December 9, 2018, Advent 2C, Luke 3:1-6
Today’s gospel reading begins with a list that places us at a particular place and time in history. “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 list gives us a who’s who of the power brokers of their time and place in history. The emperor, governor, rulers, and high priests – they are the movers and shakers of church and state of their day. It would seem from a list like that we could expect anything important or of substance happening in their time to initiate with them or to be communicated by them. After all, it only makes sense with how the world works that those at the top of the social, political, and religious food chain would be where we should look for what we should know about the world.
Yet, that isn’t the message our gospel reading communicates to us through this list because immediately after this listing of this who’s who list, we read, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” The word of God didn’t come to any of those political and religious big whigs in Rome, Judea, or Jerusalem. Instead, it came to John, a nobody out in the middle of nowhere. To one who might consider a freak as elsewhere we read he ate locusts and wild honey and wore clothing of camels hair. And it came to a place that can be desolate, inhospitable, and uninhabitable. God’s message of life and salvation seem to come to someone unlikely to be heard and to a place where the message seems highly unlikely of ever taking root.
This all might be surprising to us if we didn’t know that God tends to work this way. Not using those we would most expect – the rich, the powerful, the influential – those with the best resumes to do God’s work and bring God’s message. But instead those we would least expect – the meek, the lowly, the despised, the powerless – those we’d be likely to ignore or overlook. It seems God’s preferred modus operandi is to go to the last place we’d think to look, do the thing we’d least expect, with the person we’d never guess.
Those in power would like us to believe that we should look to them for all we need to know to get by in the world, however God tells us here that if we only do that we’ll often miss what God is up to. Why is this? Usually because God is challenging the very ways of those who have money, power, and influence in the world, including us. Because too often we get stuck in those ways of the world – the ways of comfort and the status quo – and we lose sight of or drift away from God and God’s message for us.
When we are stuck in the ways of the status quo changing from it is at times a difficult thing to do because status quo tends to be a nice place to be, doesn’t it? There we know what to expect so there are no surprises. We can feel comfortable and rest assured that nothing will rock the boat and threaten our comfortable existence. Often the system of the status quo works pretty well for us and doesn’t ask a lot out of us, so we don’t feel a need to change from it and can even resist the change that needs to happen.
Yet, because it seems to work okay for us we miss that the system might be causing harm to our neighbor or leaving others behind. We miss seeing that this current system isn’t working out as well as well as it used to work or even that it was never really worked well for everyone to begin with. Or while we might see that this current system isn’t working so well anymore, we can’t see that what needs to change is likely us or our role in it. It is at times like these that we often need a messenger from God to come and shake us up. And often for that to happen we need a messenger who stands far outside the system and out of our realm of expectation in order to get our attention and wake us up, shake us out of our complacency with the status quo, and call us to repent and turn to reorient us to what God has in mind for us instead.
In Jesus’ day the person who fit that description of one able to accomplish this very full job description was locust-munching, camel hair-wearing, wilderness crier, John the Baptist. Who might be some of these prophets or messengers in our times? While John broke more than a few social etiquette rules of his day, I think the messengers of today might not appear to be quite so unconventional to us, but they still will challenge our social conventions in ways we need and they might surprise us by who they are.
This week I think I spotted one in Christian singer Lauren Daigle. Ms. Daigle is a popular and successful singer in the contemporary Christian music scene which means her music tends to get most of its followers from conservative Christian circles. That was fine until about a month ago when she appeared on television on the Ellen Show with host Ellen Degeneres who is known to be openly gay. People in conservative religious circles called her out on it saying that she shouldn’t affiliate herself with someone who is in their minds so clearly a sinner because of her sexual orientation. Ms. Daigle pushed back on that thinking at the time and said by choosing who she should be kind to and who she shouldn’t that missed the heart of God and she couldn’t do that so she would appear on the show. At the time that appeared to appease most of her fans who had criticized her.
That appeasement all changed this week however when she was asked in an interview if she thought being gay was a sin and she said she wasn’t sure. She said she has a lot of friends who are LGBTQ that she cares for and she isn’t God so she can’t say what is right or wrong. While that answer would be acceptable in most Episcopal and Lutheran circles of the denominations this congregation is affiliated with, it was the wrong answer for many of her followers of more conservative Christian denominations that view homosexuality as a clear violation of what they believe that the Bible says and so she has been getting push back.
