Those of you who travel on our roads will regularly encounter road works. Traffic signs, speed limits and unexpected twists and turns forcing you to slow down and pay attention wherever building is going on. Often with huge trucks and other frightful looking equipment tirelessly digging and levelling to prepare for the tarmac to be laid or other work to be done. Men (and women) in fluorescent vests everywhere doing whatever they do to prepare the way.
In the gospel this morning we find a quote from the prophet Isaiah, also about road works that need doing. These road works however are of a completely different order and will take place on a scale that is much bigger than even the work that is involved in massive projects like the East link or the M1. The way of the Lord needs to be prepared, and calls for the straightening of paths, the filling in of valleys and the levelling of mountains and hills.
And to manage the first stage of the project, a messenger is called.
The prophet Malachi writes about this messenger in about 450 before Christ. With Israel in a desperate situation: They have tried everything to gain peace, but they keep being overrun by other nations. Faith in the possibility of a good and peaceful future was running low and most people would have felt that it was probably best to accept that the world would always be a place where war and strive and hunger and suffering would be part of the picture. A world not entirely unlike ours.
Malachi is one of the people who refuses to give in to that bleak outlook. He cant believe God is finished with the world and is positive that different times will come. A time where those who stand to profit from the widespread chaos and suffering that has his world in its grip will lose there power and be toppled.
There comes a time says Malachi where those who do not do justice and make life misery for the poor and vulnerable in society will lose their power. Where those who do not serve peace but cause strife and wage war among each other will be put down in favour of somebody who will care and look after Gods people, bring peace and make a difference.
I am so sure of it that I can see the messenger announcing that king coming in my mind already!
Luke identifies John the son of Zechariah as this messenger that the prophet Malachi and other prophets, were sure would come to prepare the Lord. And he identifies Jesus as this Lord, the saviour that had been expected for centuries by the prophets.
The messenger, John, who is to prepare the way for the one in whom God will reveal his will for the world as in no other, is called to go out into the wilderness, traditionally the place where understanding and insight comes to people of God, to prepare. Moses went there before he led his people out of Egypt, the people of Israel travelled through it for 40 years in preparation for their entry into the promised land, Elijah spends time there, meeting God in the silent whisper after a storm and many others. And Jesus will go there, when he is preparing to start his ministry after he has been baptised by John the Baptist.
It is not in the centres of political or religious power that the preparation for the coming of the Messiah takes place, not in nicely decked out places of worship or in the palaces of the powerful, but outside, in the wilderness is where preparation happens.
And Luke indicates this by putting the politically and religiously powerful of his day right next to the call that goes out to John.
Today the beginning of his story about John the Baptist might have sounded a little bit like this:
In the days when George Bush was president of the United States, and John Howard was prime minister of Australia, when Steve Bracks premier of Victoria, when Gregor Henderson was president of the Uniting Church in Australia and Jason Kioa was moderator of the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania, in those days the Word of the Lord came to a preachers son somewhere in the outback and told him to go and prepare the way of the Lord, to go and prepare for human history to change for ever.
It is not the halls of power or the big worship centres where salvation coming from !
Luke plays with the contrast here, as he does at the beginning of the story he tells about the birth of Jesus: Over against the mighty rulers of the world, and the high priests in charge of established religion there is the voice of one crying in the wilderness and the birth of a vulnerable child somewhere in a dark corner of the empire amongst the lowliest of people that make the real difference.
A subversive message, rebelling against the established power structures and religious institutions that are supposed to look after people, care for them, and safeguard justice and peace be done in the world.
It is a message that will cost John his life, as it will Jesus. The powers that be dont like it because it reveals their inadequacy at ruling like they should: protecting the poor, supporting the weak and bringing true peace to all the nations.
It is here then, in this context of contrast and subversion against the ruling of the time that baptism finds its roots. Here, where John, the son of a priest, hears the word of God calling him to the wilderness to prepare people for a change of direction in human history.
Off the beaten tracks outside in the wilderness where the only way to move forward is hard work, levelling and smoothing, filling in and making straight until the road becomes passable and a path suitable for the Lord to travel on has been created. Among ordinary people prepared to change direction and commit themselves to work and live towards a new future with integrity.
It is there that Jesus submits himself to baptism and shows where he feels his roots lie. Not at court trying to exert political influence, nor in the temple working hard to keep institutionalised religion on track and running smoothly, but in the wilderness where some son of a priest has started a counter movement against the establishment of the day.
That should worry us.
Because we are very much part of the establishment, arent we, and rooted in institutionalised religion. With our environment, physically as well as spiritually, far away from the wilderness and pioneering home base of John the Baptist. With baptism for us often more a sign and seal of belonging to the establishment than of rebellion or even resistance against the existing order.
Institutionalised religion doesnt get a good press in most of scripture. It is often portrayed as a stayed, stagnant barrier that will prevent the road to be cleared and made ready for Gods Kingdom to come. The rulers of the day, those with political and worldly power more often than not the people whose life and practice is in sharp contrast with the life and practice God intended.
Johns call goes out to the people of his day to leave those stayed and stagnant structures behind and come out into the wilderness and be open to new insights and possibilities. To leave the beaten track and the established order and structures and focus their living and doing totally towards the coming of the Messiah instead. To make way for a reign of justice and peace to change the world and room for another outlook on life than the one that says there is no hope and everything will always stay the same.
As a sign of this turn around, of this change in direction to make way for another world, people are invited to be baptised, to be washed clean from the past, to symbolically re-surface into a new life as a sign of their commitment to this change of direction. A change of direction where, according to the songs of Mary and Zachariah earlier in the gospel, the mighty will be toppled from their positions of power and the poor and the suffering will find abundance of justice and peace.
Baptism at the time Jesus receives it is not an endearing rite of passage into the conventional but a decision to go against the grain, to step outside the box, to leave the beaten track and find other paths than those of the existing order and structures.
It may be good to keep that in mind when we baptise today, in this place, in this Church, in our context of a world where war and poverty are still very much in evidence and where many believe that it will never be different.
Where political and religious institutions, very much like in the time of Jesus often dont seem to fussed about revolutionary change and a world where poverty is history and war will be forgotten.
Scripture keeps reminding us that that is not good enough. That we should be preparing for something else, and working, with energy and focus to help make it happen. So the way will be cleared for Christmas to truly come and for that child in the manger to finally bring the peace and justice this world so desperately needs.