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One day television reporter Lanie Kerrigan (played by Angelina Jolie) happened by Jack's pulpit. She tossed a few coins into his coffer, and in return received a disturbing message. Prophet Jack prophesied that the Seahawks would beat the Broncos 16-13, that it would hail the next day, and that on Thursday Lanie would die. She dismissed Jack as outrageously loony, until he looked her straight in the eye and with utmost seriousness said, "prophets don't joke." Lanie was a bottle blond, but she was not a dumb blond, so when Jack's first two prophecies came true, she repented of her ways and reformed her life.
Jack is not a bad imitation of the hero of our lesson this morning. We meet him every year at this time in our preparations for the arrival of the Christ child. And, to be honest, if it were not for the fact that the lectionary deposits us annually at his desert camp, we would probably barrel right on toward the manger without ever noticing him at all. But here he is again, a speed bump on the road to Bethlehem.
The gospel writers apparently think John is a pretty important character in this Jesus narrative. All four talk about him, while just two mention the Lord's birth. Luke is particularly insistent that we take him seriously because he goes to some lengths in noting the historical context of his ministry. Seven different political and religious leaders are mentioned as John's contemporaries. "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene--during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert."
The Emperor Tiberius is the "Caesar" in question whenever that Roman designation is used during Jesus' ministry. Tiberius was the stepson of Caesar Augustus and was only reluctantly accepted by Roman leadership and designated the heir and a "Caesar" only when all hope of a true biological son of Augustus was abandoned. He was neither well-loved nor respected.
Pontius Pilate rose from the obscurity of Roman "middle-management" to his position as procurator of Judea at about the same time John the Baptist began his ministry. From the beginning of his tenure, Pilate seemed to have a gift for insulting and antagonizing his Jewish subjects. Knowing that his hold on Judea was tenuous, Pilate made up for his weakness by periodically unleashing vicious atrocities on the citizens. He was both despised and feared.
Herod was an unbalanced and dangerous ruler, designated as "King of the Jews" by the authorities in Rome. Though he himself was a Jew, he spent as much money and attention on establishing various pagan temples around the region as he did on the temple in Jerusalem. Herod's personal paranoia finally led him to begin murdering all those around him whom he suspected of disloyalty. His behavior led to the aphorism in Rome that said it was safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son.
Less is known about Herod's brother Philip other than the fact that he built the city of Ceasarea Philippi and named it after himself. Of Lysanias, we know nothing much at all, but the mere mention of his name in the text confirms how fragmented the regional politics were.
As we would expect, Luke notes Annas and Caiaphas, the two most important Jewish leaders of the day. Caiaphas was Annas' son-in-law, and together their loyalties lay more with maintaining their positions of power by cooperating with the Roman authorities than with exerting the religious leadership that might have been hoped of them.
But "the word of God" came neither from imperial Rome nor from Israel's religious establishment. It did not come from someone dressed in fashionable clothes who lived in an expensive palace. Nor did it come from a corporate board room, a cloistered convent, or a university laboratory. It came from this unusual character, strange, really, whether by the standards of our day or even his own. His base of operations is out in the boonies, Bethany beyond the Jordan. His attire looks like something cobbled together by a survivalist, camel's hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist. The lunch buffet consists of locusts and wild honey. His message is not particularly attractive, not "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world"; far from it. It is an apocalyptic vision and a call to change: "Repent...NOW...for the kingdom of God is at hand." That is it. No heart-warming stories, no three points and a poem, no pious platitudes. He just stands there, roaring his simple sermon like a lion. No microphones necessary - you could probably hear him before you could see him. "REPENT!" echoes off the desert landscape. And prophets don't joke, remember. The word, not simply of John, but the word of God.
I recall the dear old Scottish lady who referred to a young man as obviously fitted for the ministry because he was a "right harmless laddie." Say what? Don't tell John. The Bible never thinks of religion as a discussion of nice, cozy and harmless table talks. The Word rather is described as "living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."(2) For John, this was a time for slicing and dicing.
Is that what you need on the way to Bethlehem? I do. And not just on the way to Bethlehem - I need to hear it regularly. You see, regularly I find myself caught up in the busyness of the world. There is hustle and bustle out there, not just as we approach Christmas, but all year through. I major in minors and make mountains out of molehills, even though I know better. The news out of Washington or Baghdad or Tehran or Jerusalem is routinely horrible, and that is so frustrating. At this time of year I hear commentators decrying this bogus "War on Christmas" that they have invented for their own purposes and I get angry. No, "peace of earth, goodwill to men" seem like some far off dream. I want to lash out.
