Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
December 17, 2017
Text: John 1:23, O.T.: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, N.T.: John 1:6-9, 19-28
Between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea lies the Judean Desert. Jerusalem’s Temple Mount lies 4,000 feet above the lowest point of this desert at the banks of the Dead Sea. Running 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea lies the Kidron Valley. It begins with the Eastern Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City. It separates the Old City from the Mount of Olives, where Jesus was betrayed.
To the west of Jerusalem’s Old City lies the Valley of the Son of Hinnon. During biblical times, this valley was perpetually on fire. It was the city’s landfill. It was known as the destination of the condemned.
John the Baptist is not known to have preached in the Hinnon Valley. He preached in the Judean Desert, along the Kidron Valley. Dry river beds called wadis, over 1,000 feet deep, run through this desert. During the rainy season, flash floods are common along these wadis.
Lions were known to prowl in this wilderness. Scorpions infested its rocks and crevasses. John the Baptist preached among the harshness of Judah’s wilderness. He was isolated and alone.
This is the topography of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem lies only six and a quarter miles from Jerusalem to the south. It stands 98 feet higher than Jerusalem with its Temple Mount, among the Judean Mountains.
Travel from Jerusalem to the east or south involves crossing steep ravines and climbing mountains. In some ways, it is similar to what we experience in Pittsburgh, except that it is more arid.
We have the Parkway North. We have the Fort Pitt Tunnel. We have the Parkway West, Route 79. We live in the world of earth movers, demolition crews, and excavators. We possess wealth to bridge three rivers, and build retaining walls. We live in a world that Isaiah and John the Baptist dreamt would come. We can travel 20 miles in 20 minutes – at least on Sunday mornings. It would take days to make the same trip from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea when John the Baptist was preaching.
It’s hard for us to appreciate the vision of Jesus’ prophet when he said, “Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low and the rough places a plain.” We live this dream every day.
The fact that we can humanly engineer the vision of Isaiah and John the Baptist when the Messiah comes does not mean we face the same challenges biblical Israel and Judea faced. Our ability to carve through the topography of the earth and overcome earthly obstacles does not touch the challenges of reforming the human heart.
We live in an opiod crisis. This is a crisis of the spirit – a crisis of hopelessness that pervades human hearts. Despite all of our engineering feats, despite all of our wealth that makes possible a world of comfort and ease, all too many Americans are hopeless, living in emotional despair.
John the Baptist saw the coming of the Messiah as God overcoming obstacles to a new life. This new life would be a prosperous life; a life of convenience; a life with security and peace. But for John this new life was not of human design. It came from God.
John the Baptist echoed Isaiah’s hope for the coming of the Lord. He envisioned a new world was about to descend upon the earth. He saw the new world’s arrival in Jesus.
He announced God’s arrival would overcome the natural obstacles that make life so difficult. But at a more profound level, the topographical changes John the Baptist saw were metaphors for God overcoming obstacles within the human heart that separate us from God.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem stands 4,000 feet above the Dead Sea. It was a mountain of pride and self-righteousness for the Sadducees who led Israel’s worship in the Temple. It was a mountain of pride and self-righteousness for the Jewish people.
Mountains of pride and self-righteousness are obstacles for us. They prevent use from direct access to God. They stand in the way of depending upon God. They’re barriers that block gratitude to God. Pride is a pinnacle of independence from God. Self-righteousness is a barricade from humility before God.
John the Baptist sees the coming of the Messiah leveling the mountains within the human heart that block our relationship with God. Christ’s arrival in a manager appeals to our conscience. It does not appeal to our physical wants and desires.
If God so loves us that He came in such humble conditions, why do I need so many material things to be happy? God’s arrival isn’t to satisfy our poverty that makes us economically unequal with others. God’s arrival on earth isn’t to satisfy the lender to whom we owe debt.
The arrival of the Messiah is to satisfy our spiritual poverty where we believe our worth comes from what we own. The arrival of the Messiah is to satisfy our spiritual debt where we owe God more love than we receive.
The coming of the Lord is one of God’s innocence at birth. He forces upon humanity the responsibility to care for Him and to protect Him from the idolatry of misplaced worship. The coming of the Lord is one of God showing the world we can be more than we allow ourselves to be in our narcissism, our self-indulgence.
But God’s arrival in Jesus hasn’t ended at the manger. He continues to reach out to us today from the manger. He is the living God who is with us always, even if we anticipate His physical return.
John the Baptist saw the valleys that are so steep and dark that emanate from Jerusalem being filled with love. The valley of the condemned beside Jerusalem is that is filled with guilt and judgment is lifted up with hope and joy.
The coming of the Lord relieves those who are heavy laden. The valley of despair which is lonely and isolated is leveled by His companionship with us for eternity. The coming of the Lord brings light that penetrates despair from the beacon of salvation.
This is John’s vision – a vision for our own time!
God’s arrival in Jesus Christ changes the topography of the human heart so we are with God. God is moving the heaven and earth in Christ so we will experience the joy of His presence forever! Amen.