert highway is an image of restoration and peace.

John the Baptist intentionally quoted the prophet Isaiah as he was going about his ministry in the wilderness.  John was out there calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and desired for God to forgive them of their sins.  People were seeking forgiveness for the things that separate us from God, from one another, and from our best selves.  “Changing their hearts and lives” is the beautiful phrase that’s used in the Common English Bible version of this passage from the Gospel according to Luke.[2]  Other versions use the word repentance.  Repentance means “to turn back” in Hebrew, or in Greek “to change one’s mind.”  So perhaps the best way to think about what John the Baptist was preaching (his message of repentance) is that folks were not in right relationship with God.  Turn back.  Change your hearts and lives.  Return home to God.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we can consider John the Baptist’s message of changing our hearts and lives.  We can consider how we are to prepare the way for Jesus in our own hearts and lives, to make the pathway smooth so we don’t get lost on our own journeys of faith.  It’s the Sunday where we contemplate the theme of peace.  It’s not been an easy week to think about peace.  There was yet another school shooting, this time in Oxford, Michigan.  Four people died, one young person has been charged with murder, many people in that school have been traumatized, and an entire community is shaken and in mourning.  We are hopefully not so numb to school shootings by now that we ignore the pain of others.  Though these incidents happen frequently enough that we are sadly used to them by now. 

This week we’ve also heard about a new variant of Covid-19—the omicron variant first discovered in South Africa.  But a variant that is already present here in the U.S.  There is so much that we still don’t know and will discover in the coming weeks as scientists study how this variant operates and what it means for all of us.  I don’t know about you, but hearing about the latest variant felt like the wind got knocked out of our sails a bit.  Covid cases are on the rise in our state and in Colchester.  And it just seems like this pandemic is never ending some days.

So how do we gather in Christian community during Advent and proclaim peace?  Peace in a world that is troubled.  Peace in a world that is violent.  Peace in a world that is in desperate need of healing.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”[3]  Perhaps when we look around at the trouble, violence, and pain we turn inward to challenge ourselves to be peacemakers.  Where peacemaking goes from there depends on us.  Though we can reach out to one another knowing that it’s not going to solve these societal and global issues, but it’s something.  For if we each change our hearts and our lives that does help to create more loving communities.  And that’s not the end, but it’s a start.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 3:4-6, CEB.
[2] Luke 3:3, CEB.
[3] Matthew 5:9, NRSV.

Photo by Brent Pace on Unsplash