But then comes this call to REPENT, David. Before you get to the manger, REPENT, David. It brings to mind Jesus' later instruction to the church about coming to worship while there is some smoldering issue between you and someone else. He says, "if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."(3) Get things FIXED!!!
The heart of "fixing" is repentance, that good $2.00 "churchy" word that means, not only being sorry for your sins, but being sorry enough to QUIT! The Greek behind the word repentance reflects a changing of the mind, a 180-degree shift. The world outside the church says very little about repentance because the world outside the church is not convinced that such a thing is really possible: "A leopard cannot change its spots," "Can't teach an old dog new tricks," and all that. At this time of year, we hear a great deal about Scrooge...always a metaphor for someone who is mean-spirited, miserly, and miserable. But the Scrooge of Dickens' A Christmas Carol repented, and by the end of the story becomes a generous warm-hearted benefactor. Why do we remember only the rotten in him? Is it because the world remains unconvinced of the possibility of change? Or perhaps it is that misery loves company. If no one else can change, neither should I be expected to change. John says WRONG!!!
A member of Alcoholics Anonymous said that his process of recovery began on the day he decided to buy an exceptionally fine watch. The watch combined a chronometer, a stop-watch, a calendar, and an astrological observatory. It indicated the time of the day and of the month, and even of the phases of the moon. He said that all it lacked was hot and cold running water. This was his confession: "Then I realized something, I realized that if this watch ever needed repair, it could not be taken to just anybody...it could not be taken to an ordinary repair person. It would need to be taken to its maker."
So, the recovering alcoholic added, "Then it came to me that my life was also a very complicated affair...like that watch. It had broken down...and was running out of control. I decided that my only chance was to take it back to its maker."(4) That is called repentance, and that is what John the Baptist calls us to.
John is the speed bump on the road to Bethlehem. With Jack the street prophet in Seattle, he says "I see and I say...MAKE READY for what is coming," and he echoes those soaring words of Isaiah that Luke quotes: "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth." The picture is drawn from those massive engineering efforts of ancient Babylon that Israel would have seen during their exile. Straight new roads - superhighways - not those old roads that are content to follow the terrain. For the ancients, this was a theological statement: nothing must be allowed to impede or delay the coming of God.
What a message for us at Advent! "Let every heart/Prepare him room" we sing. Perhaps we would do well to say let every heart get out the bulldozers and backhoes, the rock crushers and road graders. There are mountains that need to come down - mountains of racism, sexism, ageism, and any other "-ism's" that would block our way to healthy relationships with one another and with our Lord. There are valleys to be filled - valleys of depression, despair, loneliness, grief, pain, any of which can keep us from the rich relationship the Savior offers and that keep us from enjoying the fellowship of the faith. There are crooked places to be made straight - yes, there is perversity, even among those we might never imagine; fine exteriors mask rotten interiors of abuse, neglect, immorality, even violence. There are rough places to be made smooth - rough places that have come because of oppression and injustice. There is work to do! Bring on the heavy equipment!
There is a wonderful conclusion to all the effort. As the lesson has it, "all mankind will see God's salvation." Picture it. This mass of humanity is stretched out along the hillsides overlooking this wonderful wide highway. As far as the eye can see they are spread out. Men and women, boys and girls. Rich and poor, young and old, slave and free. Every nation, tongue, and tribe. Red, and yellow, black and white. All are anxiously gathered to watch for the arrival of the King of all kings who is the embodiment of God's salvation, God's healing, God's wholeness, God's shalom.
Can you see it? Yes, I know vision is hampered. The mountains are so high and the valleys so low, the crooked places are still horribly bent and the rough places resist every attempt to smooth them. Look beyond all that. Look to God's salvation... Jeshua...Iesus...Jesus. See Jesus in the lives of your fellow worshipers...see Jesus present in the sacraments... see Jesus in the faces of those whose needs we seek to meet...see Jesus in the pages of scripture. Clearer and clearer the picture comes. Can you see it yet? Look. Look. And keep on looking. It WILL come into focus. "I see and I say." And prophets don't joke. "All mankind (even you and me) will see God's salvation." Jesus.
1. Regency Enterprises, 2002, directed by Stephen Herek, screenplay by John Scott Shepherd and Dana Stevens
2. Hebrews 4:12
3. Matthew 5:23-24
4. Maxie Dunham, "Repentance: The No that Is a Yes," http://www.esermons.com