Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Advent

18th December 1954

IV: Prepare ye the way

A voice that cries in the desert, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Make straight in the dry land A highway for our God : Every valley exalted, Every mountain and hill made low, And the steep shall be turned to a level, The scree to a plain.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh together shall see it."

The the Gospel for this last Sunday of Advent, St. Luke uses this 'quotation of Isaias in connection with the preaching of John the Baptist. It is one of the few passages that occurs (more or less fully quoted) in all four Gospels: Matthew, characteristically enough 3), suggests that Isaias was speaking precisely of John; Luke, cautiously enough, applies the passage to John (iii. 4-6) ; John places the passage on the lips of the Baptist, when he is being questioned by the Jewish clergy 23) ; Mark simply uses it to begin his whole story (i. 2-3).

How typical of those four lovable men is the placing of the passage by each! Matthew had not only begun with an Old Testament genealogy, and then found apt quotations from the Old Testament for several of the events of the infancy, seeing Our Lord's history as a fulfilment of prophecy, but now when introducing Christ's ministry, sees the Baptist's work as a fulfilment of Isaias. Luke, the historian (after once quoting a point of Old Testament Law), begins the history of the public life of Our Lord with some careful dating ("Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cesar. . ."), and proceeds in proper order to tell of John's preaching, introducing the relevant quotation here. Mark, in his straightforward manner, simply introduces Christ by introducing the Baptist, and begins with the quotation, to show the Roman reader that "the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" has indeed got its roots in antiquity. He then goes on, somewhat breathlessly as usual, from the preaching of John to the preaching of Jesus, rarely pausing again to quote the Old Testament, which, as quotation, would mean so little to his pagan readers. John, early in the poem of his prologue, had mentioned the Baptist, and the first sight we have with him of the Word made flesh is through the eyes of the Baptist, who greets him as the Lamb of God (i. 29). The day before this, the Isaian text is on John the Baptist's lips. Each evangelist uses the passage in his own way to introduce the Coming of Christ.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. The way of the Lord had been prepared for generations : Stir up thy power and come, in today's (and the First Sunday's) collect, comes from Psalm bodx : this was long the hope of faithful Israel, God's own people who trusted in him, who waited for him, who knew his goodness to them, who called on him for mercy.

Lord remember me amid thy favors to thy people, Come, visit me with thy salvation: That I may see the good things of thy elect,' Rejoice in the joy of thy nation, Raise my song amid thine inheritance.
That is the psalm for today's Introit. Israel knows God's favors, knows the good things he gives to them, rejoices because of the privilege of being his people, his inheritance. This is the preparation, the Lord's highway in the desert, in the arid world that knows him not. This preparation of trust, of trusting expectation, of expectation of mercy and redemption, is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ did not come into the world of a sudden, any more than Christmas comes of a sudden: the world had its Advent, as we Christians have it every year. The way is prepared with a promise on God's side, and a hope on the side of mankind. 0 my God, I hope in thee, because of thy promises to me Lord, remember me amid thy favors to thy people.

And this promise of redemption is symbolized in a renewal of the face of the earth. Every valley. every valley . . . (how well old Handel must have known his Bible). Every lifetime has its valleys, its mountains and hills, its steeps and its stretches of scree. If only we can prepare the Lord's highway within our own dryness, with trust that he can renew the lace of the earth, the steep becomes a level, the scree becomes a plain. Too often we forget the consoling message in the psalm that we sing at the Gradual: “So close is the Lord to those that call upon him, To those who truly call upon him”.
The Lord is at hand. Come, Lord, be not tardy in thy coming. And the Lord's answer is in the promise in the last words of the written revelation: Surely I come quickly: Amen.