Where were you?

Published: Monday, 07 December 2015

This is the second sermon in our Advent journey in 2015 and was given by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on 6 December 2015. 

Luke 3:1-6 Plane 1215

Where were you?

Where were you when you heard the news on 9/11 of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York?

Where were you when you heard the news of Lady Diana’s car accident that led to the announcement of her death?

For those of you a little older, where were you when astronauts first set foot upon the moon?

Those of you older still, where were you when you heard of the assassination of President John F Kennedy?

Today’s Scripture is a ‘Where were you’ moment for a key figure in the Advent drama, John the Baptist.

Where was he when it happened? Luke provides the context in chapter 3v1 of his Gospel account:

3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of 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,

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Here is the date. Here is the political context. Palestine was under the domination of the Romans. All these foreign rulers with foreign names and foreign customs carrying out the orders of the Emperor like puppets.

Such a top-heavy atmosphere with titles, positions, lineage, intrigue and back stabbing. If we feel cynical about politicians in Canberra and Washington, that’s nothing compared with how Jewish people felt about politicians in Jerusalem and Rome.

But you couldn’t open your mouth. Try protesting when Roman soldiers patrolled the streets with spears and swords, and could order you to carry their luggage for a mile.

Religiously things weren’t much better. All this took place, Luke the historian says:

3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,

What an unusual expression! The high priesthood is singular but two high priests are mentioned. High priests were appointed for life but the Romans controlled religious affairs. When Annas got too powerful the Emperor deposed him and appointed Caiaphas. Annas seems to have hung around as the power behind the throne.

Into this top down, power ridden, authority driven atmosphere that special thing happened. v2:

The word of God came to John.

Literally, the word of God happened upon John. In this hopeless situation where politics and religion were rotten and you felt so powerless the word of God happened to John.

What a contrast between these seven leaders with all their titles and positions and this nobody, John son of Zechariah, upon whom the divine word came.

What a striking contrast between the political appointments in the capital and the sheer simplicity of a call to an unknown person in total obscurity.

The word of God came to John … in the wilderness.

What an encouragement this is. If you think you’re insignificant because you’ve come from humble beginnings, remember how the word of God came to John. It didn’t come to the emperor, the governor, the rulers or the high priests. It came to a nobody!

If you feel hopeless because you lack the training and the credentials remember how the word of God came to John son of Zechariah.

If others have put you down because you come from some piddly little place, some farming area in the boondocks. If they’ve said: “Can anything good come out of Colac? ‘Can anything good come out of Moe?” remember how the word of God came to John in the wilderness.

Young people, I wonder how you felt when you received your school report this year. If it wasn’t too flash, let me encourage you with this story.

In 2012 the English biologist, John Gurdon, won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine. At high school [Eton] he was ranked last out of 250 students in biology. He was in the bottom set in every other science subject.

Listen to this excerpt from his [1949] high school report:

“[John’s] work has been far from satisfactory….Several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous… it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and on those who have to teach him.”[1]

John Gurdon has framed this school report. He’s put it on his study wall to remind him of where he has come from and how ridiculous it sometimes feels to be doing science.[2]  

How enslaved we can feel because of our poor performance at a certain time in our lives.

How imprisoned we can be by the expectations of our parents and the reports of our teachers and friends.

When the word of God happened to John it uprooted him from his home and propelled him all over the region.

He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t a teacher. He wasn’t a community leader. The only two words on his business card were: ‘John. Preacher.’

Look at his message v3:

3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,

The message that we have to share is always one of grace. God washes us clean from our blunders. Even if others don’t forgive us, God sets us free from the mistakes of the past.

The Gospel that we proclaim is always invitational. It challenges us to turn around. The message is full of verbs highlighting urgent action. Baptism is the start of our public response to God’s RSVP.

And John the Baptizer didn’t invent his message. He was immersed in the Scriptures, v4:

3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Luke places John in the tradition of the prophets. He quotes from Isaiah when he was speaking to his people when they were in captivity to the Babylonians.

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

This isn’t only a spiritual call for a preparation of the heart. John had been called to be a people mover, to usher in a new movement, to bring freedom to the oppressed, to bring people out of bondage as a new Exodus.

