December 5, 2021
I’ve always loved history books. I know that the joke is always about how boring history is, but to me, it’s the most fascinating story of all of us. And there was, for the longest time, a particular trend in writing history called the “Great Man History.” Basically, all of history could be understood by tracing the actions and lives of the powerful people (who were almost always men) and ordering history around it. It’s why we see the fall of the Roman Republic through the lens of Julius Caesar, or the course of modern history through the lens of Queen Victoria. Basically, any time you read a history where the chapters are based who was in charge at the time, that’s Great Man History.
So it should come as no surprise that Luke’s gospel decided to list off a series of Great Men for us to find the historical setting of today’s gospel reading. Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, and don’t forget the high priests Anas and Caiaphas. These were the names that shook the world. They ordered the course of world history, so much that whole historical periods could be referenced simply by when they were rulers. But then Luke does what the Bible always seems to do in these cases: he undermines that powerful set.
The Word of God came—not to the Great Men, enthroned in splendor and commanding the heights of history—but to John. In the wilderness. John, who isn’t a ruler of anything, who doesn’t have a whole historical period bracketed by his name. John, clothed in camel’s hair and raving like a lunatic on the fringe of society. This is the guy on whom the Word of God descends.
So why John? What is it about him that leads God to speak through him? Well, we should know something about John’s background. See, he didn’t just emerge from the wilderness, rolling out of a tent all bearded and unkempt. John was a man who had what we’d probably call “a lot of potential.” His father was a priest on rotation in the Jerusalem Temple—an extremely lucrative job that John would absolutely have inherited. And his mother, Elizabeth, was a Levite, a descendent of Aaron—Moses’ brother. By all rights, John was definitely on the fast track to become High Priest, to have a period of history bracketed by his name—“The High Priesthood of John.”
But he didn’t. With all that amazing privilege laid at his feet, John heard God calling him out to the wilderness. There was a message that needed to be told, and John was uniquely positioned to speak that message. He was a man stationed at the top of a hill, nothing blocking his view for all of his potential. People would listen to him, because we instinctually listen to people in his kind of position, whether they deserve it or not. And he used that willingness of people to listen to him to say what God needed people to hear: those hills would be made low, and the valleys would be raised up, because the Lord is coming.
That’s how you build a highway, after all. When we would drive along the interstate growing up, I spent a lot of time looking out the window. It fascinated me to watch how the land beside the highway would keep going up and down, up and down, up and down—but the highway was always level. I always wondered why growing up, but the reason is really simple. Can you imagine trying to go seventy miles an hour without levelling the hills and valleys? Bringing down the hills and lifting up the valleys make travelling on the highway so much easier, and so much faster.
So when John proclaimed that the hills would be brought down low and the valleys would be raised up, he was talking about the things that would get in the way of the smooth and quick coming of the Lord. He recognized that his own position—son of a priest, poised to inherit his father’s job and his mother’s prestige, able to live a comfortable and happy life if he just did nothing to stop it from happening—he recognized his life was a hill that got in the way of Gods’ highway. If he had stayed in his place at the top of his metaphorical hill, he could have avoided ever encountering anyone in the valleys: the poor and the marginalized; or learned their stories; or called them to repentance. He could have been quite comfortable, but he heard the call of God to speak on behalf of those on the margins, because people would listen to his voice.
The thing is, hills are really nice things to be on. They give a clear view of the world around us. The air is nicer. It’s easier to defend. Great Men like hills, and usually what they end up doing is working to make their hills higher and higher by digging up the valleys around them. But the thing about those on hilltops of power and privilege, comfort and security, is that they are removed from the people in the valleys. Those on the hilltop don’t ever have to even see the ones in the valley if they don’t want to. And when the people in the valleys aren’t seen, they might as well not exist.
So God calls on us to bring down the hills, and lift up the valleys, like John did. It’s not just that we’re called to box up gifts for needy families, or donate to the food shelf, or send quilts to faraway places—though all of those things are good. When God calls on us to prepare a highway by bringing down our hills and filling up the valleys, God is calling on us to see and know the people in the valleys. When we’re brought eye-to-eye with the people we are called to serve, it changes things. It moves them from being theoretical people helped by our charity, to real human beings whose names we know and whose faces we recognize, whose welfare isn’t about us feeling good about making a donation, but about ensuring the person we know has the things they need to live and thrive in God’s kingdom.
And we do that by bringing down our hills of comfort or unearned advantages, like how John set aside his shoe-in for the priesthood to be with the people. We do it by repenting from the ability to not notice the people in the valleys. We do it by joining with other Christians in preparing the highway, doing together what we can’t do alone. And we do it by trusting that the work we do is really preparing the way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.