Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What song is in your heart?

     Chances are, you have heard a wonderful rendition of the Magnificat over the course of your life.  It is one of those songs that many non-Christians have heard that have made an imprint on their knowledge of the Christian faith.  Usually, the song is sung by a soprano, reminding us of the voice we like to think young Mary the mother of Jesus likely had.  Why we think her a soprano rather than an alto is a question for another time, but I see the nods.  It is a well-known and well-loved song.  Have you, though, paid close attention to the song?  Have you ever considered how the song should be echoed in our own voices, even if a bit off key?  Have you ever thought that your and my voice ought to be raised in that same song making a joyful noise unto the Lord?
     Luke’s reading today ends with the Magnificat, so it is right that we take a moment this Sunday, when we remember the significance of Mary His mother, and consider her hymn.  Mary, as it turns out, is cousin to Elizabeth.  She heads over to the home village of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  We are not told why she goes there.  I would like to think that maybe she goes to talk to Zechariah about the strange greeting from the strange man she just received.  Who better to speak with unusual events than a priest, especially when the unusual event is that you have just agreed to give birth to God’s Anointed?  Maybe Mary liked Zechariah.  Maybe she felt safe speaking with him about this encounter than she did her own parents or her betrothed.  We just are not told.  Of course, given Zechariah’s muteness, which must have begun working its way around the family, I find it doubtful she went to talk to Zechariah.  I imagine her real target was Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was already dealing with the fallout of strange encounters.  I’m sure she enjoyed the enforced silence of her husband, but I am also equally sure that it made communication a bit more difficult than it needed to be.  To refresh your memories, Zechariah had scoffed at the idea that his wife would conceive the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  For his lack of faith in the message of the angel and of the One who sent the message, Zechariah was muted for the entire pregnancy of his wife!  Whatever the reason that drove Mary to Elizabeth, we have this incredible encounter between these two important, if normal, women.
     Upon Mary entering and greeting Elizabeth, we are told that the baby within her leapt for joy.  To us men, such a description may seem farfetched.  Just how far was he going to leap inside her womb?  How could she tell the difference?  I cannot claim to understand how women can feel what is happening within them, and I have watched my wife go through seven pregnancies and deliveries.  Sometimes, Karen would describe the babies’ actions as stretches or turning over.  At other times, she would complain about a baby’s elbow or foot hitting an organ uncomfortably often or even in a painful jolt.  Sometimes, my wife would laugh at the hiccups of the baby, at least until the little spasms got annoying.  Every now and again, Karen would wonder if the baby within her was having a dance party of some sort within her.  I see the nods and the laughter on ladies’ faces today, and the same stupid look we men tend to get around such things.  Ladies know and we are clueless, right?  But Elizabeth recognizes that the movement of the boy within her is one of excitement and joy.  More importantly to us, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims that wonderful blessing upon her younger cousin Mary.  Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Elizabeth understands the risk that Mary took, perhaps better than anyone.  They share many of the same family members.  They do not seem to live too far apart, so they likely shared some of the same friends.  Mary would be at a big disadvantage in her life relating her tale because of her youth.  The older women would think she was crazy or covering up an affair with someone.  Elizabeth at least has a reputation to which she can point in her own defense, that and a husband who cannot speak.  And she rightly recognizes the some of the potential cost that Mary will bear as a result of accepting the Lord’s invitation.  How will Joseph treat her and the baby?  Will people ever forget her story?  Will the Romans target her if her son grows up to be the military leader for whom they have all longed.  No doubt you can think of other thoughts.
     Mary’s response is amazing, too.  We might be tempted to respond with false modesty (aw, shucks, it’s no big deal), were we in the same place.  Mary simply acknowledges the truth of Elizabeth’s words and, far more importantly, gives us insight as to how we should respond to the knowledge that God is not only real, alive and sustaining us, but that He cares for us and has worked to restore the chasm of sin we created between us and Him.  Her words are well known.  I will not this morning spend much time discussing the nuances of the Magnificat.  I want us, instead, to focus how all of God’s acts, both in the world and in our own lives, ought to cause a Magnificat to spring up in our own hearts.
