This is my sermon from December 9th, the Second Sunday of Advent, more or less… The link to the lectionary is here. We use Track 1.
Today’s Gospel is one that is pretty well known. For many people, John the Baptist, traveling the countryside, proclaiming the coming of Jesus, evokes images of camel hair cloaks and meals of locusts and honey. I’ll admit that when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” in my mind’s ear I am singing, “Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord. Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord” from “Godspell.” It’s an important message, sometimes told in catchy and memorable ways.
You might end up wondering, then, why I am not going to preach this message, at least not at the start of this sermon. Instead, I am going to focus on two verses that tend not to get much attention, verses that I admit I know are there but haven’t given much thought since I passed my New Testament and Church History classes in seminary.
Bishop Doug Fisher, who was my bishop in Western Massachusetts, spoke about these verses at diocesan convention in October. I dare say he caused a couple hundred clergy and lay delegates to scratch their heads when he challenged us to name the “two most important verses in the Bible” and then quoted the first two verses of today’s Gospel:
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. (Luke 3:1-2)
Yep. Lots of mystified delegates.
Bp. Fisher is a wise man, so of course the confusion was cleared up when he explained his thinking. He reminded us that these two verses are the verses in the Gospel which firmly and unequivocally ground Jesus in a particular time and place. These verses give Jesus political, social, economic, religious, and historical context. It occurred to me that, just as for readers of a certain age who hear the name Franklin D. Roosevelt and think “New Deal” or hear the name John F. Kennedy and think “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Luke’s community and the earlier followers of Jesus would have heard Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, etc. and had an understanding of what it meant to be living in Jesus’ time. They would have heard and understood Luke’s Gospel though the lens or filter of that particular context.
And this is point at which I start to share my thoughts about Bp. Fisher’s contention.
This is different than the times we are given Jesus’ genealogy, as in the first chapter of Matthew, which seems to go on and on and on…detailing Jesus’ ancestry. Don’t get me wrong, this is important, too, although quite frankly it can be hard to follow and has been known to provoke a bit of boredom. While this helps us to understand Jesus in the context of generation upon generation of family, what it doesn’t do is tell us anything about the times in which Jesus lived his life on earth. And that to me is the crux of it, why I agree with Bp. Fisher that these two verses are so incredibly important. In some significant ways, understanding that context helps us to answer the question, “Why Advent?” And, I dare say, it goes beyond understanding Advent better. It helps us to understand in deeper, more profound and life-changing ways why it is we even celebrate Christmas.
So why is the social, political, economic, religious, and historical context important to understanding Advent and Christmas? Because they tell us that Jesus didn’t enter a world that was not in need of God. The in-breaking of God into the world in the person of the baby Jesus happened at a time that was far less than perfect, a time that was not all that different than our own in terms of violence, conflict, misuse of power, economic and social injustice, gender inequality, and…The list goes on and one.
Jesus was born into the world at a time and in a place that so closely resembles our own that one wonders if humans have made any progress at all. This adds layers of meaning to the “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” message that is such a huge part of Christian understanding. Perhaps it should be written, “God so loved the crazy, out-of-control, mixed up, messed up world and the broken and deeply flawed humans who inhabit it that he sent his only Son…”
That is the Good News, isn’t it? That God so loved the world as the world was, not as God dreamed it to be, that Jesus was born. The unconditional, undefinable, beyond-human-comprehension love of God compelled God to take our human form to live as one of us, to live among us, to show us what it means to be loved by God and to love as God would have us love. No easy task then. No easy task now.
But God did it. Jesus lived and died as one of us. Jesus lived with us, loved us, and was killed by us. And still Jesus lives, as our Christian faith tells us. The Holy Spirit continues to work in and through us, inviting us and guiding us and, if I’m any example, occasionally cajoling us to accept the invitation to journey deeper and deeper into the heart of God.
Which brings me more directly to today’s Gospel.
John the Baptist got it! He understood and was not shy about proclaiming the ways in which we humans need to shift our focus away from the distractions and influences of our human lives, to focus on Jesus, to accept the amazing grace that is God’s love. In a way few others do, John the Baptist gets right to heart of it. “Repent and prepare to meet Jesus!” You can’t get much clearer than that for an Advent message.
“Repent” means to turn away, to feel regret or remorse, a kind of letting. For us, as for those in John the Baptist’s and Luke’s times, the admonition would be to let go of all the distractions and influences of our time and our place that keep us stuck in our brokenness, to focus on Jesus and living our lives as Jesus would have us do. Think about what happens when you turn away from something – you turn toward something else. Along that path there may be lots of other something elses, some we may notice, some we may not. But the Holy Spirit notices.
I know that when I am intentional about turning away from the distractions of my life to focus on God, to letting go of my human flaws and frailties, to which I am often oddly and sadly attached, I find myself smiling. It occurs to me over and over again that, in the turning away from those things that are not of God, that are not life-affirming or life-giving, I get chance after chance after chance to seek to see God, to see Jesus in all sorts of people and places. The wild and wonderful Holy Spirit will jump at the chance to use whatever opportunity I give her to show me how to accept the invitation to move deeper into the heart of God, the invitation to transformation. And I’m pretty sure she’d jump at your opportunities, too.
Last week I gave you a little challenge: to spend some time each day in prayer and reflection to help you prepare to meet the incarnate God as if for the first time. Today I want to add a bit to that challenge: in the time you spend each day, carve a bit of that to focus on those things about which you want or need God’s forgiveness, those things you need God’s help to let go of so that you can turn away from them and toward God. Accept God’s forgiveness. Pay attention to the opportunities you can create so that the Holy Spirit can jump in and do her thing. Remember, God does not need us to create huge spaces in order to fill them with immense grace. Amen.