The first in a two-part mini sermon series at Church of the Epiphany, Euclid
There is a backstory to today’s gospel. Luke gives us lots of context: who was ruling where, and had been for how long; he gives us a snapshot of the political situation, the state of the temple priesthood, a backdrop of desert scrub and wilderness; but the story itself has got a little shaken up by our lectionary selections; last week, Jesus was preaching at the end of his ministry; this week, John is preparing for it; in a week or two, they will both be back in the womb, awaiting Jesus’ birth at the dead of night on Christmas Eve.
It’s like one of those movies which is edited so that flashbacks compete with foreshadowing, and the present thread of plot slithers through, possible to follow but difficult to grasp and hold onto.
It’s like coming to church and giving out Christmas presents for the Jesse tree before Advent’s half over, and planning Christmas dinners and parties before the candles are lit, and making new year’s resolutions at the beginning of December; and every week, every time we meet we tell the story of Maundy Thursday and the last supper; of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, even in the deep midwinter.
So it’s no surprise, perhaps, that John bursts onto the stage out of order and unkempt, right after his father has sung him a lullaby.
Because that’s what we heard between the first and second lessons today: Zechariah’s song; we sang it as a hymn of praise, the song which Zechariah sang to his newborn son.
So here it is in flashback: the beginning of the story of John, who in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, when Herod was tetrarch in Galilee and his brother Philip in Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch in Abilene, and Pontius Pilate, of whom we will hear much more in the months to come, was governor Judea – this John heard the word of God and had no choice but to share it out loud.
Back in the day, when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest called Zechariah, who was married to the daughter of a priest, called Elizabeth, and they were good people, and they lived alone together, each other their all, since they had no children. One day, Zechariah was burning incense in the temple, while the multitudes prayed outside, and an angel appeared and told him that he would have a son, called John, and that his son would be the cause of great rejoicing, and would turn many hearts back to God, preparing the people of God for the salvation of God.
Zechariah was taken aback and tried answering back, which despite the angels’ habitual greeting of, “Do not fear,” was apparently not such a good idea. The angel, Gabriel by name, told Zechariah that for his rash words, he would be unable to speak any more until the child was born. Perhaps Gabriel was concerned that Zechariah’s doubt would spoil the surprise gift for everyone else, and wanted to keep him quiet for that reason. At any rate, Zechariah was not able to speak again until after the angel’s promise was fulfilled, and Elizabeth was safely delivered of a son, and his father, following the angel’s instructions this time, because he was nothing if not a quick learner, wrote on a tablet that the child was called John. And just as Gabriel said, his arrival caused quite a stir, and Zechariah, knowing a little more than the rest from their earlier conversation, sang a song inspired by the Holy Spirit, and told him, “Blessed is the Lord our God, for he has visited us and redeemed us, and saved us; he has remembered us, and brought us into his presence. And you, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, to tell the people of his salvation, of the forgiveness of their sins, because God is merciful, and God’s light has dawned upon us and upon all who live in darkness and in the shadow of death; God shall lead us into the ways of peace.”
Scroll forward to the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. John, the son of Zechariah, is living in the wilderness of Judea when the word of God comes upon him and tells him that it is time, it is time to live into the future that the angel promise, that his father proclaimed, that he would turn the hearts of the people back to God in preparation for the coming of God’s salvation, and he used the words of the prophet Isaiah from centuries gone by, “Prepare the way of the Lord; all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
John bursts onto the stage in today’s gospel, unkempt and out of order; but he has not appeared out of nowhere. His story has been generations in the making; his father’s song casts the foreshadowing all the way back to Abraham; his baptism recalls the Exodus through the Red Sea; he quotes the prophet Isaiah who has apparently been watching a National Geographic documentary about continental drift, valleys being raised up, mountains being laid low, the land shifting through the ages and epochs of the earth. He is located very precisely by Luke in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod and Philip and Lysanius the tetrarchs of their respective provinces, and Anna and Caiaphas high priests in the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem; but his story is timeless; it hovers over time and space, preparing the way for God’s mercy and salvation, preparing creation, preparing the people for their forgiveness and redemption by repentance and baptism in living waters.
It is a story which began with the Spirit of God moving over the waters of the deep, preparing them for creation. It is drawing to a point: it has been for thousands of years, and God is still coming, and we are still waiting, and we do not wait in vain. It is a story which continues in our midst, as we are called to repentance and into our baptismal covenant, to make straight the paths of God, to walk in the ways of peace, to level the playing fields and the make smooth the rough ways which our fellow people are called to walk upon, to respect the dignity of all flesh, in order that we may be ready to see God’s salvation when it comes. The gifts we give at Christmas, the season of giving, mimicking good St Nicolas and his like; those gifts must be backed up by the kind of generosity which knows no season; the kind of charity which will not rest until all people have what they need to live on level ground; which seeks to change the topography of the world so that everyone is led into freedom, so that everyone can know peace, everyone share in health and security, so that everyone can see the light of God’s salvation, instead of living in the shadow of death and the darkness of oppression.
In Advent, we hear the story of John the Baptist as though it were an event long past, but if we listen closely, we hear its echoes still whispering through our own worship, our own prayers, our own times. We are the baptized and the baptizers, and we are the ones called to continue the legacy of John’s story, which began in the mists of time and which continues to call to the people of God, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Next week, John will have more specific advice for the people; so this story is to be continued. In the meantime, we know that God is coming. We know that Jesus is already here and yet to come. We have a story to tell, and we, like John, are called to tell it, to call the people of God to hear it, to prepare for God’s salvation, even here in the wilderness of suburban Cleveland. For this the church was formed and called and set in motion, from generation to generation, just like John, called to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, soon to be born and already with us, Emmanuel.