     In many ways, Mary’s hymn captures the essence of the Gospel that will be told by Luke.  Knowing God in the Jewish culture was considered an honor, and it was treated with a deep sense of respect by those who truly knew and feared Him.  The priests mirrored Moses in that they approached God only by reciting certain prayers and hymns and by stepping in certain places.  Forgetting a prayer, forgetting a line in a hymn, and mis-stepping were considered disrespectful.  Those who have participated in the Bible Study at Advent led by Larry and Tom know this even better.  High priests wore ropes and bells to let the others priests know if they were still alive or to pull them out if they were smited by God for dishonor or blasphemy.  By contrast, we think nothing of taking God’s name in vain.  How many Christian leaders make a mockery of God by ignoring His teachings?  How many Christians make a mockery of His love or His mercy by telling those less fortunate, by example if not word, that they deserve what they have received?  How many people today are quick to eschew the God who revealed Himself in Scripture for the idol they call “my god”?
     Ask many people why they fell away from the Church and you will often hear versions of “they were hypocrites.”  When people complain we are hypocrites, they are not often complaining we are sinners.  No, more often than not, they are complaining that we do not repent when we sin or, worse, we celebrate our sins as if they are acceptable to God.  Knowing God, of course, should cause humility to rise in our hearts.  Instead, familiarity seems almost to breed contempt of or for God in our hearts rather than fear.  It’s crazy.  But it is true.  Jesus warns us elsewhere to fear the one who can destroy our soul, and yet we treat Him as a good luck charm or, if you will pardon the pun, a Hail Mary.  My favorite meme on Facebook this week is the criticism that faith healers only work on television and not in hospitals.  Think about that for a second.  It’s a deep criticism.
     So many of us, though, take the idea that God acted to save us, that God wanted us to know Him for granted that we find ourselves unable to get out of a warm bed occasionally to thank Him.  We find ourselves so unimpressed with what He has done for us and for all humanity that we actively neglect to tell our children, or the next generation, of His saving works.  As a somewhat priestly father of seven (my kids can speak against ontological change!), I can tell you that one drives me the most nuts.  If I had a dime for every I want my child to choose for him/her self when he/she grows up whether to worship God or not?  If I had a dollar for every time I heard a version of that, we’d need no stewardship campaign.  Ever.  Our endowments would be flush with cash.  Think of the hubris such an idea conveys in opposition to Mary’s hymn.  You know what.  I don’t think I want to raise my child to believe that the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, wants to be known intimately by my child.  I would rather he/she grope about in the darkness.  We find ourselves so ungrateful for the saving works He has done in the world and in our lives that we cannot be bothered to feed the hungry in His name, to clothe the poor in His name, to put our talents, given by Him, to His use.  We go through life as if He is lucky we choose to give Him any of our valuable time.  We go through life as if He is lucky we chose to worship Him at all, rather than reminding ourselves He owes us nothing.  In this relationship, we are the debtor.  I see the squirms.  I seem to have touched a nerve or maybe, maybe, the Holy Spirit is among us giving us a much needed wedgie?
     Consider our own thoughts and actions and words in light of Mary’s.  Luke will spend much of his book explaining to us, teach us, reminding us that we must take God at His word and that the proper response to His word of salvation and redemption in the world around us and in our lives is amazement and joy.  As faithful Episcopalians, we might say our response is a joyful thanksgiving!  In many ways, Mary’s hymn describes us in worship.  In one sense, her willingness to accept God at His word has incredible potential consequence for her.  She has not slept with her husband or any other man, yet now she is pregnant.  How will Joseph respond?  Her family?  The neighbors?  More importantly, we often speak of God’s faithfulness, mercy, love, justice, and whatever other characteristics as abstract attributes.  But now Mary knows God relationally.  He has asked her to bear His child.  His has come upon her in the power of the Holy Spirit and caused her to become pregnant.  More incredible, He has promised that all that He promised to her ancestors will be fulfilled in her child.  Can you imagine?
     In truth, we all should.  We should all be singing a Magnificat with Mary every day of our lives.  We do not worship an abstract truth or collection of attributes, brothers and sisters.  We worship a God who wishes to be known, who wants us to love Him, who wants nothing less for us than a great Father wants for His children.  Mary’s hymn reflects that incredible understanding.  She starts off by wondering who she is, that God should notice her, but she moves quickly to singing her understanding of that same relationship that was offered to Abram & Sarai, to Jacob & Rachel, Moses, to Hannah, to David, to Solomon, to Elizabeth her cousin, and to countless others, including you and me!  Mary’s hymn of praise testifies to the fact that the she sees God for who He is, and she rejoices that He has been mindful of her!
