(The following are excerpts from a sermon I preached on Luke 3:1-6.)
Can you picture a Christmas dinner where aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandkids and cousins and brothers and sisters and friends are squished around the table? Maybe the kids are at their own table, along with the favourite uncle who always sits at the kids table. A prayer of thanks has been offered, dishes piled high with mashed potatoes and salad and rolls are being passed around. Three or more different conversations are swirling around, with some people jumping back and forth between a couple of them. The host is eyeing the table, ready to jump up and rush to the kitchen when something is low. There is laughter, lots of laughter, as stories are told, some are even boisterous and entertaining enough to garner the whole table’s attention. Everything seems to be going so well.
And then. That person, that person that everyone kind of hopes will stay mostly quiet on this particular night, pipes up with something he feels rather passionate about. Maybe it’s a confrontational warning about climate change because he noticed the host is using paper napkins. Or maybe it’s a boldly worded opinion about the state of politics after someone innocently mentions an interesting article they read in the paper. All of the other conversations stop. The opinion spouter rants for a few minutes, while everyone else squirms awkwardly in their seats. When the rant is over, he spreads some butter on his roll and asks, oblivious to the tense silence, to please pass the peas. Slowly the conversation picks back up, but this time, everyone feels a little bit on edge.
John the Baptist is kind of like that guy that you aren’t sure you want at Christmas dinner because he has a tendency to make people uncomfortable. Each year in Advent, the lectionary puts him in front of us, not letting us off the hook, not letting us coast through Advent with our thoughts only on an innocent baby and a silent night.
The passage begins by listing a whole host of people who were in power when John the Baptist began his ministry. It’s easy to skip over the first verse, thinking that these names are just boring details. But I think Luke knew what he was doing when he included them.
He’s setting up a contrast.
He lists seven people who were in power, both in the political sphere and in the religious sphere. And then he says, while these people were in power, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Do you hear the contrast?
The word of God didn’t come to the Emperor or the governor or the ruler of the land. The word of God didn’t even come to the high priests in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The word of God came in the wilderness. Far away from the structures and systems of power. To this guy who wears weird clothes and eats weird food.
As John begins his ministry, we have the words of Isaiah:
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low…” This is not a prophecy that everyone will one day live on the prairies. Instead, it’s a promise that the obstacles to seeing and hearing and knowing God will be removed, so that one day, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
There is lots of good news in this passage, but maybe this is the heart of it: all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This grace-filled, love-infused, life-changing, re-orienting, upside down invitation is open to all.
Not just those in power--in fact, not even first to those in power, but first to the ones on the outside. The powerless and the downtrodden, the left out and the looked over, the wilderness wanderers, the doubters, the lost, the lonely. And, too, the powerful and the leaders and the comfortable, if we have ears to hear.
Is it possible that those who kept company with the seven rulers Luke mentions at the start of this chapter would have been unlikely to venture into the wilderness, unlikely to ever hear this lone voice calling out “prepare the way of the Lord?” Is it possible that those who were in the centre of the power structures, be they political or religious, didn’t even have a clue that something was stirring out there, out in the wilderness?
Maybe a better question is: Would we have heard John’s message? Would we have even allowed ourselves to be in a location where his words could reach our ears? And then, if they did, would we have listened to him? Or would we have written him off as being a little too strange, a little too out there, not enough like us to have anything to say that we might need to hear?
Maybe we, too, are more comfortable inside than out in the wilderness.
Maybe the structures of church, the traditions of our faith, and the predictability of a liturgy on a Sunday morning feel safer than whatever might be happening out there. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes about John the Baptist, “If we only listen for God in church, we will miss half of the message.”
Maybe one of the uncomfortable messages that John the Baptist reminds us of is that there are voices crying out in the wilderness today.
But are we willing to leave the safety of our churches to hear them? There is a surge of activity happening on the fringes of our culture right now, and it’s a call to listen to the voices of the minority. People of colour. Women. LGBTQ. Could it be that the word of God is coming to the people who have long been excluded from positions of power?
Do we think we can only hear God from those of us who have seminary degrees or could we also hear God through the country preacher, the prisoner, the prostitute, the single mom working two jobs to put food on the table? Could we possibly hear God in the voices of children, refugees, and that overly opinionated guest at Christmas dinner? Of course we could, if we are willing to listen.
So how are we listening to those who are far removed from the centre, not in positions of power?