I have always loved the Gospel of Luke for many reasons. Luke, more so than the other gospel writers, portrays Jesus – the Messiah of God, Messiah the Christ, the Chosen One of God – as on fire for justice, re-arranging the social order. And that always agitates me. I love that about Luke’s gospel.
Another thing about Luke’s gospel that you may or may not know is that Luke had an historical consciousness that is really unique among the gospel writers. Matthew, for example, places the story of Jesus firmly within Jewish tradition – Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham (Matt 1) – Matthew really wants to place the story of Jesus within the Hebraic story, the mosaic, mythic story. Luke, on the other hand, embeds the story of Jesus within verifiable Roman imperial history.
The beginning of Luke is written to My dear Theophilus, inasmuch as many before me have tried to write an orderly account of the things which we have seen happen among us, so too do I write an orderly account.
That’s the translation according to John Lentz. Which is pretty close, actually.
As our scripture opens for us this morning: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee” and so on. Tiberius really was Emperor, highly documented. Pontius Pilate, named on a stele in Caesarea – many of us saw it just last February – he really existed. Herod – documented by the Jewish historian Josephus and many others – he really lived.
Into real history, into the history of power politics, in the backwaters of the expansive Roman Empire which reached from Britain to the Middle East including Spain, France, Italy, Greece, North Africa, Turkey and into Palestine. And it was into this location, into this political history, into this reality, that John the Baptist appeared.
And John the Baptist got the call – we don’t know anything really about John the Baptist – he got the call in the middle of nowhere. He woke up one morning, I guess, and decided to do something. You know, when God has a call on your life, sometimes it’s not necessarily convenient. But when the Spirit says “sing,” you gotta sing, and when the Spirit says “preach,” you gotta preach. He started to preach about baptism and the forgiveness of sins. And so when Luke, who’s writing many years later, when Luke thought of John the Baptist, he remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah. To Luke, John WAS the voice in wilderness.
And so, into precisely this complexity of time and place, the Spirit of God creates, the Spirit of God moves, characters, who may not even know what part they really play in the unfolding drama of divine grace. I really like that thought that we as players in the proclamation – that John the Baptist, and by extension, you and me too, that we are players called by God’s grace to witness to something really profound, and we may not even know what part we play in the short term, but we trust that as part of this larger narrative, we are called to do something very grand. I like this thought of God creating and moving and calling because it seems to be grounded so much in our faith tradition.
Think about it. One of the most basic professions of Christian faith, which we share with the Jews and the Muslims, is that God creates. We read about this in the Jewish creation myth found in Genesis. The early Hebrews took that story from an even earlier civilization and improved it. God creates out of the swirling waters, out of chaos, and calls it good. Out of the unformed substance, God breathes and brings forth. This declaration that God creates and it is good is fundamental to being Christian.
Another Biblical theme is that it is in the midst of the deserted places, in the midst of places where nothing much seems to happens, (although we know from reading our Bible that desert places are where really significant things happen: like the Exodus, like the giving of the law, like Jesus being tempted.) It’s out of the deserted places, the wilderness places, the in-between, numinous places, that God calls God’s actors.
And the quotation from Isaiah the prophet that Luke adapted should call to mind that when Isaiah was preaching this, the people are coming home from exile through the wilderness – just another word for desert – the people who were in Babylon are returning to the promised land. Almost like an Exodus the Sequel, Part 2. So God creates, God calls, and God restores. This is fundamental to our beliefs.
And so what Luke seems to be wanting to tell his audience, and you and me, is this: that into real, verifiable history, real time, chronological time and I dare say into YOUR time, our time, 21st century time – God is doing something new, creating again and again out of the chaos, out of whatever wilderness you find yourself in at the present moment. But biblical chaos is not the enemy of God, it doesn’t limit God. Chaos is just the stuff of creation, the substance out of which God does her Divine thing. So sometimes when you’re feeling really chaotic like you’re not in control, that may just be God agitating you to wake up.
Out of the wilderness, the present desert of our time, God is calling you and me, his people, restoring the people, calling YOU, calling me, and restoring us. I don’t think it is too presumptive to suggest that you and I are being called out of our wildernesses in this time and place to do something for God this Advent.
I simply can’t imagine that we are NOT encouraged to re-write this scripture for our time and place. It’s not just about then, it’s about now. It’s just about them, it’s about you. It isn’t just about John the Baptist, it’s about God’s call upon your life to step out of the wilderness and take the risk to fill some valleys, and to break down some mountains and to straighten the crooked places and to smooth over the rough parts, and in so doing, in the act of doing – in so doing, John proclaims that you and I will actually see the salvation of God – we will see by the act of our doing, the presence of God – Emmanuel – God with us. We will see Jesus.
It makes me think that getting your act together is going to incarnate the Word. Doing what you need to do to fix the troubled marriage? Emmanuel! God with us! Staying sober is gonna show Jesus.
That’s really interesting to me. We are to SEE the salvation of God. Usually when Christians talk about salvation, and I think this is crazy, but we define salvation in terms of where we’re going to be, usually after we die, where we will spend eternity; what cloud we are going to sit upon. But this passage seems to suggest a more present reality, doesn’t it? That in preparing, in filling, in leveling, in straightening, in smoothing – not only will we see the salvation of God but guess who else? ALL FLESH. I love that – universalism right here in the third gospel! This salvation thing isn’t just for you and me, it’s for everybody. Everybody! Because people will see in the things you do – Jesus. Now that might sound like a real burden, but in another way, what a delight!