     Mary’s song, though in the beginning quite personal, is also universal.  Everyone we encounter is noticed by God.  Everyone.  He knows their names; He knows their situations; He knows their hurts, their hopes, and their fears.  And across the chasm He calls to them.  He may send you and me instead of an angel, but He calls them and us all the same.  Put in modern language, He changes the world by transforming our souls and equipping us for ministry in His name.
      Brothers and sisters, how is your heart in your breast this morning?  Did you drag yourself to church only because you had to?  Did you come to church because you were working or because you needed to see some people or because you only wanted to watch the youth put on their presentation?  Or did you come, echoing Mary, praising Him who noticed you, called to you, and promised to redeem you, through the work and person of that baby whose birth we celebrate later this week?  Did you come, a recipient of His tender mercy, led to Him by the Son whom Mary bore, whom Pilate killed, and whom God raised from the dead?  Or did you come merely because you were dragged?  In the end, brothers and sisters, He wants us to know Him fully.  The beginning of the end of His plan of salvation for all of us began with that little girl’s assent to His request.  If He can save the world through the faithful and joyful obedience of a young girl, imagine what He could do through a congregation of believers, a congregation that includes you and me!


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Making the ordinary extraordinary . . .

     We continue our journey in Advent with some good old fashioned hellfire and brimstone preaching.  Not really.  I’ve been called a lot worse than a viper in my life, and I imagine most of you have, too.  I have found my stroll through the commentaries interesting, though.  There is a serious discussion, almost a back and forth in the commentaries, between those who think that naming sins and calling people to repentance is anything but good news and those who think the age of overly permissiveness has caused us to forget our real Gospel news.  Put in English language, some experts wonder how John’s preaching could ever be considered good news by Luke and the people.  The struggle for them, of course, is that the crowds flocked to John to hear his message.  I’ve only been doing this a dozen years or so, and my sense is that I really don’t have to beat people up with their sins.  They know them all too well.  But, neither can we let them pass unaddressed.  When we fail to call sins sins, people begin to think that some of their activities and thoughts are no big deals.  Who really gets hurt if I watch online pornography?  My company makes so much money anyway, it is never going to miss the reams of paper/boxes of pens/tape dispensers and other stuff I took, is it?  If we both agree we should divorce, it is not really a bad thing, right?  It does not really matter if I give the middle finger to those idiots who cut me off on the highway or at traffic lights, does it? 
     I hear chuckling, but my guess is that most of the chuckling is rueful.  We have become experts at rationalizing our behavior, have we not?  And we like to think most of our behavior is ok in God’s eyes.  Yet it is precisely those everyday sins as well as the “biggies” that caused Him to come down from heaven.  It was precisely those “no big deals” that separated us from our Father in Heaven every bit as much as the big ones like murder and rape.  People need to know that the secret sins, the horrible sins that make them unlovable, have been paid in full by our Lord Christ.  But people also need to know that those little sins matter every bit as much to God and that our Lord died as much for them as the big ones in our lives.  In many ways, we are much like the Jews who came to hear John preach.  We understand righteous behavior; what we don’t really understand is this idea of forgiveness.
     Our reading from Luke picks up right where it left off last week.  John’s activity has been placed alongside the emperor’s, the governor, and the tetrarchs.  This nobody by worldly standards, John, comes from the wrong family and the wrong town, has been given the responsibility of serving as the last of the Old Testament prophets, this after God has been silent for a few centuries!  He has strolled out of the wilderness and has begun preaching his message of repentance.  Amazingly, the people have heard his message.  In a day when social media, television, and cell phones did not exist, John’s message was enough to get the folks in the city to head down to the river to hear him preach.  Many, we are told by Luke, were baptized by him.  Some wanted to place their salvation in their family tree or in their location; John reminded them that God was having none of that.
