Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 9, 2018
Luke 3:1-6 Commentary
I love Luke. The man has style. And he displays that style in narrative after narrative in his Gospel and in his sequel, The Book of Acts. Tradition has it Luke was a doctor. He clearly came mighty close to missing his calling. Thankfully, the Spirit used Luke’s considerable literary powers after all to give a great gift to the world: Luke’s two contributions to what we now call the New Testament.
Here in this short lection from Luke 3, the reading devotes significant space to a listing of about seven names of the high ranking folks of that time. Today the list would be headlined by Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell. If it were a narrative taking place in New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio might get thrown into the mix. These are the big names, Luke is saying. These are the folks you don’t really need Luke to tell you about—you can look them up in Josephus or Gibbon or Wikipedia or any other credible history book of the first century.
But the most significant action in the cosmos was taking place nowhere near any of those high and mighty types.
Oddly, it reminds me of that floating feather that opens and closes the movie Forrest Gump.
The feather is a symbol that sometimes the most important people are those we don’t see, like Forrest Gump himself. Except in this case I picture the feather at first floating over Herod’s palace or Caesar’s Roman mansion only to have a gust of wind take the feather up and up and up and then far from the citadels of civilization. The camera follows the feather until it slowly begins to lilt downward out in the middle of a wilderness wasteland, coming to land at the calloused and filthy foot of a wild ox of a man called John. He’s got wild honey dripping off his scraggly beard and is arrayed in something that could best be described as resembling the fur of some road-kill animal from the side of a highway. He’s got a distant look in his eye, as though at any moment he might lunge forward and begin to spout off whatever fool things came into his head.
Except that Luke tells us that what’s coming into his head is a far cry from any fool thing. The man at whose feet our random Forrest Gump feather landed is the cosmic target for nothing short of “the Word of the Lord.”
Sure, let the big-wigs launch their policy initiatives, levy their taxes, try to keep Rome from going over one fiscal cliff or another. Let Caesar write himself into the history books and let Herod do whatever in the world it was Herod wanted to do. Let the religious folks carry out their sacred duties and keep up the rituals of the ages. But if it’s the climax of salvation you’re looking for—if it’s the Word of God that has become the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ that you seek—then turn away from all that. Go to the desert. Go to the crazy man who has just now lit out on a career of fire-and-brimstone preaching.
Because that, Luke is saying, is where the Salvation Highway of Our God is being constructed. Rome built its roads and highways and bridges, true enough. You could get around the ancient world better than at any point in recorded human history. The roads were grand. Caesar’s wife had begun a “Highway Beautification” initiative. The roads were grand, the travel was easy, the trade routes were prosperous.
But not one of those roads could finally take you anywhere worth going. Oh, traveling on them could help you get around in the world but not one of them could save the world or usher in a New World. For that road, you had to go to the place of death, to the dangerous wilderness where robbers lurked and wild beasts devoured the wayward traveler. You had to go to the place that symbolized everything that was wrong with this world because that was the place—logically enough, if you stop to think about it—from which God launched his final push to defeat the Chaos of evil and usher back in the cosmos of his original good Creation.
In our world today, we still mostly look to all the wrong places for hope: Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, etc. Luke says, “Nothing doing.” Hope won’t come from those places. Not finally. Not ultimately. Look to the unlikely places. Look to the little white clapboard churches in the middle of nowhere in which sermons are preached full of Jesus and full of grace. Look to the relief worker ministering in Jesus’ name to people in West Africa who lost so much to Ebola some while back. You want change that lasts, transformation that taps into what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe,” then those are the places to go.
In Advent, as perhaps at most any time of the year I suppose, it’s so easy for even people in the church to have the wrong focus, to look to the wrong things. Even the manger scene has been imbued with so much glitter that in truth we forget sometimes that Jesus’ birth also took place out in the middle of nowhere at a time when everyone else in the Empire was paying far more attention to the movers and shakers elsewhere than to anything happening out in a barn somewhere.
The highway to salvation and the Word of the Lord come from and to the least likely places you could name, Luke is telling us in this Second Sunday in Advent reading. Ponder what those places may be and then go there. Because that is where you will find life, and life abundant at that.
The Synoptic gospels all do the same thing with Isaiah 40:3: namely, they take the line “in the desert” and make it the location where the voice is calling out (as opposed to what the NIV of Isaiah 40:3 does, which is make “the desert” the place where the way of the Lord is prepared). It’s the difference between saying “A voice calls out, ‘In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord’” (that’s the original Hebrew) and saying, “A voice calls out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (that is how the Greek of the Septuagint rendered it, and apparently that is what the Gospel writers consulted).
Maybe it does not matter which is the more accurate rendering: either way we find ourselves in the wilderness as the place to be when preparing to meet God’s Christ. Either we begin to proclaim this message in the desert or we say that the way of the Lord begins in the desert. Either way or both ways, John’s message brings us to a place that most people prefer not to associate with Advent or Christmas. But maybe this is where the gospel needs proclaiming today. Maybe this is the place where we need to see God inaugurating his saving activity yet today. Where does God need to work and where do we need to proclaim the reality of his saving work? In the desert. That is, in the cancer ward, in the AIDS clinic, in the inner-city slum, on the battlefields of Iraq, on the killing plains of Darfur, on death row and in the prisons of this land. In THOSE places prepare the way of the One who will take all that is crooked and rough in us and will make it straight and smooth and right and full of shalom after all.
Picture, if you will, what it might have looked like on a given day around 30 A.D. had there been at that time some equivalent of the CNN.com website. Along the top banner of the page would be the “Breaking News” of the moment. Perhaps on one particular day it would read “Jewish Zealots Attack Roman Forces: Troops Obliterate Zealots.” Below that would be a picture of King Herod the Tetrarch receiving a delegation from the Caesar in his regal throne room. Off to the right side would be a list of the day’s “Hot Topics,” that might have included news bulletins from Rome, from Asia Minor, and other such globally vital areas. Then would come the “Top Stories” for the day that might have included some political intrigue involving Pontius Pilate, a story involving a new retail market that was selling that year’s must-have toy, and a report on the doings of some of the more famous and beautiful people of the Roman Empire.
The homepage for the largest news network would contain scores of individual stories, others grouped under headings like “Politics,” “Sports,” “Entertainment,” “Health,” and “Justice.” Just possibly, though—way down near the bottom, down farther on the page than most people ever scrolled—there might be a category for “Oddments” that might have a stray story (written by some aspiring cub reporter who had a ways to go in terms of his journalistic skills) about a man named John who was creating a bit of a stir out in the desert wilds beyond the Jordan River. Few would read it. Fewer still—if anyone at all, truth be told—would conclude it rose to the level of “interesting,” at least not compared with all the other news of the day. And no well-functioning adult would tumble to the idea that this little “Oddment” was the most important piece of news on the entire website that day.
Scroll down the page, Luke 3 tells us. Because in our Father’s kingdom, the least and last news story will be the greatest and first story after all.
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