In the fifteenth year of the reign of….. Luke 3:1
Of all the Gospel writers, Luke pays careful attention to history, to dates, to getting things in the right context. After a brief introduction, he begins his Gospel with “in the days of King Herod of Judea” putting what he is about to write into history. On Christmas Eve we will hear about a decree issued by Emperor Augustus while Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Today we’re in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the one who followed Augustus. Scholars estimate it was 28-29 CE when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip, ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis and Lysanias, ruler of Abilene. On the religious side, it was during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. There is no “once upon a time here” but a real time in a real place.
But then God does something very surprising, instead of coming to one of these seven leaders, people who had access to power, publicity and influence, people who knew how to get things done, people who had connections, God choses a no-body – John, son of Zechariah. Now Zechariah was a priest, he’d served in the temple, which meant John could have gone into the priesthood too. But instead of being enrolled at seminary, he’s in the wilderness – that in-between place of testing and waiting and sacrifice where no sensible person wants to be. John’s essentially a nobody who’s absolutely nowhere, and yet this is precisely where the Word of God goes. Not Jerusalem, or Athens, or Rome, or any of the other “centers of the universe” but rather to the margins. Maybe that’s often where the Word of God shows up – just where we’d least expect it.
Now what about us, when in this second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Tom Wolf is governor of Pennsylvania, and Peter Urscheler is mayor of Phoenixville and Martha Majewski is chair of the Board of Supervisors of Schuylkill Township, during the papacy of Pope Francis and the term of Bishop Patricia Davenport, the Word of God comes to the people of St. John’s. What is that word? Certainly, like those in the region around the Jordan when the Word came to John, it is a life-changing baptism leading to the forgiveness of sins. It’s a transforming Word that comes to us in this time and place. A Word that challenges us to turn from self-centeredness, to always being focused upon me, myself and I, to the other, to those on margins. This includes the totally un-cool kid at school who nobody talks to, the immigrant who cleans the office, “is she legal, does it matter?”; the forgotten isolated ones in nursing homes, the hungry gathering at St. Peter’s for lunch and who stand in line for food at PACS, and the cold who knock on the door of the Code Blue Shelter and ask to come in.
It is also the Word that invites us to see others and ourselves as God sees us, as beloved ones who are loved to the core of our beings, even when deep down inside we believe we’re not worthy of that love and yet still we are loved. I remember a Christmas when my cousin Billy received coal in his stocking. Now, it was Hazleton which was built upon coal mining, but nonetheless children did not normally receive it for Christmas. I don’t know why Santa bought him coal that year, but I also don’t know why Santa gave me a new doll, warm mittens and a flexible flyer sled. Certainly, I was no worthier than Billy, so why would Santa be so fickle? And if Santa is fickle, is God too? Do I, do you, have to earn God’s love? And if so, will we ever deserve it? If we do a thorough inventory of our souls, will the nice outweigh the naughty? And what happens if it doesn’t or even if it does? Can amazing grace pierce through the armor of self-righteousness?
Luke turns to the 40th chapter of the prophet Isaiah to explain what this life-changing baptism is like. Isaiah proclaims words of comfort to the people of Israel who have been far from home, held in exile for almost 60 years. Now a voice cries out in the wilderness that they are about to go home to the land of Israel, to the place they belong. Such a homecoming is full of promise and hope. But not only that, the way home is accessible. That’s what we noticed in Bible Study on Wednesday morning, the day of the funeral of President George H. W. Bush. Twenty-eight years ago, when he signed the Americans with Disability Act into law he said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” The same is true in today’s Gospel – in the desert there will be a highway where the valleys are filled, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked, straight, the rough places smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God! Isaiah’s vision is so audacious that all four Gospel writers include it. The wall of exclusion comes tumbling down as the ministry of Jesus creates a glad homecoming for everyone who is excluded, alienated and dislocated –including us and who in one way or another, find themselves in the wilderness.
Maybe that’s not a bad place to be in Advent. A place of not being quite at home, of wondering just how we are ever going to get everything done – the cooking, the shopping, wrapping, decorating, or of deeply missing all of that now that the children are gone and busy with their own lives. Or maybe your beloved one has died and the holidays only make you feel more alone than ever. Or the world in which you felt comfortable and secure seems to have vanished. Perhaps too, the disparity between the rich and poor, the weak and the powerful, smacks you in the face this season, leaving you hopeless and helpless in a way that watching all the Hallmark Christmas Movies cannot alleviate. Is the wilderness your Advent place?
If so, know that it’s also John the Baptist’s place. There he wait for the Messiah. His voice cries out in the wilderness. And the accessibility is not about him going to Jesus, but Jesus coming to him. The valleys are filled, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked straight and the rough places smooth because God deigns to become flesh and blood. Jesus moves into our neighborhood, where dwells among us, forgives and loves, heals and strengthens, saves and restores us. In Jesus, God becomes accessible to us.
That’s what are children are diligently working to remind us as they prepare the Christmas Pageant. Gabriel will ask teenage Mary to be the Mother of God, and without asking her own mother, she will say YES. And Joseph will stand up to gossip and remain by her side. An innkeeper will find room where there was none. Animals will share their manger. Shepherds, those living on the margin, will hear the songs of Angels and be the first to visit the new born king. And three kings will come bearing gifts for the child is the Savior of the World with no exclusions and of all who have been naughty or nice, including you and me. Amen.
David Lose, In the Meantime, Partner in Preaching, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/12/advent-2-c-hidden-in-plain-sight/
In the fifteenth year of the reign of….. Luke 3:1