Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent by Father Lee Nelson

“For God has ordered that every high mountain and the
everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may
walk safely in the glory of God."

From the Book of Baruch, I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

I first noticed it on a drive to Wisconsin.

I had decided to take a new route. Usually, I drove up through Oklahoma, Oklahoma City to Tulsa, then across to Joplin, Missouri, through Rolla, into St. Louis, and then up through Illinois, through Springfield and then into Wisconsin. I guess that I had simply grown weary of the same old things – the little annoyances – toll-roads, and all the signs in Missouri for a place called “Meramec Caverns.”

So, this time, I drove up I-35, through Oklahoma, into Kansas, then Omaha, Nebraska, then Iowa, then into Wisconsin.

What I noticed was that a drive of 1,118 miles was a lot shorter than 1058 miles. Of course, this phenomenon defies mathematical explanation. There is no way a longer drive can be shorter than a shorter one.

But, the difference was this – MOUNTAINS.

For, on the drive through Missouri, and I had begun to call it “misery,” I had to drive through the Ozark Mountains. I had to cross the Mississippi at St. Louis instead of little old Dubuque.

The flatness of Kansas, and northern Oklahoma, and Nebraska, and Iowa, more than made up for the Ozark Mountains – the ups and downs.

Plus, I-35 has a Starbucks every 75 miles all the way to Minneapolis.

And so a difference of 60 miles is completely worth it. Plus, there’s a stop in Madison, Wisconsin - which is a lot more fun than Rockford, Illinois. And – best of all – the gas is cheaper!

In a car, mountains are no big deal – it leaves us with a difference of about $25 in gas and a more soothing and caffeine-filled drive. But think about it on foot, with mountains, and rocks, and deserts, with carts and oxen, and the need to find food at every stop.

If I had to navigate Missouri in a horse and cart, well, no thanks, give me Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa.

It is no wonder then, that the Pioneers navigated Missouri by way of the Missouri river on barges from St. Louis to Kansas City rather than going through the mountains.

The real advantage to mountain-less travel is that you have a greater field of vision. In the mountains, you can see nothing but the mountain in front of you. But, in flat lands, you can see for mile upon mile. Those of you from West Texas can appreciate this.

“For God has ordered that every high mountain and the
everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may
walk safely in the glory of God."

Our reading today from the Apocryphal book of Baruch comes from a time when the people of Jerusalem had been taken into exile in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem has been burned, and the Temple destroyed.

The priests are still present in Jerusalem, living on nothing, because the cultural elite – the breadwinners of Jewish society – have been taken into exile.

And Baruch is a man who had the foresight to take the vessels of the Temple with him to Babylon, so that, at the very least, they might not be taken by robbers.

We know archaeologically that this happened often. Many digs have found Temple vessels in caves high in the mountains of Palestine.

When in Babylon, they hear of the Temple’s destruction, the people are clearly in mourning for the Temple and for Jerusalem. Baruch takes the occasion to write four chapters of poetry, exhortation, and prayer before the people. Upon hearing what Baruch wrote, the people wept, fasted and prayed before the Lord.

Then, they took up a collection to send with Baruch to take with him, so that he might make a sacrifice on the altar of the Temple, which was left standing. He is to make a sin offering and a thank offering. He is to make a confession for the people in exile to the Lord in the Temple. He is also to bring with him the vessels which he had rescued from the Temple.

Our reading today comes from the very last words he spoke to the people in Babylon, and these words spark a movement to rebuild the city and the Temple. These acts are recorded in the Old Testament Books of Nehemiah and Ezra.

What is it that Baruch could have said to bring about mourning and weeping, fasting and prayer? What could he have said that would have brought about such repentance?

First, he acknowledges the sin of the people. Four times he says “we have sinned.” He exhibits before the people a spirit of brokenness and wretchedness. He acknowledges fully both his sin and the sin of the people.

He tells them:

“It was not for destruction
that you were sold to the nations,
but you were handed over to your enemies
because you angered God.
For you provoked him who made you,
by sacrificing to demons and not to God.
You forgot the everlasting God, who brought you up,
and you grieved Jerusalem, who reared you.”
[Baruch 4:6-8]

Therefore, when he asks God to show them His favor, he makes it very clear that it is for no reason of the worth of the people. He asks God to work and to hear their prayers for His own Name’s sake. He prays in Chapter 3: “Remember not the iniquities of our fathers, but in this crisis remember thy power and thy name.”