Now how can this be? As I mentioned last week, what I SEE with my eyes is hardly the kingdom of God. I will say, in my opinion, sending 30,000 more troops isn’t going to bring the kingdom closer. Leveling the hillsides on the border of Pakistan isn’t going to bring the exiles home.
I go through so many valleys, and there is so much roughness, and so many crooked places – perhaps we need to re-set our gaze, re-set our expectations. Do things differently – actually REPENT – and get a new mind for a new age.
Instead of looking heavenward – perhaps as this season of Advent suggests we should be looking at much earthier places, like stables, and cribs, and unwed mothers, and babies and kitchen sinks, and work stations, and spouses and friends, and neighbors, and the streets of our cities.
Instead of doing the Roman thing, which is to send more troops, perhaps the President need to invest in those things that lead to real peace at home and abroad. But you know, Emperors and Presidents always do what Emperors and Presidents do. And that is why God’s spirit is calling you and me, not just to follow, but to speak out and witness to a deeper reality of incarnation.
Sometimes I think we keep waiting for God to do something, somebody else to do something, to make it happen, to save us, protect us from our peculiar calamities. But this passage and I dare say most other passages in scripture as well, seems to say if we don’t build it, they won’t come. If we don’t fill it, it’s gonna stay a big hole. If we don’t smooth it, it’s gonna stay rough. If we don’t level it, it’s gonna stay uneven. If we don’t seek to incarnate, (which means to make flesh, to embody, to actualize) God’s inclusive love, God’s leveling justice, then these things won’t be incarnated, they simply won’t happen.
I want you to consider that. That’s really big. You and I may need to re-adjust our sights away from the big splash and consider the ways that we can prepare for God’s salvation daily. And from what I see, you all do a pretty good job. I mean, what really is the Interfaith Hospitality Network than smoothing over, for at least one week, the roughness for folks who have no place to stay? What really is the Deacon’s work of delivering a meal or a prayer shawl than filling the valley of loneliness? What was Abundance Acres but smoothing the ground to reap a harvest? What is Stewardship, what is the giving of your money really about, but sharing your wealth for the preparation of the Lord so people can see something happening? What is Faith Leader, what is Kerygma, what is yoga, what’s softball even, or any of the book groups or social groups, than an attempt to embody Christ, to make Christ real, to prepare a path so that someone can actually see and feel welcome – see the salvation of God. And what we need to perceive is that God’s salvation, God’s presence, really is as close as the person sitting next to you.
Now that’s a wild thought for some of us. Looking at my child….that’s Jesus? Certainly not! Looking at my spouse….that’s Jesus? Looking at the person next to you? Because you and I are not only called to be agents of change and salvation today, right? We have to start celebrating the fact that we are right now agents of change and salvation. We are working the Kingdom. We’re not perfect, but we need to celebrate being agents of change and of salvation. The good thing is that you don’t have to have the right doctrine, or say the right words. You can be filled with doubts.
To incarnate the body of Christ is not about what your head thinks. But if you are smoothing, and filling, and leveling and straightening and serving and loving and inviting and showing hospitality – well, guess what? Whether you know it or not, whether you even claim it or not, whether you believe it or not – you’re preparing the way of the Lord so that all flesh will see Jesus.
So I want to move you away from thinking about passive preparation, or “I can’t do that,” or that building a highway is only for engineers. Now you don’t want me building the bridge over the inner belt. I’ll leave that to Joanne Shaner. But, thinking more metaphorically, (which is the best way to think when you are reading the Bible) think about all the engineering you do in your life, all the work: the parenting, the caring, the sacrifices, the building up and the tearing down. Right there – right there – is where salvation is going to be seen and felt and experienced.
Because it’s always coming, because God’s salvation is always present, always in time – we are no closer or farther away from God’s presence than any other time – because God’s grace isn’t linear it is more dimensional than that – we are already in it – we’re in it! God’s salvation surrounds us, we can’t escape it. Read Psalm 139. So just start acting like you are saved – just do it. See yourself as a beloved child and act like it. (Which you do!)
See yourself as the agent of reconciliation and hope. Start acting like it. See yourself as the one called to show compassion and let’s continue to do it.
Be John the Baptist (the one called forth from the wilderness). Be Mary, be Joseph (the ones called to be the agents of birth) Be any and be every character in the Bible – be Jesus! What is the church after all, but the body of Christ – And if people want to see Jesus and know Jesus, then they should be looking in these windows and we should be saying, “Come on in! Join us”
So in history, our history, and out of chaos, your chaos, out of the wilderness, your wilderness, God is calling you, calling me, to stand up and proclaim, to act out and live. And I both congratulate you for doing it so well and we need to encourage each other to continue.
So let me close: “In the first year of the Presidency of Barack Obama, when Ted Strickland was Governor of Ohio, and Frank Jackson was Mayor of Cleveland, during the high priesthoods of John and Clover (high priesthood – I like the sound of that!), there is a voice calling – and it isn’t a stranger’s voice, not at all. It’s actually your voice. It’s your action that will prepare the way – in big ways and small – so that people can see the salvation of God.
You are forgiven. It is all about repentance – turning around and heading in a new direction, getting new eyes to see, and new energy to do – and a new mind for this new age
Jesus has come. Jesus is coming. So let’s continue to prepare the way of the Lord.