Baruch 5:19; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:111; Luke 3:16
Some would say that the portion of the Gospel of Luke that we heard this morning doesn’t “say” anything. It seems to be all introduction and footnotes: we are told what the political distribution of the region was, what passage from the Scripture informs John’s activity, and that the Word of the Lord came to him and he began to preach. An expert in writing might commend this passage for effectively setting the stage, but no one would give it high marks for gripping us with dramatic tension and interest: there is, after all, no antagonist and no conflict, only this opening solo by a supporting character role as latecomers settle into their seats.
So, I will comment on the three elements I have named: historical location, Scriptural engagement, and personal witness.
First, historical location. What strikes us as a rather tedious list of dead white males is the first ax-blow in Luke’s assault on our indifference. To those reading him, to whom these men were names from living memory, contemporaries of their parents, Luke was saying “something happened in our day, not in mythical time.” God’s Word arrived while this particular configuration of political alliances had control of the Near East. It happened in the context of Roman imperial domination. It happened, not at a time propitious, when the good were in control, but when those who did not know God were running things; it happened when those in power could not be expected to recognize the divine activity on the move among them, activity that would eventually turn their world upside down.
Now remember, Luke is the Gospel that begins with the assertion that the author has studied all the accounts available of Jesus’ life and has set them in order for Theophilus. The fact that he begins his presentation of the adult ministry of Jesus with this explicit chronological marker is a demonstration of that scrupulous scholarly care—but it is more than that.
Luke aligned his words with the introductions of the great books of prophecy, which nearly always begin with a clear reference to the time of God’s intervention. “In the year that King Uzziah died,” we read in Isaiah; of Micah we read “the word of the Lord that came to Micah in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah;” and the opening of the book of Amos is “the words of Amos, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jereboam of Israel, two years before the earthquake.” The most graphic of all these introductions is this one: “the words of Jeremiah, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days King Josiah of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign, and also came in the days of King Jehoiakim, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.” What Luke has done is to make sure that we hear the echo of this pinpointing of divine dispensation in time. He wants to make sure that we get that what happened in our own time is nothing less than what happened in those days of revelation and power; God is no less active now. By the way, notice that, unlike the Hebrew writers, who made reference only to their own monarch, Luke has laid out the entire range of relevant rulers, Gentiles and Jews; this is an event taking place in all the known world.
The second element here is that of Scriptural engagement. If it is true that we are meant to hear the echo of the openings of the books of the prophets, that is because what the prophets had to say is relevant to the story Luke is about to tell. If the proclamation of John the Baptist needs to be located using techniques that were used to locate the words of the prophets, that is because he and the prophets are partners in the effort to recall humanity back to God. What he said and what they said are to be considered on the same trajectory, steps in the same journey.
The amazing thing, though, is that Luke then shows the truth of this shared purpose in God’s guiding hand, not by imitating the style of the prophetic books, but by quoting one. He picks the opening of the second section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, written to comfort the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. History has folded over onto itself. It has the same shape again. The Word of God comes to those who feel defeated, abandoned, without hope, lost and devastated. In that earlier Mesopotamian wilderness, an encouraging voice was heard: “’Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God; ‘speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and say to her that her warfare is ended.’” Now, in this wilderness of Roman occupation and oppression, a voice is heard again—and it is the same message: the way of the Lord must be prepared, who is coming with forgiveness so extensive, that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
The truth of Scripture and the truth of John’s message confirm and support each other. Both are know to be of God, because the message is a consistent one. If this argument is circular, that, to Luke’s mind, is the glory of its truth. John is a true prophet, because his message is consistent with what we find in Scripture; and Scripture is true, because it is shown to be active and potent still by enabling us to understand the message of John. This is not circular to Luke, but all the proof we need that Isaiah and John speak from the same source, that it is the same Word of the Lord that came to both of them, and they testify to each other, as John lives out what Isaiah proclaimed, and as what Isaiah proclaimed continues to be lived out in John. This is not tearing a passage out of context to prove a point, but placing what is know to be of God, whether venerated as sacred text or discovered as potent proclamation, next to each other so that their congruence can be seen to the glory of God and the conviction of humanity.
You see, this is the only way to read Scripture. We look from Scripture to the world around us and ask, “where do I see what I read about?” Equally, we look from the world around us to Scripture and ask, “where do I see what I an undergoing?” What Luke saw was that in John the Baptist a voice was once again crying out in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord,” so he showed Theophilus that by quoting Isaiah.
Now this phenomenon of Scriptural quotation is not in and of itself sufficient. The third element I mentioned is the buckle that holds the two elements of historical location and of Scriptural engagement together, because what is being cried aloud, what is being proclaimed, must be of God. John was preaching a means to be reconciled to God: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not only the fact of his outcry, but its content, demonstrated that he was of God. Even the harshest prophetic voices, that denounce our spiritual adulteries and our betrayal of God in violent abusive language, always also include how we may become reconciled and restored again. God’s Word is never a counsel of despair. At the same moment that we are being shown the gravity of our condition, the cure for our illness is being described to us. “If you would only stop and return to the Lord…,” prophet after prophet says; and now here is John the Baptist, with his own form of their message, who says, “be baptized, show your repentance, for the forgiving of your sins.”
