Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.
1 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,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 region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,4 as 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.5 Every 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;6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "
Well, we seem to be getting closer to the holiday texts we know and love. Last week we read from Luke 21, where Jesus sits on the temple mount and offers an apocalyptic discourse to the disciples. Today, we go back just a bit further in time to the time of John the Baptist. Today’s text in the third chapter of Luke actually occurs after Jesus has been born and raised.
I promise, if you hang in there, we’ll eventually get to the picture perfect holiday texts that we all know and love. The manger, shepherds, Mary and Joseph. All of the good stuff. I promise it’s coming.
But until then, it is important that we spend some time in Advent being reminded that we wait not only for the story of Christ being born, but also we wait for the second coming of Christ. We wait anxiously for the time in which God will make all things new. A time when God will turn the world upside down. Restore all of creation and make us whole.
We wait ever so patiently for the completion of God’s kingdom, praying daily for thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. For now, in the season of Advent, it is good for us to dwell with the gravity of what it is we’re actually waiting for.
Today’s text sets up the time of John the Baptist. We don’t actually hear from the John the Baptist until next week, when he comes out swinging from the wilderness and he shouts to the crowd, “You brood of vipers…”.
But until then, today’s text only introduces the one crying out in the wild. We are introduced to his presence, and the stage is set for his arrival. The arrival of the one written about 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.”
I think it is interesting and worth noting in today’s text, that the text isn’t about Jesus. It’s actually not even about John the Baptist. In fact, today’s text opens with an unexpected litany of political, economic, and religious leaders and officials. Luke sets the stage for John’s entrance by rattling off the who’s-who of first century people in power.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…when pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. When Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the the region Ituraea and Trachonitis, and lysanias of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…
Luke is setting the scene for the time of John and Jesus’ arrival. And between you and me, Luke is baiting his audience, the readers,...he’s baiting you and me to learn a valuable lesson about God and what God is up to. This text is about God and what God is up to.
The text isn’t actually about Jesus. And it isn’t really about John the baptist. Nor is it about the list of powerful leaders. This text is really a subtle proclamation about God and God’s intention for the world. It is a subversive message about God’s plan for salvation to a broken creation. It’s about God and what God is up to.
During my time at Lutheridge as a camp counselor, I learned a lot of songs. And one of the camp favorites was a song called One Name. The lyrics read, “One name under heaven, whereby we must be saved. Forgiven of our sins, baptized in the water, filled with the Holy Ghost, washed by the blood of the lamb. Free to be free my friends, freed by the blood of the lamb.”
Then the 4th and final stanza of the song goes, “God’s goinna move this pla-a--ace, God’s goinna move this place...God’s goinna turn this whole world, upside down.”
God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down. That’s the subtle message of today’s text and I suspect it went right by most of us when we first read it.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius...with Pontius Pilate governing Judea...with Herod and his brother ruling Galilee and beyond. With Annas and Caiphas ruling the high priesthood.. God is up to something. Something new. Something unexpected. Something that will turn the whole world upside down. Something that will shake the status quo to its core.
You see, in those days the world in desperate and eager for a Messiah, a savior. Someone to fill the centuries of prophecy that came before. Someone who would be raised up as a might ruler, a king of kings, a leader of nations, a great and powerful savior of the people.
And so with each powerful political and religious leader that Luke rattles off he challenges the expectations of the world. God’s up to something …but it won’t happen through the mighty Emperor Tiberius. God is up to something, but it won’t be through powerful Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea. God is up to something, but it won’t be through the revered king Herod or his brother. God is up to something but it won’t be through the religious elites, Annas and Caiphas.
With each and every name Luke announces he not only establishes a timeline to set up the time of John and Jesus, but Luke announces the mighty and powerful leaders of their time and then sets them aside. And with the world’s greatest economic, social, and political leaders aside, Luke tells us that the word of God came to a man named John. Not an emperor, not a governor or king..not a religious leader. Just John, son of Zechariah...king of the wilderness.
