GET THE FACTS STRAIGHT
Preached at St.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON 9th December 2018 (Text: Luke 3.1-6)
It is the fifteenth year of Tiberius as emperor, Pontius Pilate is governor of Judaea, Herod is the boss of Galilee and so on and so on.
Luke is fixing the coordinates, like a TV documentary, of when and where something happened. What happened? The word of God came to John in the wilderness.
It’s almost as if Luke is suggesting this was a tipping point, triggering the momentous events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. A bit like asking what caused the 1st World War and pointing to the single act of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand.
But surely we could equally say that the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel was the crucial moment, or for that matter the moment Mary conceived, or the actual birth of Jesus, or His baptism in the Jordan by John.
Well, the laws of cause and effect are much more multiple and complex than that. Luke is not trying to oversimplify. What he means by his meticulous scene setting is to make it clear to us that ALL THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. IT’S NOT A FABLE OR A MYTH. IT’S PART OF THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.
Now if you try to tell non-believers that God once chose to appear on earth as a historical event and chose to live in Palestine for just over 30 years and chose a date 2000 years ago, they will often react be “why there, why then?”
This is what has been described as the “scandal, or stumbling block, of particularity”, which means it’s asking a lot to swallow.
Surely you would expect God to put on a more impressive global event, a thunderbolt perhaps and the rocket-propelled landing of a giant in a superman uniform, a colossus straddling the earth and bellowing “all this is mine and I’m going to stick around from now on and make my world great again, and I’m gonna build a wall to keep out any Martian invaders and, guess what, the Martians are gonna pay for it!”
But no. Our faith requires acceptance of the idea that he slipped in under the radar as a human baby in a small Middle-Eastern village and grew up to lead a short and painful life as a scruffy unofficial Jewish rabbi.
So why Jewish (How odd of God to choose the Jews, as the rude saying goes) and why then?
Well some commentators suggest God had in mind the handy location of Palestine in the middle of the trade routes being plied across the then known world.
Others point to the fact that the Roman empire was all powerful in those days and would be a potentially useful vehicle for spreading the faith, as indeed eventually happened 400 years later when the Roman emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity.
Some are reduced to suggesting that the choice of time and place was random. God just shut his eyes, waved a pin around and stuck it in the map.
Well that’s certainly not true. You can trace things back a long way before the word of God coming to John the Baptist in the 15th year of Tiberius’s reign as a fairly nasty Roman emperor.
The voice crying in the wilderness was not originally John’s – it was Isaiah’s, calling to the ancient Jews in exile in Babylon centuries before.
And you can see God’s very carefully worked out plan to use the Jewish people as His shoe-in to all the peoples of the world going right back through the other prophets and starting with Abraham and Moses.
And even before them! The little boy who grew up in Nazareth was no less than the word of God from the beginning of creation.
So, to get back to Luke, his narrative is rooted in history, dates and places supplied. And we too of course – fast forward 2000 years - are living at a particular time and place as part of the continuing history of the world.
History goes on. There is no “scandal of particularity”. Because God’s appearance was not an unbelievable one-off. The risen and ascended Lord is still with us. He has never gone away.
But the problem is that so many people still don’t, or can’t be bothered to, recognize Him in their midst.
A voice goes on crying in the wilderness “Prepare a way for the Lord”. Isaiah was once that voice. John the Baptist became that voice. And, wait for it, we are now that voice – or we should be.
I love today’s gospel. Because it’s not the usual Advent doom and gloom stuff about panicking in case the end of the world might come this afternoon before we’ve got the washing in and we’ll be caught napping.
Luke’s words today are from the beginning of the gospel, just after the story of Christ’s birth and childhood, and they seize on Isaiah’s hope expressed down the ages for all time that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.
Remember the words of that beautiful hymn God is working His purpose out:
What can we do to work God’s work, to prosper and increase
the brotherhood of all mankind, the reign of the prince of peace
What can we do to hasten the time, the time that will surely be
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea?
Well I’ll tell you. John the Baptist at his moment in history has handed the baton over to us at our moment in history
We must prepare a way for the Lord this Advent and make His paths straight.
We must fill in every valley – every cold pit of depression or despair which those around us may have fallen into.
We must lay low the mountains and hills – do whatever we can, or pressurize the government to do – to level off the sharp peaks of greed which cause such obscene gaps between rich and poor, and to dynamite the mountains of injustice.
Straighten the winding ways and smooth the rough roads of our own hearts and lives – our easy distraction from His call, our pride, our selfishness, the temptation to judge and think the worst of others, especially if there is communal prejudice against them.
If we spend this Advent thinking about, and trying to respond to, Isaiah’s and John the Baptists’s call to us, we could surely - even if we aim low - at the very least - avoid putting any unnecessary obstacles in the path of the Lord.
That way, perhaps God can come this December to reveal Himself through us and our amended lives. That way, a few more people (just one or two – not yet “all flesh” as Isaiah hoped) might see the joy of the salvation of God.