The sermon text of the sermon, based on Luke 3.1-6 and Philippians 1.3-11, that I was to have preached with my beloved community of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018, had not a winter storm of snow and ice (in blessed-by-God South Carolina! Really?) intervened.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
This day in Advent, as we continue our preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we focus on the person and proclamation of John the baptizer. Luke, alone among the gospel evangelists, places John’s life and career within a chronological context. Luke, thus, confirms that John was no fictional character. Around the year thirty of the Common Era, John appeared on the stage of human history.
Sometimes, I wonder how did he look and sound?
I think of the actor Michael York in the 1977 movie, “Jesus of Nazareth.” His John the baptizer was pale with smooth skin on a fleshy, muscular frame, his face, blood-blushed from exertion as he ran from bank to bank of the River Jordan, shouting, in a proper English accent, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
I also imagine a man with skin, exposed to the wretched wilderness sun, wrinkled and darkened, stretched across a thin, sinewy frame, his camel hair clothing crawling with vermin, his hair matted and dirty, his face twisted grotesquely, screaming, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
John calls the people to repentance, from the Greek, metanoia, literally, “change of mind;” turning away from their sins, their defiance and denial of God, returning to God’s will and way. To repent, John declares, is to take part in the fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy. Valleys filled. Mountains levelled. Crooked paths straightened. Rough places smoothed.
As I wonder about John, whichever image I imagine, his vision is both unsettling and inviting.
Unsettling, for it foretells the upsetting, the overturning of things as they are. All is not good and right with the world and our lives. Yet most of us, most of the time are used to it. John declares, demands that we understand that the way things are is not as it should be, as it will be. For valleys will be filled, mountains levelled, crooked paths straightened, rough places smoothed.
Therefore, John’s vision also is inviting. All is not good and right, yet, even in the face of our acceptance of things as they are, John invites, calls us to hope. Hope that the world, our lives, our circumstances, our relationships, our selves might be different, changed. Valleys filled. Mountains levelled. Crooked paths straightened. Rough places smoothed.
John’s vision is unsettling and inviting because he is not talking about highway maintenance (though it would be heavenly to drive on Highway 26 back and forth from Spartanburg to Laurens without having to brace myself for half-foot deep trenches, criss-crossed road cuts, and broken pavement), but rather human maintenance. John is talking about the coming kingdom of God; though, for years, I’ve preferred the word “kin_dom,” being less monarchical and less hierarchical and more relational.(1) John’s talking about a kin_dom of righteousness where and when all things will be made good and right; good and right relationship with God and, therefore, with everyone else and everything else.
When, where, how does this happen? John declares “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This, “the salvation of God,” is what I call “kin_dom work;” our labor of bringing to light the life of the kingdom of God.
As I understand it, if love and justice, unconditional and impartial benevolence and equality for all, is the way God is, is who God is, then whenever you and I seek to do and to be the love and justice of God, it means (and manifold are the ways to express it!)…
That we answer John’s call to repent…
That we join with God in kin_dom work…
That we unite with God to help to fulfill our intercession, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”…
That we upset, overturn, if but for an instant in this world, things as they are.
And all this and more than I possibly can imagine or articulate because we, in doing, in being love and justice, produce a foretaste in this life of what Paul calls “the harvest of righteousness,” which shall be reaped on the day of Jesus’ second coming when all valleys are filled, all mountains are brought low, all crooked paths are made straight, all rough places are smoothed, and all flesh will see it together!
(1) I first employed the word “kin_dom” in a sermon of the same title that I preached with the people of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2000.
Illustration: John the Baptist, James Tissot (1836-1902)