This morning may we consider the time in which we live and what it reveals to us and about us. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
During these cold days of early December, we find ourselves in a political season. The name for this political season is Advent.
What? You never imagined Advent as a political season? Shopping before Christmas certainly. A time for holiday frenzy and days of decreasing light. Blue hangings in the church, and a wreath of evergreen and candles. But a political season? The thought may never have crossed your mind.
Let me then bring in a lawyer to plead my case. Not an attorney from the city, county, state, or federal system. The attorney who pleads this case is an old Harlem street lawyer, a social activist, a theologian, and even an Episcopalian, though more radical and biblically based than many of us may find comfortable. For the defense then, I offer William Stringfellow, who has something to tell us about Advent, or rather about two Advents: the first coming and the final coming of Christ. Here is what he says:
“The pioneer Christians, beleaguered as they were because of their insight, knew that the message of both Advents is political. That message is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers of the world are judged in the Word of God. In the lordship of Christ they are rendered accountable to human life and, indeed, to all created life.” [Quoted in Bill Wylie Kellerman, ed., A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (William B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 387.]
So then, this attorney and theologian named Stringfellow claims that the Advent message is political. Advent means that nations and rulers are judged and held accountable in the Word of God we know as Jesus.
Certainly this is the tenor of today’s Gospel. Perhaps those words from Luke are new to you; perhaps they are very familiar. Consider them now, whatever else they are, as a political message, a message about how God does politics.
“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas….” On the sentence rolls, and still it is not complete. Luke tells us who the big boys were in that time and in those places. He locates in terms of geography and history the account he is ready to provide. That’s helpful.
But then Luke surprises us. Here is the rest of his sentence: “…the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.”
Luke the evangelist tells us who God’s Word comes to on this occasion, and who God’s Word doesn’t come to.
It comes to a guy without a title: Zechariah’s son John, who is out in the wilderness, where space is plentiful and people are few.
The Word of God does not come to any of the people you would have expected. Not the high priests, who alone can enter the Holy of Holies. Not the bigwig governors and the power politicians. Not even the Roman emperor, who exercises life-and-death power over millions.
Notice also where God’s Word comes. Not to the holy city Jerusalem, site of the Temple. Not to a provincial capital, or even to imperial Rome, mistress of the world. The Word of God comes to a guy named John — maybe his friends call him Jack — who for some reason calls the desert his home.
So in regard to people and place, the Word of God almighty does not hit a bull’s-eye. It doesn’t land at the center, where you’d expect it to. Rather it comes to this one guy in the desert, a badly dressed ranter who doesn’t know when to pipe down and play the game.
Where God’s Word comes and where it doesn’t is a clear statement about divine politics.
The priest in his temple, the governor in his palace, the emperor in the heart of imperial Rome–each one thought he was the center of his own little human world.
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That the Word of God comes to John in the wilderness proves that these other fellows are wrong in their presumptions. They are not the center, and the real world is immensely more than they imagine, and their power is at best derived, relative, secondary, but on other days entirely bogus and laughable. Somebody else is in charge. Always has been, always will be.
The world of emperor, governor, high priest is shown to be fragile, ready to collapse. The Word of God blazes bright in the starkness of the desert, illuminating all the flaws and cracks of empire, city, and temple. The just and righteous God, who loves this world too much to let it fall into utter ruin, judges all human arrangements, all human politics, and, inevitably, finds them wanting.
It is a sobering experience to read chapter after chapter of Old Testament history, and find that the kings of Israel and Judah, one after another, appear deficient in the eyes of the Lord. Even the ones who merit some commendation are not free from their flaws and cracks.
So it was then in those times. So it was also when God’s Word came to John in the wilderness and others sat elsewhere in seats of supposed power. And so it is now in the present political season. Human political structures are shown to be flawed and cracked. The Word of God appears somewhere out on the margins, there in the wilderness.
John, spokesperson for the Word, calls for repentance, a repentance so deep you can bathe in it. The need is desperate. Yet there is hope here. With our repentance, God builds a better realm than any we can make. He constructs from the outside in: from the desert margins to the center of the reborn culture. He constructs also from the inside out: from hearts made new to lives that blossom and bear fruit. Stubborn with a divine stubbornness, God does not give up, but remakes.
This God is no tribal deity or mere metaphysical necessity. This is the cosmic Creator, with a thirst for justice as broad and deep as the universe. This is the Holy One who bends down, becomes flesh, and enters into an eternal covenant with humanity.
The Lord does not choose to ignore our faults, or simply to punish us, but instead decides to perform the greatest miracle: make us accountable to each other and all created life. The Word blazes forth that we may live: live in communion with God and creation, rather than shrivel and die by ourselves. When prophets demand repentance, it is a call to life, an invitation to the politics of the reign of God.
So this is a political season. A new realm is proclaimed, with John the Baptist as the strangest royal herald you ever saw. But don’t think that all this has to do solely with politicians and candidates, lawyers and lobbyists and bigwigs. It has as much to do with each and every one of us.
For each of us, whether or not we are politicians or even voters, likes to build our own little kingdom with ourselves at the center. That kingdom may be a business, a classroom, a family, or even a tiny apartment. Regardless of the size of our empire, the same thing happens to us as happened to Tiberius: God’s Word comes to someone out on the margins, away from the center, somebody we don’t know about or don’t want to listen to.
Divine politics has its personal version. God casts down the mighty from their thrones in our hearts as well as in the world. John still calls for a wilderness road to be built through our lives so that we can quit our little thrones of power and run out to meet the Lord in the freedom of the desert.
Let us pray.
Jesus, in this political season we call Advent, help us recognize you as the true and only king. May we trust not in human arrangements, whether big or little, but in you alone. Make us heed the warnings of your prophets, both old and new, that we may welcome you joyfully when you return at last in glory.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003, the Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.