12-5-21 — Voices In The Wilderness — Luke 3:1-6 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

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Luke 3:1-6

Voices in the Wilderness

Rev. Joshua D. Gill


When I hear these words from Isaiah uttered by John, they always remind me of middle school. One of the field trips everyone goes on in my home town is to the Erie Canal and specifically the Locks in the center of Lockport. As a child you do not really appreciate what was built.

In 1809 President Thomas Jefferson reviewed New York’s plan to build a 360-mile canal from Hudson River to the Great Lakes.  He immediately dismissed the endeavor as just a little “short of madness”. The governor at the time, Dewitt Clinton, pushed for the plan anyway. It became known as “Dewitt’s Ditch”. Dewitt went around the state to raise money, and broke ground on July 4, 1817. By 1825 Dewitt Clinton boarded a barge with Two kegs of water from Lake Erie and 10 days later dumped the lake water into the Atlantic Ocean. [1]

What is wild to think about is this canal was completed before the invention of dynamite, earthmovers, or excavators.  They tried to hire engineers from Europe but no one would touch the project because of how audacious it was. Another obstacle was the lack of hydraulic cement. The only source at the time was in Europe and expensive to import. Two men found a source of limestone that when pulverized and burned produced the lime needed for cement.  The land was cleared by hand shovels, pickaxes and black powder. They build raging fires on bed rock and poured water on the rocks so they would crack.  Trees were removed by something called an endless screw where a rope was attached to the top of a tree and a team of oxen and men ratchet and cranked until the tree was literally pulled from the earth. Another school teacher invented a stump puller that used 16-foot-tall wheels and a team of oxen to pull 40 stumps per day. But the hardest part was in Lockport itself where barges had to be lifted nearly 70 feet up the escarpment. This was done through a series of locks that would raise and lower barges the 70 feet.[2]  This is a method that was first conceived by Leonardo Da Vinci.   By the 1850’s 60% of all US trade was carried along this waterway. If you are keeping count, it took them 8 years to complete the 360 mile canal. That is only two years longer than it took to complete the Mount Rose Interchange.

On this second week of Advent, the words of the prophet Isaiah ring in our ears. Our scripture begins giving us a time stamp. Placing both the secular and the scared along aside each other naming the Emperor, the Governor, the Ruler of Galilee and others alongside the High Priest Annas and Caiaphas. This is a community that is controlled by a foreign power, even Annas and Caiaphas were appointed by Roman officials, seeking those that would keep peace.

God finds John not in the center of power near the hustle and bustle of people. But God’s word finds John, son Zechariah, in the wilderness. This word does not come to priests, not to the ruling elite, but to a man in the wilderness. A reminder that God’s people are a people of exile, the seat of power has been taken from them again and again and they are forced into the wilderness.  Prophets seem to need this wilderness. In the wilderness an old word is made new by time, a prophetic word is made visible for all people. This is the story of God’s love for the Hebrew people, a people who time after time winded up in the wilderness only to have God call them back.

John begins proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There is no clear precedent for this activity. Some argue that proselyte baptism was practiced during this period, other scholars disagree, some point to a ritual washing was common. People would often wash themselves to cleanse themselves from some sort of moral impurity but this is different. John is not specific it is baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Bringing to mind the words of Isaiah 1: 16-17 “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” or the words of Ezekiel 36:25, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols” This baptism is something different. It is a new start where our hearts realigned to beat in tune with God’s heart. As one commentator said, “John shows us a renewing God whose faithfulness extends across space and time, overcoming every obstacle we might erect against grace.[3]” John’s baptism is the beginning of something, it is journey over an obstructed path, and a path requires roadwork. We begin that journey through confirmation or baptism but it is a journey that doesn’t end until we breathe our last breath. It is pursuit of the love of God. But the amazing thing is God is the one who does the pursuing.

Have you ever had a moment where you needed to be recused? A moment you knew you just needed someone else. Maybe you were kid and you were suddenly being picked on, or maybe you got into a situation where you were uncomfortable with decisions your peers were making, or maybe you made some really bad decisions and you needed someone in your corner to help fix those decisions.[4] The relief that you felt in that moment — that is the advent moment.

The moment when God uproots those things in your life that need to be uprooted. Those unexamined assumptions, those attitudes. God comes in uprooted trees, splitting boulders, filling valleys, all so that we can connect to the divine presence of God in Jesus Christ.


[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2020/01/28/800025377/the-erie-canal-as-a-model-of-how-to-build-big-projects-again

[2] https://www.history.com/news/erie-canal-construction-engineering-labor

[3] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 1 (p. 30). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[4] https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2021-11-29/luke-3-1-6/