First Congregational Church
December 9, 2018
Second Sunday in Advent
“Yen for the Least Likely”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One day, back in the wild West, a stranger stood at a saloon bar. Suddenly a cowboy ran in screaming, “Hey, everybody, Big Bad John is coming to town.” Several others exclaimed: “Big Bad John is the meanest, toughest, biggest outlaw in the West. Let’s run for it.”
Everyone headed for the door except the stranger and the bartender. The bartender said, “Are you deaf, mister? Big Bad John is coming!” The stranger replied, “I don’t know who he is, but he can’t be all that big and bad. I’m not afraid.” So the stranger and the bartender waited. Soon the saloon doors flew off their hinges, and a mountain of a man stomped through the door. Covered with scars and sporting a scowl, he demanded a drink.
The bartender meekly complied. The stranger nervously thought to himself, “Now I wish I had run away; this guy is the biggest, meanest-looking outlaw I’ve ever seen.” The outlaw downed the drink in one gulp, slammed it down on the bar, then turned and looked the stranger coldly in the eye to announce, “I don’t know about you, stranger, but I’m gettin’ outta here. I don’t wanna be here when Big Bad John comes in!”
Anticipation and surprise: two of the best tools in communication - at least in my humble opinion. The gospel of Luke begins with the prophecy of John the Baptist’s birth from a woman thought to be barren - and surprise! - he was born.
Luke tells us that John grew and became strong in spirit; living in the wilderness, while cousin Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. Jesus took on the carpenter trade while John transitioned to a preacher in the wilderness. It is in the gospel of Matthew that we get the wonderful vision of the “calloused and filthy foot of a wild ox of a man called John who got wild honey dripping off his scraggly beard and was arrayed in something that could best be described as resembling the fur of some road-kill animal from the side of a highway”, as Michal Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Yale Divinity School described him.
Last week we explored the surprise lectionary passage set against the backdrop of the kingdom of God at the end of Luke. Today we get a passage nearer the beginning of Luke, against a backdrop of roads and wilderness.
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 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— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
Thank you, Robin. Back in 1992, before recycling was as big a deal as it is now, a New York City businessman decided to avoid a $20 service charge by replacing a fluorescent light himself. After he had smuggled a new light into his office and put it in place, he decided to get rid of the old tube by throwing it in the trash can near his subway stop.
That night he got on the subway holding the seven-foot light vertically, with one end resting on the floor of the car. As the train became more crowded other passengers took hold of the tube, assuming it was a stanchion. By the time the man reached his stop, he simply removed his hand and exited the car, leaving the other passengers gripping the fluorescent tube! Not that I would promote such an action, it is another fine example of anticipation and surprise.
The writing of this message was interesting because I found myself mentally substituting a word I have heard a million times - give or take a few thousand. The words in question are wilderness and desert. Some Bible versions use desert for wilderness, and it’s probably not such a big deal, but there is a subtle distinction between them. A desert usually implies a dryness and perhaps sandy location: the Sahara or Death Valley coming to mind. A wilderness can be a desert, but it can also be the farthest reaches of Alaska, Tibet, or even a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town. People can learn to live in both deserts and wildernesses, but I’m guessing it might be easier living in a wilderness, perhaps because of the probable or near presence of water. But that’s just a guess.
Long before John the Baptist, the wilderness was a place - counter-intuitively, perhaps - of safety and divine provision. Young David ran to the desert to escape Saul’s wrath, and the prophet Elijah fled from persecution into the wilderness. Moses led the people of Israel through their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness - and they were provided food. Jesus, himself, was known to take wilderness respite, most notably his 40 day wilderness retreat where he was faced with temptations of all sorts.
Gary Hilfiger of All Saints Lutheran Church in Richmond, Texas pointed out that in Jerusalem, when the word of God was drowned out, you go to the wilderness (not necessarily desert) to hear it. That insight makes a lot of sense, especially in light of all the government officials listed in the beginning of this morning’s scripture passage. All those religious politicians like Pontius Pilot, Herod, Phillip and Lysanias - all the noise of their religious-political commercials filling the squares and temple steps - makes sense that John would be in the wilderness, listening to what God had to say.
