By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Last Sunday we heard how Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and, in time, the end of the world and his second coming in judgment. A couple of weeks from now we’ll focus on his first coming as a baby born in Bethlehem wrapped swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. In today’s text, John the Baptist heralds the coming of the Messiah in everyday life.
This is the nature of Advent, the season in which we prepare for the coming of the Lord: He has come; he comes, he will come again. Each of these three dimensions of his coming is important: We celebrate the mighty acts of God written across the pages of history; we experience the fullness of God in the countless serendipities of everyday life; we watch for signs of God’s redemption to see what God is up to next.
Last week we were warned to brace for the eventual demise of this world order. Today we’re invited to recognize Christ’s presence among us and embrace him as the Lord and Savior of our lives in the comings and goings of everyday life. My hope is that, by seeing him in our world today, we’ll be that much more assured of the promise of eternal life in the here and now, and that much more encouraged to take up his cross and walk in his company. The text begins,
“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,
the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias,
in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2)
Now, let’s be honest and ask: What’s this all about? Why does Luke want us to know the names of all the rulers and public officials of the day? What’s the point?
The point is that Luke speaks of God’s coming to a particular individual in a particular place at a particular point in time. This is not a broadcast carried on CNN; it’s personal message signed, sealed and delivered by God himself. Think of it this way: God could come at any time but, when he comes, God always comes at a particular time; which is to say, if, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness so long ago, the Word of God might just come to us here in this place and time, even now.
I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to look back and see the significance of historic events – and to look ahead and imagine the shape of the future – than to recognize the significance of the moment. I’m one of those people who, if you pinch me today, I’ll say ouch tomorrow. It happens all the time:
• “Did you hear what the President said in his speech last night?’
• “Did you notice what happened at the meeting yesterday?”
• “Do you have any idea what all this means?”
I used to visit old churches hoping to recapture the good old days when they were teeming with people. Every time I go to the Visitors Center – the old Missouri-Pacific depot – I remember how it used to bustle with traffic when I was a kid. When I first moved back to Hope, I’d take off walking in the early morning hours. Some days I’d walk downtown, and I’d think about all the different things going on – Jack’s News Stand, for example; Stewart’s Barber Shop; the Diamond Café. And I’d remember the people I’d see and the things that happened.
It’s easy to recapture the glory days of the past but not so easy to appreciate the significance of life in the present. And the question we need to be asking ourselves is this: What is God up to today? What new experiences does God have in store for us? What new people would God have us to meet? In what ways might we be more open and aware of Jesus’ coming today?
Here’s the point: Just as the Word of God came to John “…in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar …”, so might God speak to us today … in the first year of the Obama presidency; when Mike Beebe was governor and Dennis Ramsey was mayor.
It’s not that far-fetched! Just as we celebrate the mighty acts of God back when, so ought we to be on the lookout for new and just-as-mighty acts of God in our own day.
We ought also to look for God to come here, and not somewhere else.
For some reason we think that, if God were to come into our world in a new way, it’d be somewhere like St. Peter’s in Rome, or St. Patrick’s in New York, or Westminster Abbey in London – one of the big cathedrals. For the Jews, it’d be Jerusalem. For the Muslims, it’d be Mecca. For the Hindus, it’d be the Ganges River. You get the picture.
In fact, there’s an old joke in which one of the Cardinals tells the Pope, “Your holiness, I have good news and bad news.” The Pope says, “What is it, my son?” The Cardinal replies, “The good news is the Lord has come!” The Pope exclaims, “Why, that’s wonderful! What could be the bad news in that?” The Cardinal says, “He’s calling collect from Salt Lake City.”
Somehow, we have a hard time believing that, if God were to reveal himself to the world in a new way, it’d be here in our little village of Hope, Arkansas. We think that, just because we live in a small town, or go to a small church, or belong to a common, ordinary family, we don’t matter; that, if God were to come, he’d come somewhere other than here.
But just look at the witness of the scripture: Luke says, “…the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.” That’s where God is likely to appear: In the most unlikely places, places that are adorned only by the splendor of God’s majesty. Just as God came to John in the wilderness, so also might God just come to us, in this place.