     As they approach, as they hear his message of repentance, they wonder.  What does a repentant life look like?  What are the fruits of repentance?  As people ask, John answers.  John’s answers, of course, do not sound so new to our ears.  We know that the second great commandment is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, but we have the hindsight of Jesus’ teaching and the red letters of His words to direct us.  John simply has the torah and Holy Spirit upon which to base his answers.  Those who are wealthy, having two cloaks or plenty of food, ought to share with those who have none.  Even traitorous IRS agents, tax collectors, can bear fruit worthy of repentance simply by collecting only what is owed.  Soldiers, too, come to John and ask if they can bear worthy fruit, and John instructs them that they must not allow themselves to be used to extort people and that they should be satisfied with their wages.  Presumably other professions were in the crowd also asking how they might bear fruit, but these would be two groups many would think outside God’s love and one group that must clearly be loved by God based on outward appearances.  John, of course, reminds them and us that God has little concern for outward appearances.  It is the repentant heart and the accompanying fruits which God desires.
     John’s answers are simple yet profound.  The crowds, we are told, began to wonder whether John is the Messiah.  John answered them all, Luke tells us, by reminding them that he baptizes only with water for repentance.  The Anointed, the Christ, will baptize with the Holy Spirit, empowering them for incredible work and ministry.  Luke ends our passage today with this amazing little snippet.  “And with many other words, John exhorted and preached the good news to them.”  Those who reject sin and those who have become too permissive about sin reject John’s preaching as good news, Gospel.  Similarly, those who want to believe that there is no accounting before God, that there is no threshing floor, cannot accept that the people in the crowds are exhorted and filled with good news.  I suppose the difficulty comes from being an academic versus being a pastor.  How can calling sin a sin be good news?  How can a reminder about judgment be good news?  How can a critique of one’s profession be good news?
     Notice anything remarkable about those coming to see John?
     Boy, if I called on people in the pews this morning, there would be a panic, wouldn’t there?  Who are the people in the crowd?  They are normal people like you and like me, are they not?  Luke highlights the tax collectors, soldiers, and rich, I think, because of their perceived standing by those in the crowd.  The Jews often thought themselves unassailable because of their chosen status by God.  Some really believed that those living in Jerusalem could never be conquered because God had to protect His Temple.  God could never allow His people to be subjugated because that meant He would be subjugated in the heavens.  They really believed this despite the testimony of the Exile and the warning of the prophets.  What is the saying?  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Clearly, many of those who come to hear John speak think their birthright protects them from God’s wrath or ensures them of God’s promises.  John reminds them that their ancestry guarantees them nothing from God.  What forges the relationship with God is a repentant heart.
     We see this attitude of the people alive and well in the modern church, don’t we?  I encounter it all the time.  “Are you a Christian?”  “Of course.”  “Great!  How has Jesus worked in your life?”  “Well, I’m not that kind of Christian?”  “What do you mean, that kind of Christian?”  Then follows a list of excuses.  I’m just a Christian because mom and dad took me to church as a kid.  I’m just a Christian because mom and dad and grandma and grandpa are Christians.  I’m a Christian because I’m an American.
     You all are chuckling, but we hear these excuses all the time.  In my short time among you I have met a number of people in the real world of Target or the mall or Publix or other sites who proudly tell me they are Adventers.  When I ask how they support Advent, either through worship, prayers, or financial contributions, I get a litany of excuses.  God knows I need sleep, so I sleep in on Sundays.  Why don’t you come to worship on Monday mornings, Tuesday evenings, or Wednesday noondays?  Well, I’m really busy so I don’t have time to pray.  Not even at night before bed or at mornings when waking?  How about in the car?  I can barely pay my bills as it is, or my favorite, that’s all you priests care about is money.  Well, you do know there is a cost associated with worship and with ministry?  It costs money to let sex addicts meet in our church.  It costs money to let a refugee community worship in our church.  It costs money to be there when you finally decide you need to talk to someone about God.  But you can also give in ways than financial.  People today, like people in John’s time, act as if Peter is going to ask for a membership card when we reach the pearly gates and not question our allegiance to His Lord our God.
     John’s rebuke of the selfish or miserly rich should prompt them to live lives that feed, water, and clothe the Lazaruses in their lives.
     Sitting here today, though, I have also heard some of your arguments against John’s teaching.  I’m not sure what caused the conversation dam to break, but over the course of the last six weeks or so, we have had a lot of conversations, so many that I am now usually running a couple weeks behind on getting my sermons typed up and put up for those absent to follow along.  I have heard until I am ready to scream what I call the excuse of ordinariness.  God needs someone better than me for that ministry, Father.  I can’t possibly do that, Father, I’m just . . . me.  That would take someone more holy than me.  What we often forget is that, in God’s eyes and under His tutelage, the ordinary become extraordinary.