Given the reaction in recent years to others in the Christian entertainment industry who took a similar stand and lost fans, were dropped by the Christian publishing houses that contracted with them, and were banned by having their products carried in some Christian stores, I am sure she knew the reaction to expect. However, in spite of it all she stood up risking loss of her livelihood. I believe many wouldn’t have seen this message coming from her as a huge Christian music star, yet I think she purposely chose to use that role to speak out to challenge the status quo in her conservative Christian circles and bring the message of God’s non-judgmental and inclusive love for all.
When I think of modern day messengers or prophets I also think about the youth from Parkland, Florida who have stood up against our country’s gun violence problem and challenged us as a nation to do more than offer thoughts and prayers in response to the problem. In spite of their young age they have organized politically and socially and become leaders and the voice of the movement calling for those in power in law enforcement and government to take meaningful action to save innocent lives. They have demanded to be heard and they have kept showing up and speaking out even as they and their integrity have been attacked by those who stand in opposition to their position.
I think about those speaking out for justice for refugees and immigrants in our day, including those who might be immigrants and refugees themselves who by speaking out risk deportation or punishment. When they stand up and speak they remind us of the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and the immigrant as by doing so we welcome Jesus, even in the face of those in opposition saying we should fear the other.
And wonder who might be the prophets calling us in the institutional church to imagine differently what it means to be the church today? Are they the bishops who call us as congregations to cross denominational lines and date our Lutheran or Episcopal neighbors down the road? Are they the canons to the ordinary, associates to the bishop, or other denominational officials who are challenging us to rethink how we use our buildings to be outposts for mission or if we even need buildings anymore because getting rid of them might free us up to be the church even more? Or are they about the growing group of those who don’t affiliate with any religion in this country and who used to attend church, but no longer do because they have been hurt or rejected, or have become disillusioned? We who remain in organized religion as the church today tend to do a lot of complaining and worrying about our shrinking numbers, finances, and influence and yet some of these people might be the messengers we need to help us see how we can better be the church of Jesus for this day and age.
Of course, messengers or prophets like John the Baptist and these other examples of those God sends to bring us a needed message tend not very popular with us because they challenge our status quo. They challenge us to step outside our comfort zones and into the wilderness with them. Into the wilderness where we feel the discomfort of seeing and hearing things differently. Into the wilderness where they dare us to dream of a different future than the one we have now. Into the wilderness where they invite us to reorient ourselves to prepare the way of the Lord so that all might see the salvation of God is coming.
When these prophets and messengers drive us out into the wilderness with their challenge to what we think or believe or how we act, that is often the place where we are transformed as when all else is removed from our attention, we can wrestle with our grief, anger, worry, fear, and loss and come out the other side reoriented to a new way of thinking, believing, seeing, or being. We and the world driven to the wilderness with us are changed spiritually, economically, politically, or socially by the prophet’s call to us to repent or turn ourselves and reorient ourselves to receive and join in God’s vision.
Debie Thomas in her commentary on this text from the website “Journey with Jesus” writes, “Unless we’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see our own privilege, and even harder to imagine giving it up. No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain to be flattened. But when we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction, we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure. Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet. We experience what it’s like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths. We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape. A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables ‘all flesh’ to see the salvation of God.”
Although our inclination is to dig in our heels and resist the message of prophets, we need their challenges to us and our ways so that driven out to the wilderness with them we can come to see God’s dream for us. Whether a call for God’s welcome and love for all no matter their sexual orientation or a call to take some action to address gun violence in our country or a call to welcome the stranger or a call to be the church in a new and different way for today, God’s messengers shake us and wake us to God’s dream for us and the world. Driven by them to the wilderness we discover there on the paths, valleys, mountains, hills, the crooked, and the rough that as the way of the Lord is prepared through the journey so too does God prepare us. Because it is there that we are made ready so that we all might see the salvation of God as it is comes closer and closer and we approach the day when it arrives and nothing will ever be the same for us or the world again. Amen.