I come to the task of preaching this morning with a heavy heart. And I want to acknowledge that, because I imagine that you, too, have strong feelings about the violence and chaos that are being unleashed on the world at a terrifying pace.
This week’s terrorist attack in California, following on the heels of the attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and the attacks in Paris, are horrible and all the more so because evil and death seem to be terrorizing us at a dizzying pace. The point of terrorism is to divide people against people and make us afraid, but, friends, there is great power when we can come together to acknowledge our grief and fear and be reminded that God is with us, maybe all the more in our suffering.
I’d like to begin this sermon by asking you a question. Who in the heck are all those guys at the beginning of the Scripture Lesson Jack Breisch just read? It feels like one of those lists in the Bible that can be deadly dull. Now I know that this is a Biblically sophisticated church, but if we’re honest with ourselves there are still times when we can look at a certain passage of Scripture and say, “What does that have to do with me or my life?”
I promise you that today’s Gospel is anything but irrelevant, especially to our situation today, so let’s dive in. Take out your bulletins and let’s read the first sentence together. “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.”
Now that’s a mouthful, and it’s very typical of Luke’s Gospel. Luke loves history. He’s an historian of the first century looking back at the whole Jesus phenomenon. He often places his stories in a historical context, but it’s not just for the sake of a dating certain events. He’s really passionate about making a distinction between God’s power and human power.
So who are the guys on this list? They represent the power in the world into which Jesus and John the Baptist have been born. They are the rulers of an oppressive, cruel empire that cares little for human life, and they are the religious authorities with whom Jesus will ultimately butt heads. They’re a huge big deal in worldly terms. In fact, a number of them create and maintain the terms by which the whole culture lives and dies and those terms are crushing and hopeless.
That said, did you hear the enormous understatement that follows the roll call of the rich and powerful? In the fifteenth year of their reign “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.” What a contrast—the VIPS of the day and John, the guy in the wilderness, the guy with no cachet. And the word of God comes to him.
Once again we are faced with the fact that God’s ways are not our ways. God chooses a relatively insignificant figure and says, “Him. I’m going to use him. I’m going to speak my word to that guy and have him speak my word to my people.” Like everything else in the Gospel that turns our expectations inside out, this wilderness man will be the one to speak on God’s behalf.
So John speaks, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s important to note that the Greek word for forgiveness that is used here translates as “release” or “letting go.” John calls for repentance because God yearns for us to be released from everything that holds us captive. God is about the business of setting us free, but make no mistake– this isn’t cheap grace. We are called to clean house, to do our inner work, as part of the whole process. Repentance isn’t just regret over a past mistake or a hastily offered apology. Repentance demands the total transformation of our hearts and minds.
As Advent began this year, I thought of my friend, Celia, who is Jewish. Celia radiates great joy every spring as she prepares her home for Passover. She delights in cleaning the house from top to bottom. She happily empties cupboards, and scrubs counters, stovetop, refrigerator and freezer. She disposes of all “chametz,” leavened bread of any sort. She even vacuums chairs and sofas, lest any unholy crumbs linger beneath the cushions. It’s so much fun to hear her description of the cleansing process, which symbolizes separating oneself from all corrupting influences. This is not mindless housework for her, but rather a spiritual preparation for the great festival of freedom known as Passover. John the Baptist calls us to that same kind of joyful cleansing. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Let go of everything that stands in the way of the wholeness, health, and freedom God longs to bestow on you and all creation!
And aren’t we desperate for God’s liberation? The dark clouds of racism, gun violence, discrimination against people of every kind, hateful political rhetoric, and terrorism fill our newsfeeds with frightening regularity, including the attack this week. Some of us are burdened by family problems, employment issues, and poor health. Some may long for freedom from the resentments and self-pity that eat away at our inner peace. We may be staggering under the life damaging consequences of someone else’s addiction or our own. We may feel trapped in a dark space of bereavement, depression, or loneliness.
And, often, we feel too small or insignificant to stand up to the great many problems that weigh us down. There’s no shortage of paths that need to be straightened and rough places that need to be smoothed. It can be really tempting, given all the powers that be, not just the political ones but also the deeply personal ones, to feel defeated and want nothing more than to avoid our feelings—through food, TV, shopping, sex, mood altering chemicals, obsessively finding fault with others, anything, absolutely anything, that will distract us, if only for a few brief moments.
But you know and I know that that doesn’t really get the job done. That doesn’t turn our hearts in a new direction or prepare us for Christ’s coming. We don’t get there by avoiding whatever is going on within us or within our world. Nor do we get there by attempting to tackle all our problems in one huge leap. We can take our cue from the Gospel where small, seemingly insignificant things and people create lasting change—a mustard seed, an odd prophet out in the wilderness, a helpless baby born in obscurity. Remember those guys—those worldly, powerful guys– whose names we read at the beginning of the sermon? By the time Luke wrote his Gospel they were all dead. As the centuries passed they became mere historical footnotes while John and Jesus, whose origins were humble, ended up forever changing human history. God’s ways are not our ways. Paul reminds us of that in I Corinthians — “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise and what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
So I invite you to take heart and be strong. Don’t think you are too small to make a difference, too insignificant to participate with God in the mending of creation. Instead think about what you can do this Advent to prepare the way of the Lord.
What amends do you need to make? What relationships need to be healed? Where are you devaluing yourself in a way that dims your light and weakens your effectiveness for God? Where do you need to create a small window of peace in your day by sitting quietly for a few minutes, taking a meditative walk in nature, or reading something devotional and uplifting? Where do you need to courageously ask for support for your own hurting heart?
This week my husband, Richard, and I are planning to watch “Schindler’s List” as a way of remembering that even one person can make a difference in the face of overwhelming evil. For those of you who’ve never seen the movie, it’s the true story of a former Nazi who saved over 1200 Jews during World War II. Step by step by step he figured out ways to save people who were slated for death. In a deeply moving scene toward the end of the movie the people Oscar Schindler has saved present him with a ring inscribed with the words of the Talmud, “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.”
What steps can you take to prepare the way of the Lord? Healing relationships that are close in and slowing down for prayer and quiet time are critically important first steps. But don’t stop there. Be of good courage if you are concerned about justice and peacemaking because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel about gun violence or criminal justice reform. Get involved with Greater Cleveland Congregations, the consortium of interfaith congregations to whom we belong. Give your time, energy, or money because that’s a community that is working hard on those issues and they’re right here in our midst. If you haven’t had the privilege, and believe me it is a privilege, to serve our neighbors through this church’s Food Pantry or Labre in East Cleveland, get involved. Join the Race Corps team and participate in the critical conversations that are taking place there. I could go on and on because we have a wealth of people in this congregation who already lead and serve a variety of missions. Feel free to talk to them or to John, Rachel, or me if you are feeling stirred to think anew about doing justice and creating peace in small ways or large.
Waiting is hard work. Waiting for a baby to be born. Waiting for good news. Waiting for the final fulfillment of God’s promises in this very broken world. But remember those guys whose names we read at the beginning of this sermon, those super powerful, oppressive guys whose names we can barely pronounce or remember? Their story reminds us, in the midst of our waiting, that all earthly powers pass. What remains is that helpless refugee baby for whom we are waiting in confidence because we know how the story ends. We know that he will grow up, share our human suffering, rise above death, and reign as the Prince of Peace who promises never, ever, to leave us, even unto the end of time. Thanks be to God. Amen.