Luke 1:68-79

Luke 3:1-6

When someone asks you to tell a story, you set it somewhere in time. For instance, when someone asks about my faith history, I start at Philmont Scout Ranch in the summer of 1997. Or I describe Labor Day weekend of my senior year in high school, in worship at my dad’s church. The places matter, because they are when and where things happened. We give details because the story happened that way. Things fit together just so, and the story’s meaning comes from its context.

That’s why this passage from Luke has such a list of names to read. Luke cared about names and dates too, because he had a great story to put in context. It would have been easier if Luke could have just said “26AD” or whenever, but dates didn’t work that way back then. In Luke’s day, you told the years according to the kings’ reigns. (So it’s a radical theological statement that we reckon dates by Christ’s life – it says that Christ is the true ruler of our age – but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Luke gives us the date and the context. He tells us roughly when the story happened and who the most important people were, and Emperor Tiberius was the most important person in all the world.

But Luke’s story doesn’t come from the people we use to name the context. The Emperor didn’t know John the Baptizer, and he didn’t care. This was not his story. The Emperor was not in the business of building roads for God. He built roads to and for Rome, and the wilderness could care for itself. The voice we hear today comes from that wilderness – from John at the edge of nowhere, as far from the Emperor as possible – “build a road!”

A voice from the edge tells a story greater than the powers that name the time, a story to reshape the world from bottom to top. John opens up the story of a God with such compassion that She would share in the joys and sorrows of life, even unto death. He tells about a God who is coming with grace to redeem us, to free all people from the ways that life holds us captive: fear, sin, and injustice. He says, “Build a road!” Make way for a God who is faithful to Her promises, even when the promise seems very far away. This story will eventually reach the powers of the world, but John proclaims it first from the edge. Hope begins nowhere.

John calls out, “Make way for God who is coming from nowhere. Remove the obstacles to God’s coming across the desert.” The Judean desert was no good for road building. It was full of rocks, hills, and ravines, so any road had to wind around the obstacles; it can’t get there from here. John lived out there in that desert. He knew there were no straight paths. Anyone who has built a road anywhere but the prairie knows that nothing is ever straight. But the Spirit didn’t ask John if the obstacles were there, It told him that they didn’t matter. The Spirit said to build a road anyway.

President Eisenhower said same thing about half a century ago. He told the nation to build roads (but just for people and their things) that were relatively straight and level, not winding like the highways before them. Here was a ruler with the technology and budget to literally flatten mountains and raise valleys, who could disregard the complications and just build. Notice that the decision to build the road came before the details of figuring out how to do it. You have to decide what you’re doing first, because engineering without a goal is just a list of problems. (An aside: some people probably saw John’s words as “coming true” in the 1950s when we built these roads across the wilderness, but these were king’s roads, not God’s. The interstates made amazing connections possible, but they also created more wildernesses. God’s road goes through life, not around it.) The road to human hearts is much harder to build than a superhighway, but God decided that the road was more important than the obstacles along the way.

God’s love is insurmountable. It shows itself more determined than the powers that rely on pain and death to keep control of the world. God’s coming is surely more important than finding the right Christmas tree or buying enough presents, even though these things help us mark that coming. Christ’s love is intent on living in our bodies, in the body of the church together in service, despite all obstacles. Our sense of inadequacy can’t keep God out of hearts, and the world’s structures of injustice don’t keep God from coming into the world.

The Spirit didn’t ask for a balance sheet before taking residence in this church. God’s life flows the other way around. John proclaims that God doesn’t ask where the current road leads, He decides where He’s headed and builds the road if necessary. God doesn’t ask if we have enough – whether faith, resources, purity, or friends – to follow, He just points us in a new direction. That new direction often looks like it goes straight through a mountain, which is impossible for us, without help from the Corps of Engineers or Viking Explosives. But nobody asked us to do it ourselves. John said God would do it. He showed us the way God would do it, way back in Tiberius’ time.

John showed us with water, with that ritual called baptism. If God can raise you from death into life, She can make a way through the wilderness. If God can give you life and make it always new, She sure won’t get lost on the way around (or over) the mountains. If this baptism promise is real, there’s no way Christ’s body, the Church, will ever run out of the resources it needs to do the really important work. God never asks if the mountains are in the way, She just gives us the vision and ingenuity we need to work over and around them. God never asks if we have enough, She only promises to give us what we’ll need while we follow.

God has already given us all we’ll ever need: a sign of fresh beginnings, food for the journey, and a light shining on the path. All we need to do is level the mountains, raise the valleys, unwind the twisted places, and smooth the rough paths. All God asks us to do is to completely remake the world, starting with our own lives. With the God who gave us life and gives it again, that’s all there is to it – so let’s get to work!