The Word of God Came To…

 

By The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 3:1-6.

Our Gospel lesson this morning, for this Second Sunday of Advent, begins the story of John the Baptist – and it begins the story of John the Baptist with a very dramatic flourish: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” And the coming of that word makes John a figure right out of the prophecies of 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.'”

The word of God that comes to John is full of huge and awe-inspiring images: hills and mountains being leveled, valleys and low places being raised up, entire landscapes being changed – crooked pathways and winding roads being made straight as an arrow, rough trails and broken terrain being made smooth and easy so that anyone can travel there without obstacle. The word of God that comes to John is full of supernatural images, images of God reaching into the world and lifting it right up out of itself and making it something new.

This word of God that comes to John has a transcendent quality, a sense of being larger than life, a sense of being somewhat beyond, even somewhat disconnected from, the everyday life that people like you and I know.

And yet, for all the otherworldly hugeness of this word, the way Luke tells the story, he makes it very clear that the word of God comes to John in a particular time and a particular place, for a particular purpose. “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” – that is when the word of God comes to John. Luke is very careful to locate a date, to locate a moment in time, when God’s mission in John begins.

You see, establishing dates in the ancient world wasn’t quite so simple as it is for us today. In the ancient world there were lots of different calendar systems in use by different peoples and in different areas and for different purposes. You couldn’t just say, “on December 6, 2015,” or “in the middle of April in the year 29.” Nobody in the ancient world would agree on a date like that. The Roman calendar counted years differently from the Egyptian calendar or the Jewish calendar – so you couldn’t just agree on what year it was. Some calendars counted lunar months, where every month had exactly 28 days; some calendars counted days according to the solstices and the equinoxes; some calendars just counted every day in the year, so you couldn’t just say “December 6,” you had to say “day 342 of the year.” Establishing a date in the ancient world couldn’t be done just by pointing to a calendar. Instead, the best way to establish a date in the ancient world was by showing its relationship to other well-known reference points in history. And because imperial governments and power structures usually kept pretty good track of who was in charge, some of the best reference points in history were the reigns of rulers in countries and regions and cities.

And that is exactly what Luke is doing when he begins the story of John the Baptist. He is saying that this happened at a moment in time that is defined by its relationship to Tiberias and Pontius Pilate and Herod and Philip and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphas. The word of God didn’t just happen in some timeless, fairy-tale once-upon-a-time – it happened then.

So the way Luke sets up his story of John the Baptist, it comes with kind of a paradox: the word of God comes to John with images that are huge and awe-inspiring and out of this world; yet it comes to John at a very particular time, in a very concrete circumstance, that is very much part of this world. It seems to be both ways.

And I think that is part of Luke’s message. I think Luke is saying to us that the word of God, for all its transcendent power and all its timeless truth, the word of God doesn’t come to us in some abstract or otherworldly realm, but it comes to us right in the middle of time, right when politics and governments and economies are going on about their business-as-usual. I think Luke is saying to us that the Way of the Lord, with all its promise to raise up what is low and bring down what is high and transform everything in its path, the Way of the Lord isn’t prepared in some long long ago or some unimaginable future, but is prepared in us right now, right in the middle of the world defined by Tiberias and Pilate and Herod – or for that matter, right in the middle of the world defined by Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Michael Curry and even Trinity Parish. I think Luke is saying to us that the word of God comes to us, the Way of the Lord is prepared in us, right in the midst of things, right in the middle of all the ordinary ups and downs and faults and foibles and struggles and fears and joys and surprises of everyday life.

And I have to admit that in some ways I wrestle with that message from Luke. Sometimes I would really like the word of God to come take me right out of this ordinary life, to lift me into a transcendent realm that is undisturbed by stress and violence and challenge and frustration and anxiety. Sometimes I would really like the Way of the Lord to lead right out of this world and right into a better one – into a world more the way I think the world should be.

But, Luke says to us today, that’s not the way it works. The word of God does not stand up and out and beyond this world – the word of God comes down and into and through this world. The Way of the Lord isn’t a way out of reality, but is a way to engage and embrace and live into reality – with all its craziness and messiness and danger and uncertainty – the Way of the Lord is a way to embrace this world and through the love of Christ to transform this world and grow this world toward the reign of justice and peace that is God’s perfect will and God’s greatest gift, so that in the Way of Christ “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

And the Good News for us is that we are called and we are empowered to receive that word of God and to prepare that Way of the Lord right in the middle of our ordinary lives too. The Good News is that we are called to prepare the Way of the Lord in the real worlds mapped out by our histories and our connections and our relationships, every bit as much as John the Baptist was in his.

The word of God comes to us, right in the middle of things, whenever we show compassion for a stranger – say, by giving to public charities, as we are so encouraged to do during the year-end holiday season.

The word of God comes to us, right in the middle of things, whenever we forgive each other and reconcile relationships that have become strained by anger or misunderstanding or neglect.

The word of God comes to us, right in the middle of things, whenever we pause for a moment in the midst of a busy schedule, in the midst of a hundred and one things that need doing, we just pause for a moment and give thanks to God for the mystery of life and the wonder of creation.

The word of God comes to us, right in the middle of things, when we are stopped dead in our tracks by news of yet another mass shooting, yet another episode of senseless violence, and decide right then and there that we will not accept this anymore, but we will work and pray and act together to make our country a land of compassion and peace.

The word of God comes to us, right in the middle of things – and we prepare the Way of the Lord when we pray and celebrate and serve and worship and work in the name of Christ, so that the mission of Christ may be revealed and realized in us.

That’s the Good News for us today. And that is the Spirit in which we can join with John the Baptist, and each one of us can proclaim the word of God: “Prepare the Way of the Lord, make his paths straight, that all flesh may see the salvation of God.”

Amen.