Bypassing the centers of power, the Word of God comes to an unexpected person in an unexpected place.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘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.’”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I have a pretty established morning routine. We subscribe to both The NY Times and the SF Chronicle. So with my first two cups of coffee, I read the Sporting Green, followed by the first section of the NT Times. I read the rest of the newspapers with breakfast. Among the names that dominate the front pages, these appear frequently—Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, Chief Justice Roberts and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, Xi JinPing and MBS. These names also appear often—Pope Francis, Dalai Lama, William Barber II. In much the same way, a number of books in the Bible open with a listing of those in power. Take this morning’s Gospel Reading from Luke: “In the 15th year of the reign of EMPEROR Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was GOVERNOR of Judea, and Herod, RULER of Galilee…” and so on. Not only does Luke give us the names of the political rulers, but also the names of the religious rulers: “…during the high PRIESTHOOD of Annas and Caiaphas…” This was the front page and the front cover in Luke’s time. These were the powerful and influential people at the time of Luke’s writing, people in charge of things.
And once it was established who was powerful and in control and in charge of things, Luke then writes: “The Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness”. And who is John? In the company of the world’s powerful and influential people, John was an unknown, a nobody. John was neither emperor or governor, ruler or priest. And yet, it is to John, an unknown, unexpected person that the Word of God came. Furthermore, it is not Rome or Jerusalem; not Washington, DC or Beijing; not in any place of power that the Word of God came. According to Luke, the Word of God came to John, in the wilderness. This is no small thing with Luke. In the previous chapter, the well-known and much beloved Christmas story of Luke 2, Mary and Joseph are told there is no room in the Inn and they must go outside, to somewhere else to have the baby. And later on in the chapter, we read: “And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (verse 8). Here are the shepherds out in the country, away from the crowd, caring for sheep. Given their vocation, it is likely that they were considered unfit for the Imperial Census, rejected or at least, over-looked. This is no different than our current practice of gerrymandering, voter suppression, election harassment, excluding certain people in the census count. So according to Luke, it is these—rejected and outside the Inn—who hear the Good News.
It comes to those who either by choice or by circumstance find themselves outside the Inn-siders. The Gospel is for those who can find no room in the Inn—the drowned out, the crowded out, the missed out, the worn out, and the left out. The poor, the displaced, those in the darkness of depression, the old in nursing homes, the lame, the blind, the refugees, the homeless on the streets of the wealthiest nation in the world, and all those overwhelmed with grief. The Good News comes to all who suffer, who search, who are outside.
This outsider, John, is the one who hears the word, is the one who begins to preach the word of repentance and forgiveness of sin. Would John have heard the word had he not been outside away from power? Would the shepherds have missed the good news if they had not had ears sensitive to angel voices? In this season of Advent, how attuned are our ears to angel voices? Or are we so blinded by the power and privilege we enjoy that we have difficulty seeing and hearing the word of God? John’s job was to name what needs to be done so that Jesus can enter into the life of the world, into our lives. In the wilderness, John’s message was a Baptism of REPENTENCE for the forgiveness of sins. The late Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian minister, whose writings included the popular translation of the Bible, THE MESSAGE: THE BIBLE IN CONTEMPORARY LANGUAGE, wrote about the time he tried to change the blade on his lawn mower. (I loved this story because the same thing happened to me on the Reservation where my pastoral responsibilities included mowing the lawn). He struggled and struggled with the task, trying to loosen the bolts that held down the old blade. He worked up a sweat and was getting nowhere. A neighbor happened by, watched what Peterson was doing, and then suggested to him: Try turning in the other direction. That is the meaning of repentance. Change the direction that your life is taking. Are you headed in the right direction with your life? Is your life headed towards God? How is your family life? Is it balanced, honest, open, connected? Or is it stressed, precarious, lonely, brittle, broken? Repent. Change direction. What about your work—whether paid or part-time or volunteer. Is your work creative, meaningful, fulfilling, compassionate? Or is it tedious, overwhelming, demanding, disconnected from your vision and your dreams, an unsatisfying use of your gifts and your energy? Repent. Change direction. And what about your faith? Is it vital, growing, healing, and serving? Or is it narrow, rigid, guilt-ridden, tired, dull, lukewarm? Repent. Change direction. C.S. Lewis has a wonderful description of walking a dog on a leash. Sniffing and doing their thing, dogs inevitably find a fire hydrant or a utility pole and will circle it, taking your leash along with it. The only thing you can do to get the dog untangled from the fire hydrant so that you can continue on your walk, is to step back and reverse direction. Again, that is the meaning of REPENTANCE. Our lives get tangled up, we get stuck in one direction. What we have to do is repent, change direction.
John the Baptist recites words from the prophet 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…”. Any engineer can tell you that it is no small thing to build a highway, let alone through a wilderness. High places have to be made low, the rough places a plain. In the process, some people will lose and some will gain. For some the highway will seem like salvation; others aren’t going to like the way things turn out. And yet, we still build highways. So in the 7th year of the Syrian Civil War, weeks after the migrant caravan reached the United States border and just a month after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the proclamation that the way is being made for the coming of the Prince of Peace offers hope and challenge. The Lord we seek will suddenly appear. God lifts up the valleys and brings the mountains low, but we are the ones subject to the fire, the soap, the water, the great leveling that removes any hindrance to all flesh seeing salvation and enables us to stand with heads held high when Jesus arrives. Here at Calvary, we have engaged in highway construction—praying that God will show us how to help level the playing field for access to education, housing, health care, and employment. We’ve taken the first steps lifting up the valley and lowering the mountain in our efforts to help break the cycle of poverty.
The Word of God is found NOT on the front pages of our newspapers, but in Section C, page 11, in a tiny paragraph. It has been several years since my wife and I shopped at and bought furniture at IKEA. Many of the products from IKEA come with the letters RA. RA means Requires Assembly. I believe that one of the great ordeals of Christmas is faced by parents who choose to buy gifts that come with the ominous letters RA emblazoned on the box. Picture those parents on Christmas Eve, after the children have gone to bed, trying their best to put together those gifts that require assembly so that they’ll be in ready-to-use condition the next morning. You all know what inevitably happens. Inevitably, one small part is missing. Perhaps one battery is lacking or maybe one screw is missing. Even though 99% of the parts are there, the missing 1% is enough to render the entire gift useless until you get a hold of that small missing part. It is the same with life in the human community—whether shepherds or prison inmates; whether children or the elderly; whether the immigrant or the homeless—people who are easily dismissed as insignificant in the world. God recognizes that unless even the lowliest 1% has an opportunity to come and be a part of God’s salvation, then that salvation is NOT complete. In the body of Christ…if one member suffers, all suffer together with it. That is the reason Luke tells us that the Word of God come to us NOT in the status quo, where power traditionally rests, but in unexpected places and through unexpected people. When we bypass John in the wilderness, shepherds in the fields, we bypass God.
As we watch those grabbing headlines and political and commercial victories, God’s word keeps marching into the wilderness and choosing John. So in the 2nd year of the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, when Jerry Brown is in the final weeks as the Governor of California, and London Breed is the Mayor of San Francisco, the Word of God comes to John; and through John, the Word of God comes to us—to Paul and Charlie, to New Door Ventures and Raphael House, to Freida and Liz, to SF Achievers, Boys and Girls Club, and SafeHouse.
The Season of Advent calls us to hear and to receive the Word. For ultimately, the Word of God comes to us in the most unlikely person and in the most unlikely place—the baby Jesus born in a barn. And who is to say that at this very moment, the Word of God is not doing the work of transformation right here in this sanctuary, and yes, even in your life?