Last week was very busy and this didn’t get posted – but it’s still very timely. Preached at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Whittier, California.
3In 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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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. 5Every 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;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Dear siblings in Christ, grace and peace to you this day, from the God for whom we wait and who even now dwells among us. Amen.
While I love the particularities and peculiarities of all four gospels, it is with Luke that my OCD heart warms to hear that he intends to present “an orderly account” of the life and ministry of Jesus.
And it is in this orderly manner that our gospel story begins today.
But before I can take TOO much comfort in this list of the region’s rulers at the time of the births of both John and Jesus, I am reminded that the gospel is political.
And by that I mean that this list – this setting of the story firmly in its context – establishes that the good news of Jesus Christ is a story that happens within the history of the world.
The words “political” and “politics” have taken on a very unsavory aspect in our time. But when we look at what they really mean, we discover they both come from the same root words in Latin and Greek that mean “of citizens, pertaining to public life.” This was how Jesus operated.
By lodging this gospel firmly in time and place, Luke connects both Jesus’ story AND John’s story to ours.
They are not incidents that happened only once long ago, now merely footnotes in history.
They are part of the gospel, the living word of God, that continues to play out in each one of our lives – and in our life together and in the world as the people of God. It’s “political” in the truest sense of the word.
The story of John’s strident calls to “prepare the way of the Lord” are found in all four gospels. Here in Luke we get a little more detail, spread over this and next week. And in all that detail, there is one point that can get lost, but which I think is at the center of this story.
John is in the wilderness.
We aren’t given details as to what drew him out there, or when. But the stories are many, both in Scripture and across time, of God speaking to God’s people when they were in a wilderness of some kind.
From what Bishop Andy has shared with me about St Andrew’s, I wonder if you might identify a little bit with this idea of wilderness.
You have been in a time of interim ministry, and no matter how fruitful that is, it is still a time of transition. And now you move into a bridge phase while you seek a new pastor.
Wilderness places can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. They can make us afraid, of what we don’t know or even of what we do. We might feel unprepared or not up to the task of making our way in such a wilderness.
What is your wilderness today?
Maybe in your life you hold the wilderness path of St Andrew, but perhaps you have one of your own. Certainly the pain of the world is its own wilderness, one that all of us feel at one time or another.
But our story reminds us, in a subtle way, that God is on that wilderness path as well. The Word of God comes to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Not anyone on a first-century “who’s who” list AT ALL.
As Luke names all these rulers, these first-century power brokers, one might ask – if God were interested in what advertising calls a “broad reach” why didn’t God stop a little higher on the list?
Why not one of the Roman ruling elite?
Why not the high priest?
Well, quite simply because God works in ways we don’t expect. While we might think, in our 21st-century way, that fast and wide is the best way to get your message out, with God it’s a little different. And I think that’s because the essence of the good news of the gospel is relationship – of God with us, and us with one another. And God’s relationship with us is made real in God’s freely-given love and lavish grace, through Jesus.
Those are our assurances that God walks with us, particularly in the wilderness places. For God’s saving work in Christ was done on the cross, not from the empirical throne of Rome. When we aren’t distracted by all the trappings of the world, when we are on the slower wilderness road, we have the potential to sense God’s direction more clearly.
I understand this has been your experience as Pastor Tim walked faithfully with you through your interim time. It has been my experience on my journey as well.
I’ve been seeking a call for some time – almost two years. In that time, I discerned that I was not called to serve my home congregation, and so I’ve been in a REAL wilderness since I left the congregation I’ve known since age 4.
I have been a candidate for deacon – for the Word and Service roster. You may know that this is a new direction for the ELCA, one that is not yet well-defined and actually is in itself a wilderness! As I pursued calls that never materialized, that wilderness became my new normal.
And I didn’t like it at all.
But God walked with me in that wilderness. Even in the times where I felt completely lost, God would show up in the form of a friend or colleague, in a memory, or even something as simple as my morning coffee turning out really good.
I didn’t necessarily recognize it at the time. But God persisted. One of God’s best qualities.
And now I’ve come to realize that my being in the wilderness was the only way that I would really be able to hear what God was saying, the only way I could discern the path I was to follow. This was a wilderness in which all my training as the mother of an Eagle Scout would do me no good whatsoever. This was a wilderness in which the Scout motto “be prepared” was cute but useless.
Because that motto describes a stagnant state. You reach preparation and stay there.
But both John and Isaiah speak of direct, ongoing action. Prepare the way. Make straight the path. It’s not a finite list, but rather a way of living. And it’s a way of living that first employs what John calls “repentance” – the Greek word is metanoia – and it’s better translated for us as a change of mind or direction, to go a new way.
A member of my home congregation was out of town on business when his newly-built home burned to the ground in the 2014 Cocos fire in San Marcos. As we stood in the ashes a couple of weeks later, he observed how losing almost everything – save one container still in storage – was causing him to rethink the whole idea of time and possessions.
Long story short, his wilderness journey led him to re-order the way he lived, so that he could take time away from work to give of his talents in places that couldn’t afford them but desperately needed them. He reports that his faith as well as his sense of purpose have been re-ordered from his metanoia, in life-giving ways he knows wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Of course, not everyone’s wilderness is quite so extreme. But as you and I have experienced recently, any wilderness can also be a place of discovery and growth in ways you didn’t expect.
There is no guarantee that life after a particular wilderness will be the same. If anything, I would almost guarantee that it WON’T be the same.
The church finds itself very much in this wilderness these days. We are straddling a seismic shift in so many things. And I can’t deny that this is hard stuff. These paths are rocky and steep. The things we’ve known for years are disappearing.
But there are two things that do not change.
One, of course, is Jesus – as Scripture says, “the same, yesterday, today, and forever.”
The other is the need of this world for the love of God.
As long as there has been church – all the way back to the early church in Acts – the church has brought that love to the world in service, understanding it as the gospel’s central call. We are freed in Christ to serve.
While our future may look different than what we envisioned, we can be certain that God has envisioned our future to give us hope. For St Andrew, it may involve new partnerships and new ways of reaching into the community. For me, it looks like I will be a candidate for pastor instead of deacon. But all of this is a way of living John’s clarion call, echoing back to Isaiah, to prepare the way of the Lord. And that is accompanied by the promise that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
We know we are not to look to the world to see the salvation of God, but to Jesus. And yet – where is Jesus? In the world. Incarnate. God is at work in the unexpected places, in unexpected ways, through unexpected people. And that includes you, and me, and this holy ground.
Thanks be to God.