You might expect a prophet to be a bit off-putting. By reputation they dispense criticism and judgment with an accusatory harshness. At various points John the Baptist affirms these low expectations, but not today. Instead, on this day he brings encouraging news.
The first we hear from him in Luke’s Gospel is not from him as such. He is reiterating the message of the great prophet Isaiah.
This is basically what Isaiah is saying and what John the Baptist reiterates under strikingly similar circumstances:
I know that you feel like a stranger in a strange land. You have a memory, or at least it feels like a memory, of someplace you were perfectly at home. Everybody knew you and they were glad to see you. You felt delight in the company you kept. You understood what was expected of you, how to make things turn out right, and where you belonged in the scheme of things.
You were never self-conscious. Worried about what to wear, if your outfit made you look fat, if your hair was out place. You never worried about saying the wrong thing or showing up too early or staying too late. You were comfortable in your own skin.
Now, everything, everyone that might bring comfort and peace and joy is far away. You can’t let on that you feel this distance, because you assume that no one else feels it. Everyone else feels right at home, you’re sure. And that makes you feel even more like a stranger. The distance is killing you.
Well, says John, it’s not just you. At some point or another we all feel that distance in our guts. The message this day is that God is coming to close that gap. To turn strangers into friends, to turn a strange land into home.
Let’s reflect on John’s message for us by considering three questions.
First, what kind of distance distorts our lives?
Second, how does God overcome our spiritual remoteness?
Finally, what place does the stranger hold in the Christian life?
Geographical distance illustrates the spiritual remoteness that breaks our hearts. Let’s listen to the Baptist quoting Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. (Luke 3:4-5)
Isaiah’s words were probably meant for Jews in the Diaspora, ex-patriots who found themselves dwelling outside of Israel. However, his imagery reminds them of a defining historical event: the Babylonian exile. Just as Pearl Harbor or 9/11 serves as markers to shape our narrative as a people and as individual persons, everyone’s story bore the imprint of Babylonian exile.
Long before the time of Jesus, but still remarkably real in people’s hearts, the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. Among the victor’s spoils were not only valuable objects but also the people themselves. The Babylonians took captive all the skilled laborers and professionals and scholars. With their families these former citizens of Jerusalem were force marched 500 miles to Babylon to serve a foreign regime.
The prophets had been warning the Israelites for years that their behavior was leading them away from God. Even though their worship was elaborate and outwardly correct, it was inwardly hollow. Their hearts were devoted to the idols of power and money. Those in authority enriched themselves at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the defenseless.
So when the Israelites found themselves in Babylon, they were not just far from Jerusalem. They felt God-forsaken. Their distance from Jerusalem symbolized for them their remoteness from God, the ruinous distances they had erected between each other, and the great gulf they felt in their own souls.
When Isaiah relays God’s promise to smooth the path back to Jerusalem, they all know that God is talking about more than the geographical obstacles between them and their ancestral home. God is promising to make them a new people to inhabit a renewed, restored Jerusalem. Returning to Jerusalem with the same old hearts would accomplish nothing. If home is where the heart is, then the heart must first be set right so that there can be a home worth inhabiting.
John’s audience finds themselves in a different sort of captivity. They were geographically home, but their homeland was occupied by a cruel, oppressive foreign power. By the Romans. They were strangers in their own land. There was no “where” to go to feel at home. The spiritual distances that led to the destruction of Jerusalem, that had oppressed them in Babylon, had simply followed them back to Jerusalem upon their return.
John the Baptist was telling them what Isaiah had told the people centuries before. We are strangers in a strange land. We create destructive and artificial distances between each other. Social classes are higher or lower. Skin color makes us suspicious or trustworthy. The jobs we hold define us as respectable or contemptuous. In other words, we make strangers.
In our souls we experience the gnawing anxiety that we have not climbed high enough, achieved enough, or accumulated enough to be somebody to others. We fear that we are one career failure, one stock market drop, one public scandal away from being treated like a stranger.
We are already strangers to ourselves, never simply content with ourselves as an imperfect gift.
Spiritual distance creates strangers. And we are very good at making strangers. By contrast, God is very good at closing the gap and turning strangers into friends. The distance we have created between us and God gives rise to the various kinds of disconnect we experience between each other and the tensions and contradictions we find within ourselves.
John tells us that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6) In other words, God comes first to close the gap between us and him, only then will the other chasms in our lives be bridged. So let’s turn next to how God closes the gap between heaven and earth.
Closing the Gap
If you think of God as sitting on a distant throne, you might expect that he would snap his fingers or wave his hand to fix our problems. But John the Baptist has come to announce that God is not quite who you think he is and certainly doesn’t act how you expect him to.
Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. In his birth, life, death, and resurrection we see who God is and what God does for us. To paraphrase William Porcher Dubose, if you want to know God and his ways, you have to reflect on both the manger and the cross.
In the manger we see that God descends from his own heavenly home to dwell with us. He becomes a stranger in a strange land to restore us to the home that we recall without having yet experienced: the dwelling place of God.
It is a dream of what can be, something we have caught fleeting glimpses of, but never known in its fullness. It is a mother’s love for her infant, good-natured laughter with friends, the thrill of riding the surf, the stillness of snowfall, the comfort of a cheerful meal shared with those who know you best and love you most. It is all these things and more absent ancient resentments, unsettled scores, barely hidden rivalries, the unfair advantages of privilege, or any hint of condescension.
In his humility Christ forsakes the honor and the power and the glory due the maker of heaven and earth in order to embrace us as friends.
On the cross Jesus suffers the contempt and degradation that we heap upon strangers, that we unwittingly heap upon ourselves, in order to be done with it once and for all. The Son becomes a stranger even to the Father, so that we will never stand before God as stranger again.
God has done these things for us, not only that we would enjoy his friendship, but that we would extend the friendship that he has offered us. And that brings us to our final question.
What place does the stranger hold in the Christian life?
In a manner of speaking, we are all recovering strangers. We have been strangers in a strange land, far from God, far from others, and even distant from our true selves. We have made others into strangers in the process. But now we are friends. Friends of God in Christ. Friends with each other through Christ. And Christ himself sends us into the world to make friends of the stranger.
It is not enough to sit safely in the confines of the church, prepared to meet the stranger when he or she happens to turn up. It is no use offering the hand of friendship if all we mean is that we would like him or her to join us inside our safe church walls.
That’s not what Jesus did.
On the contrary, Jesus waded up to his eyeballs into the stranger’s own deep waters. He ate with the hungry, he didn’t just feed that from a distance. Only then did they follow him. Following Jesus means that we take ourselves into strange places: among those we consider strangers.
It might be as simple as eating dinner with a Republican or a Democrat, or as harrowing as participating in an intervention with a drug addict. Sitting with the lonely, unpopular boy or girl at lunch or checking blood pressure on a sidewalk. Beginning to give more of your earnings away for the good of others or sharing your home with a person down on his luck.
Jesus sends you and me to participate in his ongoing work of changing strangers into friends. And our motives for doing what he sends us to do may seem to some a little selfish. We welcome the stranger as followers of Jesus, because we know that that is where we will find our dearest friend, Jesus himself.