Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

YEAR C 2018 advent 2

Advent 2, 2018
Malachi 3:1-4
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I figure it never hurts to remind us all that every Advent, the Church begins a new year.  And when we begin a new year, we make the move to focus on a different gospel book.  And this year, starting last week, we switched the spotlight to Luke, which is my favorite of the four gospels (but please don’t tell the other gospels).  And using the phrase “switch the spotlight” is perfectly appropriate for Luke’s gospel, because the first three chapters are really like a little musical.

The story is just moving along in Luke and, when there’s a dramatic moment, the characters are beside themselves with excitement, and this calls for a song!  Two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, get together, and they’re so thrilled that Mary breaks into what we all call the Magnificat.  Then, Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist is born, and his father is so happy—and he can finally speak again—that he sings out the Song of Zechariah—which today’s bulletin insert calls “Canticle 16.”  Then the Spirit of God tells Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and when he sees the baby Jesus in the Temple, he breaks into Simeon’s Song, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace.”  Luke’s gospel has just got started, and we’ve already got three chat-topping hits—arguably the three most popular songs in the history of the Church.

So, that’s one reason I love Luke so much: because it’s like a musical.  But let me interrupt myself here to complain about what the church year does to Luke’s narrative flow.  In the section of Luke that we just heard, John the Baptist is, you know, somewhere around 30 years old, and he’s out in the desert.  And soon, Jesus is going to come to him to be baptized, because Jesus will also be around 30 years old.  (Six months younger than John, by tradition at least.)  But the Canticle we heard from the Choir today is the song of Zechariah, which happens right after John has been born.  And, since this is the Second Sunday of Advent, that means Jesus himself won’t even be born for another 16 days.  Because of these assigned texts, today is sort of a wibbly wobbly timey wimey, or Jeremy Bearamy kind of day.  You’ve just got to go with the flow, disjointed though it might be.

Okay, but here is what I most want to focus on: the opening sentence of today’s gospel reading.  And I’ll tip my hand from the start by asking, see if you hear an action verb in the following:  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 . . .”  And now I’ll answer my own question: No, you did not hear an action verb.  ALL of that stuff is what we call a dependent clause.  (And by that I don’t mean one of Santa’s children.  Hey, Dads are gonna Dad Joke.)

All of those names and places are dependent on the action part of the sentence, which is, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”  That’s the point of the sentence: the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  All that other stuff is like Luke adding the phrase, “One day,” before the action part.  Or adding, “Once upon a time.”  The beginning of the sentence doesn’t really do anything.  Which raises the question, why is it there?  Why tell us which leaders were ruling which things, and who led the Priesthood and all that?

Well, two things.  First, has it ever struck you as odd that the name Pontius Pilate comes up in the Nicene Creed?  Like we’re just going along with all this really ethereal language and these theological concepts and suddenly there’s this guy, whose name we only know because he put Jesus to death.  Why is he in there?  Well, one reason we say his name in the Creed is to anchor the life and death of Jesus to a specific point in human history.  Historians will always be able to tell us what years Pilate was in charge, which means we know when all this happened, like in actual human years, with dates.  When you look at Greek and Roman mythology, there are no anchor points tying them to real history.  And that’s why we call it mythology.  Could have happened last week, or a billion years ago.  But Jesus was put to death at a specific time and place.  And Pilate’s name tells us when.

So, one of the reasons Luke names all those people is to tell us where and when we are in human history.  John the Baptist was in the wilderness when Tiberius was Emperor, and etc etc.  Tiberius is in the history books, so we know John lived at a particular time and place, and later on, Jesus will come to be baptized by him.  (You know, after he’s born . . . later this month.)

But as I said earlier, all those names and titles are a dependent clause to “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness,” so linguistically speaking they’re not important.  And here’s why I love Luke so much:  Because they are important.  Luke turns everything upside down.  The beauty of that sentence is that those people are important in society’s eyes.  In fact, they’re the only people who are important!  That list is a who’s who of everyone you need to know in first century Palestine.  And the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  Who is Zechariah?  Nobody.  Who is John?  Nobody.  Where is the wilderness?  Nowhere.  The word of God came to John . . . son of Zechariah . . . in the wilderness.

You would expect the word of God to come to the Emperor, the governor, the ruler of Galilee, the high priests.  But the word of God came to John.  In Luke’s Gospel, God comes to the lowly, the outcasts, the unimportant.  To Mary, to shepherds, to Bethlehem, to the wilderness.  God is at work where nobody expects to see God working.  Lifting up the lowly and casting down the proud.  Raising up the valleys and leveling the mountains.  God bypasses the rich and powerful, living in their important cities, doing their important things, and seeks out John, a nobody, in the wilderness.

And, quite frankly, that is the best news you and I are going to get.  Because in the 18th year of the 21st century, when Donald Trump was President of the United States, and John Kasich was Governor of Ohio, and Kathy Catazaro-Perry was Mayor of Massillon, and when Michael Curry was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the word of God came to St. Timothy’s Church, in Massillon, Ohio.

God does not need for you to be strong and good and rich and powerful in order to come to you.  God does not need you to be popular and worthy and upstanding to seek you out.  In fact, at least the way Luke tells the story of Jesus, you’re almost better off not being any of those things!  Because the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

And as I never tire of reminding you, we all receive the bread of heaven just as a beggar receives bread, or a child receives a gift:  with our hands stretched out in front of us, expecting nothing, but hoping for everything.  Deserving nothing, but hoping for a miracle.  And God bypasses the rich and powerful and important things of this world to come directly to you, because you are loved, more than you could ever imagine.

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, and the word of God comes to you.  To you!  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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