"An Audacious Promise"
We’ll be hearing a lot from the Gospel according to Luke in the coming year. This week’s reading tells about the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke first identifies John by placing him in historical context, much like how the Old Testament prophets were introduced.
The word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah the priest, in the wilderness. But Luke lets us know that it happens in the wilderness of the political world: during the reigns of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee. The major focus for Luke is salvation, but it’s important for Luke, that we understand the political reality of the day-- to understand the world into which God is bringing salvation.
But Luke doesn’t stop there. He goes on to the “spiritual” or “religious” power structure as well, by naming the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. Now the high priesthood was subject to annual re-appointment by the Roman authority, so Luke may be listing them as another part of the political hierarchy.
In any case, this is the messy reality of the world, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. The word of God came to John in the wilderness, and spoke through John to a wounded world.
God chooses a nobody—John. John became an itinerant preacher, and he went into all the region around the Jordan River, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, “as 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.
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.’”
“All flesh.” All people. All humanity.
Such an audacious promise! Do we have an audacious-enough hope to believe it?
This has been another tough week. And yet—though we may feel as saddened… as sickened every time—we don’t feel as shocked or surprised when we hear of a mass shooting.
Three years ago on a Saturday afternoon in early Advent I was frantically re-working part of my sermon for the next morning, because the day before a gunman had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 children and six adults. We sounded the chimes on the organ for each life that was lost. But we’ve had so many mass shootings since then that we’ve given up on sounding the chimes for all the souls lost.
This Advent, pastors have been agonizing again over sermons following yet another massacre. And some of us feel the need to address what may be on people’s minds after the headline on the front page of the New York Daily News: “Fourteen Dead in California Mass Shooting. God Isn’t Fixing This.”
I think this and articles from Sojourners and other publications are pointing to the hypocrisy of politicians who offer “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families while opposing laws that might prevent some of the massacres.
So what do we do in response to these horrific events? Do we chime in with more platitudes? “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.” Or does our faith call us to do something? What could we do that could make a difference? I don’t have any easy answers for you this morning, but we need to be talking and praying about what we could do as a community of faith, and as part of the connectional church and the interfaith community, working together.
I’ve been paying attention to what I’ve heard some of you have been saying…and what people have been saying on social media. Some people are angry at God. Some are angry at “those people.” Some are despairing…and hopeless. Some—many—are afraid.
As people of faith, we need to ask, “Where is God in the midst of this?”
What I do know with certainty is that God does not will these horrific massacres. The God who created the world and said, “It is good,” the God who created human beings in the divine image, the God who is love, the God who loves the world does not cause massacres as part of some divine plan.
I agree with Roger Owens, who wrote this week, “The only one who hates this violence more than we do is God.” I believe that in some ways that we don’t fully understand, God was with each of those who were wounded or killed.
But I don’t believe that God is going to fix the violence in our nation and in the world, in the way some people might wish-- because God’s way of “fixing” is by working through human beings.
In the season of Advent, Christians prepare to celebrate a deep mystery of our faith, the Incarnation, how God came to live among us, full of grace and truth, in the person of Jesus. Part of what Incarnation means is that God is with humanity and works in and through us.
I believe in a God who works in and with and through us, through the work of those who are learning to love as God loves, those who are learning to love peace as God does. Through those who are learning to reject violence in their own lives… and who work in small and large ways to end violence and hunger and injustice in our world….
God isn’t finished yet. Throughout the Bible, God used unlikely characters to announce God’s redemption and to embody God’s love and justice and peace in the world. God keeps using unlikely characters, like you and me.
In the fifteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was President of the United States, and Rick Snyder was governor of Michigan, and Jack O’Reilly was mayor of Dearborn and Mike Duggan was mayor of Detroit, and Gradye Parsons was Stated Clerk and Heath Rada was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the word of the Lord came to Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn!
The word of God came to John in the wilderness, and he went into all the region proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repent. Turn. Change.
John quoted the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.…”
Preparing the Lord’s path toward peace and justice requires changing the world as we know it. John quotes Isaiah to describe the earthshaking transformation that needs to take place. Imagine it: valleys filled full, mountains and hills humbled—made low. Everything crooked made straight and true. Mary sings of the God who has looked on her humble state. She praises the One who saves by dethroning the powerful and exalting the humble… sending the rich away empty-handed and filling up the hungry.
Remember how Jesus turned conventional, worldly says upside-down? He blessed the poor and the hungry but announced woe for the rich and well-fed. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter warns the people, “Be saved from this crooked generation.” In the Greek, “crooked”, skolia, is the same word that Isaiah uses for the things that need to be straightened out.
Preparing for God’s arrival means re-thinking systems and structures that we may see as normal but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. It means letting God humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied in us, and letting God heal and lift up what is broken and beaten down.
John’s call to repent reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways. John and Isaiah call us to open ourselves to let God work in the landscape of our minds and hearts and to let God work through us to re-shape the world’s social systems.
But there’s good news too. God’s ways lead to salvation. God’s glory will be revealed in Jesus, who comes to save us. This is the good news that John proclaims, and it’s good news for us and for the whole world: all flesh will see God’s salvation. All humanity will see God’s salvation.
This is God’s audacious promise, and our audacious hope. Let’s prepare the way!
So be it!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
December 6, 2015