This, of course, is Luke’s point. We—we also, you and I—can take the elements that we have received, the various accounts of Jesus, and set them in order, and craft the story of salvation that is our story in our day. And we can tell our story as the ongoing life of Scripture, because our story continues into our present the yearning of God to bring us home. All of Scripture is about this one thing: God calls us back into the embrace of what we desire more than anything else in the world—and that can be our story. Our tears are all the baptism we need. Our sins are already forgiven. We need only admit that we stand in need of that forgiveness, of that relief, of that unburdening, of that release from our shame and rage and fear. Luke’s example for us is the overwhelming importance of sitting down and saying, “I have looked at all the accounts of Jesus’ life, and I am now ready to tell the story of Jesus as a present story, as my story, as a story that begins in the third year of the presidency of George Bush, in the year Saddam Hussein was overthrown, two years after the towers of our commerce collapsed and the stronghold of our military was breached….” Of course, it may open more simply: “in the year the last of my children left for college,” or “in the year my first child was born,” or “in the year I was divorced,” or “in the year my diagnosis was confirmed….”
I must warn you to be careful and thorough here. Unconsciousness is the sign of privilege. Those who do not know where their life falls in the course of history all too often are ignorant because circumstances have not pinched them enough to wake them up. If you do not know what it costs you to eat as you will, live where you will, dress as you will, and if you expect to have every right tomorrow to do at least what you did today, then you are asleep. If you can recall no event that held a mirror up to you and showed you bobbing in your web as the central predatory spider—though still limited by the reach of broken branches and dangling at the mercy of every bright-eyed bird you don’t notice coming close—then you are asleep. The central message of Advent is to wake up, wake up now! Notice who is absent in your life—the Owner of the house you occupy or the Bridegroom you love or the Judge you fear—notice the absent person, that you know in your heart, and that you know you wait for. Notice the absent person—the beggar you do not see, the sweatshop seamstress, the back-broken factory laborer—whom you fear and dread to know more closely, the one that, to know, would turn your world upside down. Then, Advent demands, turn to face the east, watch for the dawn of Christ’s return. To do this, you must know who you are, with a historical location, with Scriptural engagement, with your own voice and message. This is the crucial matter.
So ask yourself: is anything under way in your life that can be measured from a certain day, a certain period, a certain location? Has any event taken place from which all the rest of the story can be told? Is there some placement in your socioeconomic geography from which point everything else lines up and all is made clear? Was there a day you woke up, or are you still tossing on your bed? You also, you see, have a historical location in which God can act.
If you have begun to wake up, how does your story fit Scripture? Are you the one snatched from the jaws of death, or freed from slavery, or obedient in your wandering? Or are you the one sitting on the ash heap, demolished and demanding from God divine justification for your suffering? Or are you—God forbid!—the one who says, when asked about Jesus, “I never knew the man,” in order to escape and to hide a little longer? You can engage Scripture so that your life and the sacred text mutually interpret each other. In that way, you keep both Scripture and your own story alive.
But when you find your life awake in this historical location and in this engagement with Scripture, when your story lives at the point where they intersect, what then is the word God has given you to say? What is the proclamation that is yours and yours alone, but which extends God’s saving activity into your own day and into your own circles of friends and family members and coworkers? What is the word that, left unsaid, would make your death bitter with regret? This is not a single incidental word, a neglected thank you or an avoided apology, but something to be repeated over and over, because it is the inexhaustible truth of your truth. This is the word that, if you left it unsaid, if no one ever heard it, would be, in that deadly silence, an unfathomable loss to all those who love you, to all those who do not yet know you, to all those who come after you. It is the word that, avoided by you, delays the justice you have come to understand is called for and evades the truth, the word that, stifled, fills up the cup of God’s wrath. You also have a message about how to become reconciled to God, about how to come closer to that home that we long for night and day.
You may not yet know what that word of God entrusted to you is. It may only be evident in uneasiness, wistfulness, restlessness, a sensitivity to an absence, something you wait for and hope for. But you may also recall moments when you were at peace and brought others to peace. You may know what you did at that moment, or simply what you believed to be true when you were able in the smallest way to bring about reconciliation, to lighten someone’s heaviness, to make a redemptive denunciation of corruption, or to find a word of comfort. Somewhere in all of those moments is the one moment that quickens your pulse because it is worth your life. To live from it, you would give your life. John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus knew what was theirs to say: “the time is fulfilled, forgiveness is available from a loving generous God.” That was the message that gave them such life that they knew it was the word given to them for others. It gave them life in such abundance they, in turn, were not afraid to give their life for that message that was theirs alone, knowing that it was a gift entrusted to them from God but kept safe by God for all eternity.
So now, dear sisters and brothers, sit next to Luke, go through the accounts of Jesus’ life, set them in order and rebuild them as the story of God’ activity in your day, conformed by God’s trajectory in Scripture. Tell your story as the story of salvation, with the message of your particular sinfulness and gracefulness that God has given to you alone for the salvation of the world.
May God awaken our hearts; may God quicken in us, through the enlivening power of Scripture, what we alone, in our historical location, can say; may God speak in us, so that we may find the words with which we can proclaim God’s redeeming activity to all we meet, until we join all who live in the praise of the one God on the day our Lord returns to raise us all up, living and dead, into the glory of the eternal Trinity, whom we praise today.