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Second Sunday of Advent December 9, 2012

Who are all these people? And why should we care about them anyway?

Tiberius and Pontius Pilate and Herod and his brother Philip and Lysanius and Annas and Caiphas. Some of them are involved in Jesus’ life down the road, but that is not primarily why Luke puts them at the beginning of the passage that opens Jesus’ ministry. Luke is concerned with historical fact. He wants to ground the coming of John and Jesus firmly in chronos, that is, human historical time. All these people were important in the political and religious structure of the day. All of them were oppressive to the Jews. The Roman government put statues of their gods in Jerusalem and exacted heavy taxes. The high priests represent the religious authorities who at that time – and many other times in Jewish history – were saying one thing and doing another. They were ritually pure, but lacking in righteousness. These people were going about their business running empires and parts of empires and religious structures with absolutely no thought whatever to the coming of another kingdom. But the Jewish people were longing for a Messiah to save them from their difficult lives, to liberate them from captivity.

Into this scene comes John, son of Zechariah. The story of John’s birth, just like the story of Jesus’ birth, has already been told in great detail in Luke. These two children were going to grow up and change the lives of the people tremendously. They were going to bring hope and good news to the world. Now it is the fullness of time, and the children are all grown up. The time for the coming of Jesus to do his ministry in the world is near. And John is the harbinger of that ministry.

John comes out of the wilderness, the last of the Old Covenant prophets and the first of the New Covenant prophets. The wilderness is a place of hope, where the Israelites were made a people in the 40 years God led them there. It is a place of temptation for Jesus and a place where he withdraws and prays. For both John and Jesus, it is a place of call. It is a place where the distractions of life are not present, where one can hear the still small voice of God speaking. John hears his call – a prophet’s typical call – to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John appears by the Jordan to do just that. He is going to fulfill the purpose for which he was intended by God.

The people in Israel had never seen a prophet, but they knew what one was supposed to look like and sound like. John wore camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. He was no doubt wild-eyed and loud, just like the prophets of old, and he preached his message with vigor and intensity because it was so important.

John the Baptist was a great man to us, but an insignificant ordinary nobody to all those names in the first part of the gospel, that is until he runs afoul of Herod for telling him that it was wrong for him to have his brother’s wife. The Word of the Lord came to John and not to anyone in power. As often happens, God has chosen an unlikely vehicle to bring his word to the people, one with no power of his own. But it is a good choice, for if John had power, it might get in the way of his complete surrender to the power of the Word of God which he proclaimed.

There is Biblical warrant for John’s coming. The passage from the prophet Isaiah is about exiles returning to Jerusalem, about God’s triumphant presence with God’s people again, about the good news of salvation from Babylonian captivity. In the original Isaiah calls for the people to prepare the way of the Lord by making his paths straight. Often in John and Jesus’ time, a road was built for a conquering hero to return home that was a straight road to make it easy for him to travel. Getting from one place to another was difficult in those days of no highways, Triptik Maps from AAA or GPS devices Filling in the valleys and leveling the mountains, making the crooked places straight and smoothing the rough spots was a way to glorify the winner of a battle. In this case the people were to do this for God to come and be among them as they came back to Jerusalem.

In John’s proclamation, the emphasis is a little different. John has been sent by God to proclaim God’s gracious invitation to prepare for God’s coming by a time of repentance for forgiveness of sins. The people are to act – to confess and literally to turn around, to gain a new perspective on life and on the coming of a Messiah. If there is no repentance, then there is no ability to see what is coming directly to them – the kingdom of God. The people act but Jesus will act as well. He will proclaim the message John proclaimed, because that is the definition of salvation in Luke’s gospel and he will show people the way to the Father. He will fill in the valleys and cut off the mountains and straighten the crooked and make the rough places smooth so that all people may see the salvation of God.

Luke’s intersection of human history and divine history announces that salvation is for all people. It is for Roman governors and Jewish religious leadership as well as for the poor, the disabled, the oppressed and the marginalized. It is for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. This is not a new idea, as we might think. It is in Isaiah and for that matter it is in Genesis, when God promises that Israel will be blessed to be a blessing to all. John does not make distinctions when he baptizes, although his location means that he will baptize mostly Jews. Everyone may repent and be saved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who is coming.

It is not just prophets who receive calls and are given their purpose or purposes in life. We are given calls too. According to PARADE magazine, Howard G. Buffett, who is son of Warren Buffett and a farmer in Illinois, has been given a call to defeat hunger in America. He had supported efforts in world hunger before, but he never knew how many people were hungry in this country. At a lunch at an elementary school, he learned that 92% of the children were on free or reduced cost lunches and it was the best meal they had all day. Buffett has helped to fund three projects with Feeding America, the nation’s largest charity focused on hunger relief at home that will help people better understand the problem and hopefully lead to less hunger in the United States.

Buffet’s call is a popular one, just like John’s call was popular among most of the Israelites. No one wants to be against feeding hungry people. But sometimes calls are dangerous, as John’s call ultimately was to him. According to the Washington Post, there is a human rights activist in prison in Iran. She has been on a hunger strike for six weeks and the United States is demanding her release and that of 30 other female political prisoners because of horrible mistreatment. Other human rights activists have had dangerous calls too – think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela.

Our calls are not likely to be as public as these calls, but they are calls to serve God as John did to the best of our ability. They are calls to be blessings to the world. Those are our calls in history, in chronos time.

In Advent, our spiritual call, in God’s kairos time, is the same as it was 2000 years ago in John’s time. In the middle of our preparation to receive guests at Christmas, in the middle of house cleaning and fixing up, cooking and all the other things we do to prepare for a guest, we are called to prepare for The Guest, for Jesus coming into our lives. We are called to quiet reflection about ourselves and where we have done wrong, in our thoughts and words and deeds. Most of us have already been baptized into Christ’s body the church, so we are not called to baptism, but the voice of John calls us to repent and receive God’s forgiveness for our sins, so that we may view the world with new eyes. Our change of heart, our turning from evil, will allow us to see the world with a new perspective and make us open and ready for the coming of Jesus into our lives again. In Advent we wait for a specific coming, but Jesus always comes into our hearts when we ask for forgiveness and work to make our repentance real in our actions. Take the time to prepare your hearts and not just your houses for the Advent of coming guests. Listen to John’s proclamation in the midst of the wilderness and enter the wilderness of your own hearts to hear God’s voice. We are promised that if we do that, we will see God.


   - Rev. Ann Barker