Second Sunday in Advent (9 December 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
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. He went into all the region around the Jordan, 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.’”
In the second year of the reign of President Donald J. Trump, when Bruce Rauner was governor of Illinois, and Rahm Emanuel was mayor of Chicago; during the bishopric of Elizabeth Eaton in the ELCA, and Wayne Miller in the Metro Chicago Synod, the word of God came to . . .
Well, who did it come to? Who has either the credentials or the courage to receive the word of God in such a time?
This morning’s gospel reading opens with just such a parade of dignitaries—emperors and governors, rulers and high priests. It was the red carpet of the 1st century, the Who’s Who of both political and religious authority.
Luke opens the story this way for two reasons. One, is to center the story of John the Baptizer in real time. John was not a fairy tale, a once-upon-a-time character. John was a human being whose parents we know. But, until this moment, until this enormous ellipse (. . .) John was known only as the unexpected child of elderly parents, and a distant relative of another nobody named Jesus.
So, for the record, what follows is based on true events.
The second reason Luke drops all those names on our heads is to indicate the uphill climb that lay before John, the unlikelihood of his task. The word of God came to him, and it is unclear why. If God had something to say, if God had wanted to get the attention of Tiberius and Lysanias and Caiaphas, perhaps God would have been wiser to send someone to whom they would pay attention. God might have sent Toni Preckwinkle or Mitch McConnell or Chance the Rapper. Important people whose word and presence would command respect.
But instead, God sent a kid from Little League straight into the Majors. Armed with only a sharp tongue and a passionate heart.
Where did John come from? And why would God choose him?
Let me tell you a story.
The gospel of Luke opens (again in verifiable time: “In the days of King Herod of Judea”) in a side chapel of the temple, where an old priest named Zechariah was taking is turn at the altar. Zechariah carried an enormous, secret sorrow—he and his equally-elderly wife, Elizabeth, had been unable to have children. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up hope of having a family, but the heartache never eased.
Enter, altar-left, an angel of the Lord, who announced to Zechariah that he would be a father. “Buy some cigars, Old Man! Elizabeth will soon be great with child!”
Zechariah was surprised. And skeptical. “How can this be so? I am old and my wife is also getting on in years.”
The angel was offended. Ruffling his wings with great umbrage, he snorted, “I am Gabriel! I have been sent by God with this good news, and you doubt me? Because you did not believe my words, you will become mute, unable to speak until the day these things occur.”
No one has ever wished harder that they could take their words back and get a do-over. To “dis” an angel of the Lord? Not a good idea. But the angel’s word was true. Zechariah was struck speechless, and Elizabeth’s belly soon bumped with baby.
Who was it that Elizabeth carried in her wrinkled womb? It was John. A child born under circumstances almost as miraculous as his cousin Jesus. But aside from the extraordinary events surrounding his birth, John was nothing more than the much-loved son of old parents.
The last we hear of John until this morning, was the day he was taken, at eight days old, to the temple for circumcision and naming. Though everyone expected him to be named Zechariah, after his father, John’s tongue-tied father grabbed a piece of paper and pen and wrote, “His name is John.”
With that, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed. John was snipped. John was named. And this happy little family disappeared into the ordinariness of their lives.
Until . . . the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
But even then, as John squared his shoulders and prepared to preach, he is named as nobody. Not yet, “John the Baptizer” of headless camel-clad fame. Luke identifies him as “John, Zechariah’s boy.” Just a kid from a poor priest’s family. Who in the world did John think he was? And what gave him the right to be included in the same sentence as the rulers of the world?
John didn’t volunteer for duty. He was chosen to bring the word of God to his time and place. For a time—a significant time, to be sure—he stood at the Jordan River and whipped the crowds into a lather over the One who was on his way. The One whom Isaiah had promised. But then, after burning brightly, John disappeared into the bowels of Herod’s prison and was summarily separated from his head. He died. As do we all. But the word he carried did not.
Our times are as frightening and unsettling as any time in memory. Powerful people—presidents and governors, mayors and bishops—wield enormous authority. While, in antiquity, emperors ruled by fiat, today our leaders lead by Tweet. With 144 characters, they can send the stock market tumbling, fill the streets with protestors, send immigrants into hiding.
What will become of them, these people who so capriciously control our lives? They will go the way of all the world’s rulers. They will play a role. For a time. Some of them will do God’s work in the world, while others will pursue their own profit. But then they will be done. Just as nobody quotes Emperor Tiberius anymore, so the great names of our age will one day exist only in the pages of books.
That’s why the word of God came to John. He was not the word of God. The word of God came to him. To shepherd. To share. For a time. God’s time.
Though many of us may be important only in someone’s eyes, in someone’s world, we are not emperors or bishops. We can’t even claim a miraculous birth. But the word of God will come to us, through us. And like John, son of a skeptical silent priest and a doddering but doting mother, we have a responsibility to speak it. Perhaps it is a simple word of encouragement to one who is discouraged. Or a word of reproof to someone walking a dangerous path. Or a word of forgiveness to someone who has harmed us. Or a promise of God’s light in our darkness.
We cannot change the world, but we can speak a word.
In the second year of the reign of President Donald J. Trump, when Bruce Rauner was governor of Illinois, and Rahm Emanuel was mayor of Chicago; during the bishopric of Elizabeth Eaton in the ELCA, and Wayne Miller in the Metro Chicago Synod, the word of God comes to . . . You.