The naming of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod and the others is not to provide a neat historical backdrop for John’s emergence. These are the names of the rulers that will oppose him and also the One he foretells.

Sometimes the church is described as ‘the Liberal Party at prayer’.[3] But here John’s preaching will literally turn people away from the powers that be. It makes you think: How much do we threaten those invested in the present order?

By the time Luke wrote this Gospel these seven rulers he names are dead while those who follow Jesus persist and are flourishing.

It’s amusing to think that Luke uses this ancient method of dating events by listing the rulers of the period yet today we date events in relation to the birth of Jesus.[4] B.C and A.D.

3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;

Premier Daniel Andrews triumphantly posted a photo this week of the tunnelling underneath Burke Road, Glen Iris, to provide a safe way for trains to flow.[5]

But our passage says that mountains will be moved! Valleys will be filled in! This is God’s superhighway on a massive scale!

The Romans became known for their road building. The Roman roads were grand…but none of these roads could finally take you anywhere worth going.[6] None of these roads could take you to experience total freedom.

The Public Religion Research Institute has an American focus but its latest survey throws light on what’s happening throughout the world. It reveals a high level of anxiety and worry and this survey was taken before the attacks in Paris.[7]

It reveals that:

“People of all faiths are gloomy about the economy, anxious about Islam, bothered by immigrants and… troubled by the escalation of violence at home.”

Yet John the Baptist reminds us that one person or one life lived with conviction and passion can make such a difference for us all in the midst of dark times.

‘Every mountain and hill shall be made low’.

This quote was part of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. In our day we can think of the mountain of domestic violence, the mountain of guns, the mountain of racism, the mountain of homophobia and the mountain of Islamophobia.

‘Every mountain and hill shall be made low’.

There’s a lowering and a levelling that takes place when the Gospel does its work. This isn’t the experience of suppression or subjugation like that done by the Roman rulers and religious leaders.

There’s a tendency for those in power to exalt themselves or as we say, to be ‘up themselves’ but God’s Gospel shapes us to be truly grounded and people marked by humility.

3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'

What a contrast between the opening verse about the rulers and this last verse announcing God’s gift.

It’s the contrast between the power and privilege of the favoured few and God’s salvation which is for “all flesh”.

One last story as we ready for the communion meal:

Carl Sandburg, the poet, historian, biographer, storyteller and wordsmith, was once asked by an interviewer, "What, in your opinion, is the ugliest word in the English language?"[8]

Sandburg's face took on a thoughtful expression and he repeated the phrase, "the ugliest word in the English language."

The interviewer and the television audience waited.

Mr. Sandburg was concentrating very hard, and again said to himself, "the ugliest word?"

He looked off in the distance, as if he expected to see the answer written on some far off notice board. He muttered to himself again, "Ugliest? The ugliest word?"

Finally, after building such a nest of expectation, Mr. Sandburg turned toward the interviewer and said: "The ugliest word is ... exclusive."

This ugly word, describes the ugly attitude that draws lines and forms boundaries, that favours the privileged, that separates them from those who don't quite make the grade because they don't have the right colour, the right culture or the right connections.

The most beautiful word in today’s reading might be the word ‘all’. The most heartening phrase in today’s reading might be this: ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’.

Thanks be to God!

 


[1] Maggie Koerth-Baker, ‘Great Moments in Irony’, Boingboing, 11 October 2012.

[2] John Gurdon, Wikipedia.

[3] Here’s an example of how this quote is used although the saying is often stated as ‘The Tory Party at Prayer’, in John Warhurst, ‘The Religious Belief’s of Australia’s Prime Ministers’, Eureka, 11 November 2010.

[4] R. Alan Culpepper, ‘Luke-John, Vol.9. New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, 1 January 1996.

[5] Daniel Andrews, Facebook, 1 December 2015.

[6] Scott Hoezee, The Lectionary Gospel, Luke 3: 1-6, Calvin Seminary, 30 November 2015.

[7] Cathy Lynn Grossman, ‘Americans fret about Islam, immigrants, the future—and each other’, Religion News Service, 17 November 2015; American Values Survey, Public Religion Research Institute, 17 November 2015.

[8] Fred B Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985).