About to Turn
Text: Luke 3:1-6: Luke 3:1-6 3:1 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, 3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 3:4 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. 3:5 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; 3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Luke is a name dropper: “In the days of King Herod of Judaea there lived a priest called Zechariah who belonged to the Abijah section of the priesthood, and he had a wife, Elizabeth by name, who was a descendant of Aaron.”
I spent over a decade of my ministry in the D.C. area. I loved those years at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House and I soon learned that a typical D.C. conversation goes something like this: “You know him; he is the assistant secretary of the FHA working for EMB who was appointed by BA only a week after being in the WH.” Every list in D.C. lingo is an opportunity to drop a name.
As I listened more carefully to John’s accent in Luke, I realized John was not from D.C., though; John must have been a Southern boy. For in the South, introductions typically begin by listing relationships, dropping names to establish who belongs to whom: “Don’t you know, he was Elizabeth’s boy. You remember, she was married to Zechariah, that priest who worked over in the Abijah section of the temple when that no-good devil Herod was still breathing down our necks.” [Clarence Jordan’s version here]
Luke could drop a name with the best of them. He knew how to drop names of the rich and famous, the people you and I want to know on a first name basis, people you pray will invite you to their Christmas parties, people who might help you get a job, people to call to get you out of trouble.
Just when you think you have a good read on this ancient name dropper, Luke drops a name of someone unknown by the elite: “the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert.” God’s word does not arrive on the doorstep of the rich and famous, at Herod’s palace or on Pilate’s portico or even in the inner sanctum of the temple while Caiaphas is saying Shabbat prayers. The word of God arrives FedEx to a no-name, desert rat, a person not on anybody’s invitation list, a person not even a footnote on the Jerusalem society’s page of who’s who.
Notice how the word of God comes to John. For all those “take the initiative” folks out there, myself included, note that in this story John does not take the initiative. He has not dreamed from childhood of being the Advent message boy for God. No, as Luke tells the story, all the initiative rests with God. According to Luke, then, John the Baptist is not Advent’s messenger, God is.
With God’s voice echoing inside him, John cannot sit still and will not keep quiet. The rich and famous must have rued the day that the word of God came to John, because John did not dance around Judea sprinkling holy water on political policies that stomped on justice and religious practices that had lost all sight of mercy. John did not sprinkle fairy dust on public policies that kept people poor and in their place. John greeted his fans with a less than flattering name: “You brood of vipers!”
John told anyone who would listen that God is sending one into the world who will change everything, who will change everyone, “and lest you get carried away,” said John, “Mine is not the name you need to remember.” The name to remember will arrive a few months later, screaming out of Mary’s womb, only to later scream in halls of power and houses of worship. The Word made Flesh will not arrive blessing the way things are. Once, the “Word’s Out” says Luke, ready or not, change is going to happen, or in the words of the poet, Rory Cooney, “the world is about to turn.”
In her typical untamed tongue, the late British playwright and scholar, Dorothy Sayers warned anyone rushing about with great excitement this Advent to take a second look at the One for whom they are preparing. He is one who “. . . insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites,” writes Sayers. “He referred to King Herod as ‘that fox’; he went to parties in disreputable company, he was a friend of publicans and sinners; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position . . . He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either” (Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church, pp. 4-5).
Thank you, Dorothy Sayers. As we enter another Advent, I am so tired of hearing about a boring God, a church mascot, a God who would never hurt our feelings or ask us to inconvenience yourself, a God who thinks we are entitled to whatever we want and to do with the earth whatever we desire, certainly not a God who would put demands on those of us with much to help those with little; certainly not a God who expects us to reign in our often uncivil tongues; certainly not a God who expects us to stop assessing folks by the color of their skin or by the neighborhood in which they live; certainly not a God who insists that you and I keep shouting about abuse of women and children until it stops.
I am weary to the bone of trying to care about the coming of a dull God who makes me yawn, a God who occasionally will give me a gentle nudge, but will never shake me to the core, a God who cares little about anyone or anything and is quite content for us to care even less. I stand in little anticipation of and absolutely in no awe of such a dull and boring God.
Fortunately, according to the anything-but-boring-Baptist in the wilderness, these Advent candles burn because they are not portents of the coming of a dull, boring, and predictable God. Luke tells a far more fascinating story, a story that reminds us that the “Word’s Out” and when the “Word’s Out” the world is about to turn, the church is about to turn, and we are about to turn, never to be the same again.
Writing from a prison cell, just days before he would be hanged by the Nazis, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke about what happens when the world is about to turn, when God arrives:
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at
Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. . .
God comes into the very midst of evil and of death and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. . . . We are no longer homeless (from “The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst” in A Testament to Freedom.)
Perhaps then Advent means looking for God on city streets and in border shelters and in filthy prisons as much as in neatly adorned sanctuaries. Perhaps then Advent means looking for God in the broken places in the world, in the church, in each one of us, places where forgiveness needs to pay a visit and justice and peace need to find a home, a place that needs to be laced with love.
If you and I prepare for that God, we will be getting ready for a more spectacular holiday than we have ever dreamed. If we look for that God, we will join of the refrain of Cooney’s song: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn” (refrain of Rory Cooney’s Irish hymn, “Canticle of the Turning).
[choristers sing the refrain from the balcony. Then the congregation sings the whole hymn.]