As a friend of mine once said, when coming out of the bush of Canada, you may not find out who you are, but you will definitely find out who you aren’t. The bush of Canada and the wilderness of the Middle East are not that far apart. John the Baptist may not have fully appreciated who he was, but he surely understood who he wasn’t.
It was a Robert Mitschke who made an observation that did a fair bit of steering in this message. He said, “The wilderness suggests to me a sense of emptiness. Perhaps the lesson is including the idea of emptying ourselves so as to be filled - drop your preconceptions; God is so much more than we can ever imagine; drop self and self-righteousness. I keep coming back to Paul listing all the things he is (a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, a pharisee) and how they kept him from knowing Christ.” Mr. Mitschke also suggested that “Perhaps we might think of Sunday morning worship as the wilderness, a time to shut off the noise of the world and listen to the word of God.” The question is, how do we do that - in actuality?
It was Scott Hoezee of Calvine Theological Seminary who brought out the subject of Roman roads in our scripture passage. I don’t know about anyone else, but I generally don’t think much about the roads back then, or hi-ways, except that maybe they were dusty two tracks, for the most part.
Mr. Hoezee noted that Rome built its roads and highways and bridges so that at the time, one could get around the ancient world better than at any point in recorded human history. Apparently, they were spectacular, especially after Caesar’s wife started an “Highway Beautification” initiative. The roads were grand, the travel was easy, the trade routes were prosperous. This description is especially pertinent as much of the area in and around Jerusalem and Jericho was desert and rocky; a difficult, stony, and very rough area.
John the Baptist versus Tiberius Caesar, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. Talk about an underdog as opposed to the top dogs. The slick versus the rough-edged. The least likely in that bunch was the one who brought the most valued message of less is more, less is more, less is more in contrast to the one with the most wins. From Luke’s passage, we can glean the habit to look to the unlikely places and the unlikely people to find hope. Perhaps we might just sit with that thought for a moment - in this wilderness of holiness - that the unlikely places and people are the most likely spaces and ambassadors for hope. (pause)
It is so human to look for hope in the wrong places: Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, amazing preachers. Even in this holy season of Advent, it is easy to be distracted by the manger scene that has been imbued with so much glitter that in truth we forget sometimes that Jesus’ birth also took place out in the middle of nowhere at a time when everyone else in the Empire was paying far more attention to the movers and shakers elsewhere than to anything happening out in a cave or poor house somewhere. Luke reminds us to refocus and to tap into what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe.”
It’s easy, in our weariness, the callousness that at times appear to be forced on us, to be lack-luster in our anticipation of the coming Christ. But it is worth the effort to reclaim the anticipation and surprise - the excitement and wonder of a Child’s Christmas, because those are some of the very places we find hope.
Admittedly, we know what is coming. So often, we feel no anticipation about the coming of Christ; Christmas for some people is just another holiday, that same old time of year where we fight our way through stores, unpack our ornaments, and eat too much.
So we must work at it if we wish to reclaim the excitement of Advent. Paradoxically, one must prepare to be surprised. Pause for a moment and consider the hope, anticipation, and surprise of that first Christmas.
A big gift is indeed on its way to you–the biggest and best in all human history. The gift of Christ at Christmas has come, and will come again. So go ahead, take a pause, and check your thinking about the coming weeks. Anticipate the gift. Prepare for it. Don’t let it get buried underneath the packages and tree trimmings. Don’t walk past the eternal, oblivious in your worries of the temporal. Open your eyes. Watch for the signs. Bare and prepare your heart as we pray.
God of Wonder and Delight, thank you for sending the ultimate gift of hope - that of your son. Enable us to sort through the clutter of our lives, shoveling out the distractions with prayer. Help us to clear the way, making way for us to listen and practice the anticipation and joys of celebrating your son’s entrance into this world. Help us to wait for the Coming One, who speaks a comforting silence and blesses the emptiness with hope. In such a space, may we develop a yen for the least likely, that will ultimately become passion for the greatest and most certain: you. All your people pray in your holy name, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.