Well, if you’re keeping notes, we’ve answered the when and where of God’s coming. Let’s ask, “Who?” To whom might we expect the Word of God to come?
Again, we have a hard time believing that it could be one of us. We think that, if God came into our world today, he’d reveal himself to some recognizable figure of authority, someone we all respect, someone deserving of the honor … which is to say, not someone like you or me.
Yet, according to Luke, God spoke to John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Who was John? Truth to tell, he was an extremely radical individual, who lived in the wilderness, slept in caves, dressed in a leather girdle and ate locusts and wild honey. As far as we know, he had little, if any, formal education or vocational training. He didn’t work, he didn’t support a family, he didn’t have credentials of any kind. As far as the Jewish leaders were concerned, he was a self-proclaimed prophet wandering in the wilderness blabbering some gibberish about repenting of your sins, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
I preached a sermon on John a few years ago in a contemporary worship setting. Given the informality of the service, I asked the congregation how they pictured John the Baptist. One said, “Somewhere between the Neanderthal Man and Willie Nelson.” Another said, “Chubaka, from Star Wars.” And another said, “Like Hagrid, in the Harry Potter movies.”
However you describe him, John the Baptist must have been a trip. Yet, look again at the witness of scripture. God reveals himself to those people we would’ve never thought of. In the scripture for today, God spoke to John, son of Zechariah. In our Sunday School lesson this morning, the angel of the Lord spoke to Mary, a mere child of an impoverished family. (Luke 1:26-28) Back in our study of Acts, God spoke to Stephen, not one of the elders, but a deacon, one who waited on tables. (Acts 6) In the Christmas story, the angel announces the glad tidings of Jesus’ birth to shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Luke 2:8-14) Shepherds in Jesus’ day were on the lower rung of the ladder.
The point is: When God comes, when God speaks, when God reveals himself to the world in a new way, you’re just as likely to be the one God comes to, as someone else.
The problem is you may miss his coming, if you’re not paying attention. I got caught in a torrential rain storm in Odessa one day coming home from a funeral. Long story, short, I ran through some deep water and the engine stalled. There I sat in my best Sunday suit with water seeping up through the floorboard. Just before I crawled out to see what I could do about getting some help, a man stopped in front of me in a pickup truck and, without a word, got out, waded through the water, took a chain out of the back, fastened it to the tow hook under the front bumper and pulled me to high ground. I couldn’t thank him enough. He said, “Don’t worry about it,” and, just like that, drove away. So I paused and said a brief prayer, “Thank you, Lord.” Whether he knew or not, he was an angel in disguise. That’s the nature of God’s coming.
I quoted this hymn in a sermon a few weeks ago. It bears repeating:
“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.”
Saturday afternoon I ran across the man I told you about last Sunday, who helped us trim trees in front of the church and around the manse. He and his crew were working over in my Dad’s neighborhood. I stopped by to say hello and thank him again for what a great job he did. He said, “I really appreciate your letting me do that for you. I was just coming back from having Thanksgiving in Texas and was pretty strapped. I didn’t know what I was going to do. You really helped me out.” I told him virtually the same thing I’d said to myself back in Odessa: “Don’t thank me, thank the Lord.”
In his book, Let Us Break Bread Together, Dr. Fred Gealy writes:
“What does it mean to say that God comes?
… It means that we live only as God comes forth to meet us,
bringing us ever and again fresh gifts of life.
… We cannot live on God’s previous gifts of life
any more so than our bodies can be sustained
on the food we ate yesterday.
Our lives are set in expectation,
and every day is meant to be an advent day,
with fresh supplies of grace richly provided.
…Therefore, we dare pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!'” (p. 4)
Luke completes this little portion of his gospel telling of how John went about proclaiming the words of Isaiah:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled.
Every mountain and hill will be brought low.
The crooked will become straight,
and the rough ways smooth.
All flesh will see God’s salvation.'” (Luke 3:4-6)
As you gather around the Lord’s Table this morning, be thankful that, even now, God comes to unlikely individuals like you and me, in an unlikely place like this, in an unlikely time as now. Be thankful. May your eyes be ever perceptive to his coming, and your hearts ever receptive of his gifts of grace and love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.