Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sermon: Advent II: The Path Is Illuminated: John the Baptist

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent II: Light and Life to All He Brings
The Path Is Illuminated: John the Baptist

Luke 3:1-6, NRSV 
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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 

3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God. 
ALL: Thanks be to God!

The opening lines of our scripture verse today seem to be throw-aways. They are the part that I always want to skip, so that I can get right to the good stuff. I want to make the crooked paths straight. I’m ready for the mountains to be laid low and the valleys to be exalted! I am desperate for the rough paths to be made smooth. These opening two verses are filled with nothing but ancient names, complicated pronunciations and outdated geography. But, these first two verses are there for  a reason. They establish the political scene in which this narrative is being told. In the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. The very beginning of this particular story reminds us that the context of our salvation is never divorced from politics. These names are not unfamiliar to us, and they will become critical to the story in a few short weeks as our narrative takes us from Christ’s birth to Christ’s death. Listen again:  

“In the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests.” The inclusion of this information names those in the political landscape who were to be held accountable for carrying out the actions that crucified Jesus. Under Tiberius’s reign, Pilate released Barabbus to the masses, and washed his hands of Jesus’ conviction. Herod had been chasing Jesus since the moment of his birth, when he sent the wise men to find the star at its rising, and ordered the slaughter of the innocents – all first born children under the age of 2. It was Herod who sought the title “King of the Jews,” and this was the conviction under which Jesus was arrested, tried and murdered. This is when Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to exile in Egypt, refugees in a foreign land, seeking shelter and safety. 

Friends, our faith is inherently political. Jesus was killed at the hands of the state. His family sought political asylum after his life, and the lives of so many other children, was threatened by the ruler. We cannot pretend that politics and Christianity are not deeply interwoven. What, then, are we called to do? 

The GOP was derided this week for inviting prayers for the victims and their families after the devastating shooting in San Bernadino, after the New York Daily News ran a scathing headline in condemnation of their passive response. The hashtag #GodIsn’tFixingThis began trending on Twitter, which means that millions of people are shaking their fists in outrage, either because their faith and its practices are being attacked or because there is the perception God has let us down. The problem is that both statements could be true.

This week, an Editorial ran on the front page of the New York Times for the first time in 95 years. It read, “All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of the innocents, in California… But motives do not matter to the dead. Attention and anger should be directed at the elected leaders whose job it is to keep us safe, but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.” Did you hear that? They borrowed our language, Church. The language we have used to describe the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt while Herod ordered the murder of all first born children is the “slaughter of the innocents.” They are using our words to discuss the world today, and we have an obligation to speak back. 

It is my best hope to stand in this pulpit, week after week, and try to offer theological insights into the text which can help us make sense of the world. And, week after week, there is a need to hold the text and the world in each hand, and weigh how one affects the other. Karl Barth reminds us that, “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper."

This week, we all sat with a newspaper in one hand, as we listened to journalists and politicians use the language of our Church to tell us what the world needs. If you think for a moment that your faith is irrelevant, or that the Church is unnecessary, this week will remind us all that the world is crying out for a word from us - the believers in an almighty God -  to make sense of the chaos. We watched as the GOP prayed for the victims and their families, and listened as Senator Chris Murphy replied, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.”   But, strangely enough, that is exactly what our text is telling us to do today. 

This week, phrases like "prayer shaming’ were used to describe the rhetoric offered after one too many mass shootings took the lives of too many innocent people. But, prayer is what we do when we have no other way to move forward. It is how we begin. It is the origination of action. But, as journalists reminded us this week: Faith (including prayer) without works is, indeed, dead.

So, now, if we go back and read the text from Luke 3:1-6, we can see that John the Baptist’s cry from the wilderness is coming from a political landscape of corruption, greed and impotent enforcement of the law. It is in the context of this political backdrop that the text tells us, “John went into all the region, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Do you hear the subversive nature of this action? John, a prophet, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, leaves the safety of the wilderness to emerge into a dangerous political landscape, and preaches baptism and forgiveness, not condemnation and judgment. He preaches an actionable and gracious response: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! 

This, Sisters and Brothers, is a call to justice, a call to action! This is not a sit-back-and-watch sort of platitude. This is the reminder that we, the people of God, are called to help bring about the Kingdom of God, here and now. This doesn’t separate us from the implication that God is called to make God’s own self known in the midst of the turmoil. I am of the opinion that God needs to show up in big ways, especially when the tragedies occur. But there is a tie between the prophetic call of John the Baptist to the indictment that God isn’t fixing this. And that tie is us, the Church. 

We are the ones the world is observing now. Our God is on the line, our prayers are cast as weak, and our faith deemed irrelevant. But, you and I know that our response of grace and forgiveness is the only way to change the world. It is also the most difficult thing to offer. Because the crooked paths have yet to be made straight. We are waiting, just as those who heard the words of the Prophet Isaiah (40:1-5), “Comfort ye! Comfort ye, my people! Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that cries out in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

We live in a world where warfare has yet to be accomplished, where the valleys are low and the mountains are still insurmountable. But, we are called to be the ones who model what it means to be baptized, with water. This means we are imbued with grace - a gift freely given to us - and encouraged to share it. It means we must listen to those with whom we disagree. It means we must push those who need to be held accountable. It means we do the work to prepare the way for the one who is coming after us. We do so by letting go of our pride, embracing our enemy and relinquishing a love of war for a search for peace. 

Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, our prayer is for peace. There is no week more desperate for a word of peace than this one. This is the day we look for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, when nation will no longer lift up sword against nation and we study war no more. Our salvation is woven into the fabric of political reality of the world. We are called to rise above it, to pray without ceasing, and to preach forgiveness and righteousness. 

So, Church, let us stand up and be the ones who answer the question, “Where is God in this?” Let us be the reason why people see God in the midst of the turmoil. 

In the name of the God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.