Words from Our Pastor

Monday, December 10, 2018

Advent 2, 12/9/18: The Voice To Listen For

Sermon for Advent 2, 12/9/18                   Luke 3: 1-6                   The Voice to Listen For

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,
                                                            during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

He went into all the region around the Jordan,
            proclaiming a baptism of repentance
                        for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
            "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
                        Prepare the way of the Lord,
                                    make his paths straight.
                        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;
                        and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "

Now that’s a message full of promise! Makes you feel good about John the Baptizer, and we haven’t even met him yet. When you first hear him, though, you’ll find his voice doesn’t blend in so well. Hearing John will be like standing in church next to someone who’s belting out the first hymn but on a different tune from everyone else.
Before I was a pastor, I often sang in the church choir. In my most recent choir experience, I chose my seat carefully. One particular alto—I’ll call her Sarah—sang confidently. She could read music well, but her ‘ear’ for the pitch wasn’t so good. She was just plain flat. All the time. If you were singing alto beside her, you couldn’t compete. So sometimes you just had to give in to her pitch. If you were a soprano the harmony never sounded quite right—and it wasn’t. I have a t-shirt that reads, “All God’s critters got a place in the choir.” But frankly, I have to say that ALL God’s critters don’t.
When it comes to voices that are forceful and distracting, first century folks had just as many to listen to as we do today. God’s people in Roman occupied territories listened to the Roman rulers and their officers, who gave orders in the marketplaces and the streets. If you were smart, you followed along, even if their voices were NOT in tune with your religion or your way of life.
The passage we just heard begins with a ‘Who’s Who’ of those very voices. They are Luke’s introduction to John the Baptizer. Luke situates the story within the frame of Roman domination: a Roman Emperor, a Roman governor and some lesser rulers, and the Jewish religious leaders operating under them—all serving the state, seeking power and wielding power. And then there’s John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. John is an outlier. But the word of God doesn’t come to the dignitaries. It’s John, son of Zechariah, hanging out in the wilderness, who receives the word and the voice of prophecy.
Luke clearly wants his readers to pay attention to John’s voice, because he sets up that expectation before we ever hear John speak. Jump ahead to the moment when John finally opens his mouth, you’ll know why he needed a positive set-up: he was louder than the loudest street preacher you’ll ever hear! In next Sunday’s Gospel he’ll lash out at his listeners: “You brood of vipers! … Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”
Even though John was loud and in your face, Luke wants us tune in. That’s why in today’s reading he offers the words of the prophet Isaiah before he brings John onto the stage. The other pointer to John’s role is the song his father Zechariah sings, which we spoke aloud just now.  
These voices give important clues to how we should hear John’s voice. What they’re telling us is this:
[from Isaiah] “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” (And John IS the preparer) “Every valley SHALL be filled. … and the crooked SHALL be made straight…”
[and from John’s father, Zechariah] “And you, child,… will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people…to give light to those who sit in darkness…to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  He’s talking about his own son, John.  
But wait, who is really in charge of the good news of God’s salvation? Not the big shots (Herod, Pilate, and so forth) Not even John. No—God is in control and God guarantees the work! God will accomplish the things Isaiah and Zechariah promise—every mountain, crooked place and rough way that may block God’s children from receiving the gift of salvation WILL be made open and clear.  And that’s the best news in the world!  
But if John is simply a player in God’s drama, what’s so crucial about listening to him? Why must we take him seriously?
I think John matters a great deal. Here’s why…If John—with his smelly clothes, wild eyes and annoyingly loud rant—if John can take on God’s assignment and try his best with nothing to lose, so can you and I.
If you take a wrong step, God won’t. If I yell and wave my arms like John, God might chuckle but God won’t walk away. We can’t mess up the good news or cause it to fail—no harm, no foul, ever! God’s going to use every willing body and soul to help the kingdom of light and goodness and generosity and deep love come alive in the lives of others. And that’s a promise God will keep.
John is a sign of something else, too: that cooperating with God’s plan by putting yourself ‘out there’ may not end well. He was beheaded. Thankfully that won’t be your fate. But putting yourself out there might annoy some who are comfortable in their places of influence and don’t want their usual strategies criticized or their paths blocked. You and I might well be called to resist the appeal of that kind of culture, which in John’s time lulled so many into complacency and closed their ears to his message.
God IS still speaking to ears that are open. The word of God continues to land in hearts that are receptive, in mouths that are willing to tell it.
So how do we listen for it? Here’s an idea: Why not try listening for someone who is just a tad off key…someone who’s not caught up with the regular church crowd but on the edge of the wilderness… someone who isn’t promoting his own agenda but attending to the work God has given him… someone who sees a vision beyond yours that feels full of possibility…someone whose boldness makes your heart sing. Maybe the word of God has come to her, and if you listen you’ll hear it, too.
Now that I think about it, maybe I need to sit next to Sarah in the choir a little more often and hear the dissonance of her voice against mine. Maybe I need to follow her lead into new places that shake me up, trusting that God’s love and God’s word may be found right there. Maybe you do, too.
Oh, you can always choose to step away and let the word of God land elsewhere. Just go with the flow and keep your head low. But why would you?
Who would want to miss the excitement of being a partner to the almighty, the one who has done and will do great things, the greatest of them all to offer to every human creature the salvation of God? Who would want to miss that? Not me, and—I hope and pray—not you either!
Thanks be to God. Amen.