God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down. God’s word...God’s word incarnate...comes in complete opposition to the world’s expectations. To a wild man in the wilderness...a lowly guy named John, the word of God comes forth as a voice in the wilderness, crying out, “prepare the way of the lord” proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Do you see what God does? And honestly, as people who know the complete story it should come as no surprise, but God is flipping the script. Turning the world upside down. Dismissing human expectations and understandings of power.
God breaks forth not in the mighty and their thrones, but in the lowest, smallest, most unexpected way. In fact, it is out of the wilderness, the very place that represents wandering, doubt, darkness, and uncertainty, that’s the place that the word of God shows up.
That’s where the word of God prevails. Not in the rich, mighty, and powerful. But in the damp, dark, dirty wilderness...God is up to something. God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.
Luke makes it a point to tell us that God shows up in the most unexpected, counter-cultural way. The fact of the matter is that the systems of power in place in the world will crumble at the presence of God. God will humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied. God will cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplift the lowly. Out of the wilderness, God is up to something.
And whether we like it or not...whether we admit it or not...this upside down turning of the world is what we wait and long for in the season of Advent. It’s what we hope for. It’s what we pray for. It’s what the world is desperate for.
A savior who turns the world upside down. Who actively seeks out the outcast, poor, lost, lame, and last. A savior that proclaims good news to the oppressed and sets the captives free. A savior who challenges and opposes the systems and cycles of power still rampant today. A savior who confronts any and all abuse of power and restores justice. A savior who flips the script, restores right relationship, and calls forth all of creation to be made new.
As you most of you know, I have a 4 month old son, Bennet. And raising Bennet is a learning curve that I know many of you can attest to. Well, he recently learned a new trick. He has learned how to roll over onto his stomach. But...and I think this is the important part...he doesn’t know how to roll back over.
So while it may be cute and adorable at 3 in the afternoon to watch Bennet roll over on his play mat...it is less than cute at 3am ...and 4am..and 5am...when he rolls himself onto his stomach and then screams because he’s stuck. He finds such joy in his new ability, but it ultimately leaves him stuck, annoyed, and lost.
The world is just like Bennet. Infatuated with our abilities, our human-made structures and systems, enamored by power and status. Humankind is wading in sin, wandering in the darkness...stuck and lost from our ways. Screaming out for a savior.
Two nights ago, in the span of 8 hours...Sarah and I responded to Bennet’s screams for help 10 times. 10 times in 8 hours we awoke to him rolled over..stuck, annoyed, and lost. And each time, we crept into his bedroom, gently turned him over, reminded him that he is ok and he is loved, and then soothed him back to sleep...knowing good and well he’d do it again.
God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down. That’s how God is with us. In the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, the world had lost its way. Humankind was living for their own sake.
The emperor Tiberius, the Governor Herod...the religious and political leaders and officials… they lived for their own benefit. For their own wealth. They thrived on systems of power the abused relationships, discarded other human beings, neglected the sick, poor, oppressed, lost, last, and lonely. The world was stuck in sin. Screaming in the night for someone to come and save.
And God did just that. God became incarnate, took on human flesh to be among us. God’s word came out of the wilderness...the very place of wandering, doubt, despair, and darkness. And God’s word spoke. Calling all people into repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sins that got us stuck in the first place.
Repentance, by its very definition is to turn around...to turn away from harmful, corrupting, and indulging sin...and turn to God. A complete 180.
And God, gracious and abounding in steadfast love responds every time to our cry. God’s gonna turn this whole world upside down..
The good news my friends is that God is still up to something. God is still active. God is still the one meeting us in the darkest wildernesses of our lives and proclaiming a word of hope. God is still moving among us. God is still calling us to repentance and forgiving our sins. God promises to always be present. And God promises to turn this world upside down….or perhaps...right side up.
So, I suppose the question is: Do you ever stop, pray, listen, and wonder...what is God up to? Where is God moving and stirring? Where in life do you find yourself in the wilderness? In the dark, desperate, and despairing places? Do you cry out to God? Is God responding?
And if so, is it making you uncomfortable? Unsettling your foundation? Is God moving in a way that challenges you to evaluate and reexamine your life? Is God turning your world upside down?
© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached 12.08.2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran JAX, FL