Third, Baruch weeps for the people himself. He weeps over their sin. He says to them:

“I have taken off the robe of peace
and put on the sackcloth of my supplication;
I will cry to the Everlasting all my days.

"Take courage, my children, cry to God,
and he will deliver you from the power and hand of the enemy.

For I have put my hope in the Everlasting to save you,
and joy has come to me from the Holy One,
because of the mercy which soon will come to you
from your everlasting Savior.

For I sent you out with sorrow and weeping,
but God will give you back to me with joy
and gladness for ever.”
Baruch 4:20-23

Here is a man who is not afraid to take up supplication for his people as a whole. He is not afraid to bear them on his back. But, he does not intend to pray for them from Babylon, no – he means to intercede for them from Jerusalem, 450 miles to the west.

So the mission of Baruch is twofold, he will intercede for those in exile in Babylon, and bring comfort and encouragement to those suffering in Jerusalem.

He writes:

“Look toward the east, O Jerusalem,
and see the joy that is coming to you from God!”

and again:

“Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height
and look toward the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east,
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.

For they went forth from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.

For God has ordered that every high mountain
and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.”

Do you see what is happening?

Baruch is leaning upon the providence of God to provide in every way – including the removal of obstacles in his way to Jerusalem – both mountains and valleys. Because, in between Babylon and Jerusalem, there are several valleys, and one enormous mountain range. And he trusts that unlike the exile, which took place on foot, he will be carried, as if on a royal throne, back to Jerusalem.

His mission is clear – he is to make sacrifice for the sake of the people in the ruins of the Temple, and he is to make a confession for them. In addition, he is to bring aid to the priests, to comfort and encourage them.

So, why all the hype about this small-time, Apocryphal figure?

Because John the Baptist, in preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins nearly directly quotes Baruch as he preaches in the region of the Jordan, about 20 miles from Jerusalem.

He says: “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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Yet, both quotations can also be found in Isaiah, Chapter 40, contemporary with Baruch, when the people are told to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Why? Why this talk of a highway? Why the urgency? Why the appeal to make the path straight and flat?
The reason is simple – whenever Israel is gathered back to Jerusalem, to the promised land, it is for one reason – to worship. And it is a cause so urgent, a thing so vital, that Our Lord rushes to call us to it. He comes to this earth “seeking worshippers.”

Moses takes the people out of Egypt so that they can worship. Baruch is sent to Jerusalem to worship. Ezra and Nehemiah bring the people out of exile to worship.

And now, John the Baptist stands in the Jordan river calling the people to repentance, confession, and baptism, so that they may be ready to worship the Savior of the World when he comes.

Notice what Baruch, Isaiah, and John the Baptist all say – the removal of mountains and filling-in of valleys is the work of God and God alone. He does not do it for our sake, but for His sake. All that he requires of His people is repentance and worship.

As we look across the desert and mountains to the Holy City Jerusalem, our vision is obstructed by mountains and valleys. You might be able to think of the mountains or valleys which obstruct your view and your way.

How high those mountains can be! The sins that we cling to, the addictions, and the petty-ness. Our pride and self-dependence. Our God desires to topple them into the sea, to remove the barriers.

And the valleys! Our despairs and our longings. Our feelings of doubt and worthlessness. Our God desires to fill in the valleys, to put us on level ground.

The good news is that we cannot topple mountains and fill in valleys by our own strength – it is the work of God alone.

What is given to us is the work of repentance and worship, little things to say the least, but what big things God can do with them!

This Sunday, I exhort you to two things.

First, to Confession – the sacrament of repentance and reconciliation. The enemy positively loathes confession. Like Baruch, take up the work of making your confession before Almighty God, trusting Him to take away your sins.

Father Crary and I are hearing confessions during this season of Advent starting at 9:40a.m. on Saturdays. This is the point where you make your choice – navigate the mountains by your own strength, putting your soul and life in peril, or offer the mountains to God and walk on flat land.

Second, to worship.

Step into the chapel if you have a few minutes during the week and spend time with Our Lord and Savior.

Also – make the time to attend a weekday Mass. It is an occasion of sure and certain grace which will aid you in your journey to meet Our Lord, to prepare for His coming.

“I am the bread of Life,” says the Lord “he who comes to me shall not hunger.”

These two sacraments, the sacrament of reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist, issue forth the merits of Jesus Christ for righteousness and mercy.

“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, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Come let us adore Him.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son , and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.


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