Sermon for Advent 2, Sunday, December 6 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
It happened at a time and in a place, a time and place precise and specific—that is the first thing Luke wants us to know. It was AD 28/29, to use our numbering system; we can date it. Luke’s story is not a dreamtime tale, not a story which takes place in a realm outside history, but a very particular event in a particular political world. At every step, in the early chapters, he anchors us this way, names the public figures and powerholders, says to us, it was exactly then, it was that _year, in _that town. Details matter. Specifics matter.
Some of the first people to hear Luke’s gospel might have remembered that the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius was a bad time in Rome; the emperor himself had gone into seclusion on the island of Capri, and his effective second in command, a brutal and perhaps psychopathic man named Sejanus, was murdering rivals left and right. They would certainly remember that Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, and Caiaphas were all going to be involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. These few sentences are full of lurking terror and darkness. It happened in a bad time.
There’s a trope which turns up in a number of older hymns—the idea that the time of Jesus’s coming was the evening of the world, that it was the moment when we were all, collectively, turning towards darkness; as if it all might have ended then, had the Word not entered this bad time, in this bad place. It might even be partly true. We don’t know, but maybe, if things had happened differently, the destruction of the Temple just a few decades, the scattering and near-extinction of the Jewish people, would have meant the end, at least on the European continent, of a certain vision of the God of the little ones, the God of justice, the dream of the great community, and there would have been nothing but imperial power games forever. Or maybe not, maybe rabbinic Judaism would have pulled the vision through, we will never know, and it’s more than a bit science-fictional to speculate. But at any rate, it happened not only in time, but in bad time.
And what happened, in that time, is another strange particularity. Luke names for us the people in power, the people who mattered, or thought they mattered, the people who held the lives of others in their untrustworthy hands. And then what happened was the word of God, and what happened was that the word came—came to be, the Greek says—came to be upon John, some random strange marginal Jew in the wilderness at the edge of empire. Tiberius could not have imagined him, Pontius Pilate and Herod and Caiaphas did not know him. He was just out there, in the desert, in the empty unimportant place, and the word of God came.
We will hear more about John’s message next week; what we get in this excerpt is a sort of introduction, another kind of scene-setting. The imagery John works with here, drawn from Isaiah, and echoing also, as we heard, in Baruch, aligns his time with another bad time, the exile of Israel in Babylon. This time, too, he tells us, is a kind of exile, a time of being displaced, lost in the violence of military occupation, of poverty and social and economic inequality, crushing debt, confusion, broken hopes. And just as God made a way for the people of Israel to return from the Babylonian captivity, a way will be made out of this, a new road will be created; at least, if the people are willing to cooperate in building it.
Because it is very clear that God is asking for involvement here—the people are to prepare the way. To turn themselves around (which is what the Greek and Hebrew words for repentance really mean), to start again, to prepare the way. Not because God needs it, but because the people need to make themselves part of God’s action. They must be, not puppets moved around on a stage, but living, creative creatures invited into the divine work, invited to be collaborators in salvation.
God is coming, says the ragged social misfit out by the edge of town. God is inviting us to be part of that coming. And the powers and principalities of the world can’t even hear him, don’t even know he’s there. But he in his time is the place where the prophetic word of God is acting, breaking the ground for the very Word Incarnate who would, so soon now, come to that desert in human flesh, and go down into the water so that we all might rise.
We live in our own bad time, right now. There are surely days when it does seem like the evening of the world, perhaps especially in these last few violent months. And, as Luke suggests to us, it is important for us to know the details of our time, to understand our context, why the times are troubled and dangerous, why there is hunger and poverty and needless death, the names of the powerholders, the movements of the political world—this is not irrelevant to the story, it is very much a part of it. It is the background we have to understand.
But, for all that these specifics of power matter, they are not where God is moving. God is moving at the edges, in the forgotten places, among the marginal people. It is important to know what’s happening at the climate talks in Paris, what the world leaders are saying and doing, what the scientists are saying; details do matter, as Luke knew. And those leaders may even do some small things which are part of God’s plan, if only by accident—but the prophetic voice, the urgently necessary voice, is found in the determined environmentalists and others, who, banned from holding rallies, have found creative ways to make themselves heard, if not entirely heeded. It is considerably important to know who’s making decisions about housing and food and income security at all three levels of government, but on the whole, if they are to make good decisions it will be because they are taken there by the people outside the circles of power, the poor and the grieving.
It is to this kind of cooperation, among others, that we are called. To be that voice, that warning, that promise of possibility. To identify our exile—our lostness in our own time and place, dying in a sea of consumerism and inequity—and to tell us that the exile can end, that God can bring us home, if we will only pay attention, if we will only let ourselves be drawn into the great work.
For the promise is there—that all the children will come home, that everyone may walk safely, that the roads will be smooth, that the fragrant trees will give us shade. That the mighty—as we will also hear this Advent, Mary’s words making real the image of mountain and valley—will be put down from their seats of power, and the little ones lifted up. That all of us, every last wretched one of us, will see the great work of God in our lives, will be invited into that light and joy and glory.
John, as I said earlier, is not the last word, is not in possession of God’s last word. And we will talk more about that next week, about his message, and its importance, but also about how the Word Incarnate upends even that, is a word even greater and stranger and more complete, encompassing more, more of the complex world, more of our complex lives. But it is no bad thing to sit with John and his message for a while, as the people of Galilee did. So we will wait here for now, at a moment in time precise and like no other, and know it as well as we can. We will listen to this voice outside the circles of power, at the edge of the social world. And we will hear the promise, and try to hold it in faith, and try to become a part of it, in this place where we stand.