In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of the 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, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Wow. That’s a lot. As a young priest, I used to love to read this passage because I always felt like I could show off my pronunciation skills. But have you ever wondered, why does Luke begin his story about John the Baptist this way? Why not just start with the phrase, “the word of God came to John son of Zachariah in the wilderness”? I mean, that’s a lot of names, a lot of rulers, a lot of ancient political power players. Why does Luke include all this? First, Luke wants us to understand that God is doing something new. The word of God does not come to Tiberius or to Pontius Pilate or Herod in their palaces. The word of God does not come to Annas or Caiaphas in the temple. The word of God does not come to the great, to those at the top, to the most powerful. No, the word of God comes to a nobody, an unknown, an unimportant, aesthetic named John who lives in the desert. Luke wants us to know that the important people are not really as important as they think they are, that the old power structures are coming to an end. And a new kingdom is dawning. It’s a kingdom not located in Rome or Jerusalem, but a kingdom that will be centered on a crib, in a stable in Bethlehem.
Second, by naming all these political figures, Luke wants us to understand that the story he’s getting ready to tell us, the story of John and then the story of Jesus, the story of God becoming one of us is not a once upon a time story. No, the story of salvation history, Luke wants us to know, is anchored in the concrete, tangible history of the world. Christianity is very much a religion within history. It is not a story that is separate from human history, but a story that happened at a very particular time and in a very particular place.
So, what is this message that John brought to all of those people then, and is bringing to all of us now? I must admit that I always used to struggle with the arrival of John the Baptist. Not only because this wild prophet comes crashing into our holiday celebrations, with the demand that we repent. But I always used to struggle more because of the kind of God he seems to bring with him. Here we are preparing to welcome the birth of Jesus, the birth of the Christ child, the most momentous expression of love that the world has ever seen. When the infinite God becomes a finite human being in order to reconcile us all to God. And yet John seems to be telling us that this divine love is dependent upon our repentance. That it is contingent on our repentance. I used to struggle with the Advent message because understood one way it can mean that there are conditions on God’s love. That it is a love with strings attached. It’s as if John is telling us that if we get our acts together, if we get our lives straightened out, if we own up to our sins and stop committing them, then, then we can receive the Christ child when he comes.
John seems to be proclaiming the kind of God whose love is conditional, when I believe we worship a God whose love is unconditional. So what is John up to? Make no mistake about it. The kind of God we believe in makes a huge difference in how we live our lives. As author and Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister, once wrote, “Until I discover the God in which I believe, I will never understand another thing about my own life. If my God is a harsh judge, I will live in unquenchable guilt. If my God is holy nothingness, I will live a life of cosmic loneliness. If my God is a taunt and a bully, I will live my life impaled on the pin of a grinning giant. If my God is life and hope, I will live my life in fullness and overflowing forever.”
In our conception of the nature of God lies the kernel of the spiritual life. Because we are made in the image of God, yet we grow in the image of God we make for ourselves. Let me say that again. We are made in the image of God, yet we grow in the image of God we make for ourselves. So this John the Baptist who comes before Jesus and tells us that we must repent. What kind of a God does he bring with him? Is this a God whose love is conditional?
Recently, I read an article by Peter Marty, who’s the editor of The Christian Century, about a wonderful story written by Willa Cather that was entitled The Burglar’s Christmas. Some of you may have read it. In this short story there is a main character whose name is William. And William is someone who has failed at everything in his life.
As Marty recounts it, “Alone and desperately hungry in Chicago, out of contact with his parents for years, he comes to the realization on Christmas night that he never had the essentials of success. Only the superficial agility that is often mistaken for it. The one option left to him, he concludes, is stealing. Breaking into a house that night, he discovers that he has burglarized the home of his own parents, who unbeknownst to him have moved to Chicago. His mother recognizes him rummaging through her jewelry box in the dark. She moves in to kiss her wayward son, “Oh my boy, we have waited so long for this!” Frightened and shaken, he resists her embrace. “I wonder if you know how much you pardon?” he asks. “Much or little,” she says, “what does it matter? Have you wandered so far and paid such a bitter price for knowledge, and not yet learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness? That it only loves and loves and loves.” That’s when she kissed him. It’s also when dawn began to break into his life.”
Have you not learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness, that it only loves and loves and loves? John arrives today in the midst of our Christmas preparations and tells us to repent. But the Savior he proclaims and the love our Savior brings is not contingent upon that repentance. Love has nothing to do with pardon and forgiveness. The love that is born into the world in that stable in Bethlehem is here for us in spite of our sins, in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our failings. It is free and unearned and unasked for. It is in fact, the greatest gift we will ever receive. The truth is, John tells us to repent not so we can be deserving of God’s love, but John tells us to repent to open us up, to make us take a fresh look at ourselves and our lives. To wake us up and prepare us for this new thing that happened when Tiberius and Trachonitis and Lysanias were in power. This new thing that is still happening in the age of Trump and Biden and Pelosi and McConnell. The truth is, John tells us to repent because the Savior is coming and Jesus needs us. There is so much that needs to be done.
As David Leininger writes, “There are mountains that need to come down, mountains of racism and sexism and ageism in any other ism that blocks our way to healthy relationships…There are valleys to be filled, valleys of depression and despair, loneliness, grief, and pain, any of which can keep us from rich relationships… There are crooked places to be made straight even among those we might never imagine; fine exteriors that mask rotten interiors of abuse or neglect or violence…. There are rough places to be made smooth, rough places that have come because of oppression or injustice.”
There’s work to do. My friends, as we make our way on this four week journey to Bethlehem, are we ready to welcome the God of love who breaks into human history? Are we ready for this new kingdom that He brings with him, this new way of being in the world where the first are last and the last are first? This new way of relating to the God who loves us unconditionally? Because Christ is coming in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve him. Christ is coming, as Zechariah reminds us today, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. Christ is coming and the old is passing away. Are we ready? Christ is coming. And He needs us. There is work to be done. Amen.