     Think of John from our passage today.  Does he come from the right family?  Is he from the right town?  Does he have the right career choice?  Does he wear the right clothes?  Heck, does he say the right words?  John reeks of ordinariness.  His father serves in a town outside of Jerusalem.  He is located at the parish and not the cathedral, to use our language!  His clothes are rough, to say nothing of his diet.  Yet, how does God view John?  He caused us to remember his name.  The world might be fascinated by Augustus, Quirinius, Pilate, and the Tetrarchs, but God loves those who fear him and follow His teaching.  This unremarkable man, by worldly standards, is well known by all Christians today and many non-Christians.  More importantly, He was and is well known by God, who gave him the honor and privilege of being the one crying in the wilderness for the Anointed One!
     And lest we think John is an exception, let’s talk some of our recent stories.  Ruth?  A Moabitess widow!  Neither her heritage nor her condition cause the world to notice her, yet God and Boaz does.  And what about Boaz?  A seemingly ordinary guy of middle age!  Yet both become the parents of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, you know, that famous shepherd with a heart after God’s own.  Peter?  A fisherman.  James and John?  Fishermen or net-minders?  Matthew?  An old fashioned IRS collector!  In reality, if we pay close attention to Scripture, there are very few extraordinary men and women, at least by worldly standards, who choose to follow and obey God.  Most are normal John’s and Jane’s, right up until that moment they decide to do as God asks!  Then, and only after their faithful, obedient response, does God truly bless them.  What if Ruth would have followed the footsteps of her sister Orpah?  What if Boaz had been more like his kinsman closer to Ruth or a wicked man who ignore God’s torah?  What makes the people special, what makes the people extraordinary in our eyes is the One that they serve.  There is nothing in them that causes the world to go “Wow.  We could totally see that in her/him.”  It is their faith in God, who promises to redeem all things and who promises to indwell in all His people, who makes them the giants we think they are.
     All of that, of course, brings us to Nashville in the year 2015.  Look around for a moment.  Consider prayerfully what you think God is calling us to do and to be at Church of the Advent.  What do we really lack?  We have tons of skills seated around you.  Tons.  And now think back to that face staring back at you as you dressed this morning.  What role is He asking you to play in His wonderful plan of salvation?  You can bet that if He is asking, you will have the skills necessary to accomplish His will.  Either they are already within you, or He will give them to you at just the appropriate time.  Best of all, that plan He has for your life and for salvation is dependent only upon Him.  True, He asks us to respond obediently in faith.  But the real execution of His plan, the real working out of His plan, is up to Him.  If His enemy, who is diametrically opposed to His plan cannot thwart Him, what makes you think you are powerful enough to really screw things up?
     Brothers and sisters, you and I serve a God who excels at taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary, who takes the common and makes them sacred, and that truly is good news to those of who hear and believe!  As John reminds us, our Lord takes faithful obedient behavior and uses it to His glory and His honor and the welfare of His people.  Rather than fight Him in your life or argue with your inner demons that you are incapable of incredible work in His name, why not join yourself to His will?  Why not do as He asks and look expectantly for the result?  In the end, He has promised to share His honor and His glory with all who follow Him.  Should we really be surprised that we remember and honor men and women like John, like Peter, like Mary, like Ruth, like Boaz, like Martha?  Should we really be surprised that one day men and women born again of our Father’s Spirit remember you or this parish in the same prayers of thanksgiving?


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

In the seventh year of Obama's presidency, when Haslam . . .

     When I was in Rome last year, we had a change of plans, at least as far as pastoral care is concerned.  As many of you know, one of the issues facing us in this fight against slavery is the “silo” nature of the ministries.  Everybody does their ministries—some very well, and yet we do a poor job of connecting or being connected to one another.  Such a claim might sound strange in our ears, given our episcopal nature and ecclesiology.  But we do a poor job of supporting those engaged in this ministry.
     It was because of the need for some “down time” or spiritual care or whatever that you want to call it that the Pope and ABC were able to move quickly.  During our first four days we engaged in what I term heavy ministry.  We talked about and watched things human beings should never talk.  Ever.  Yet here we were, mostly lay and a few clergy engaging in a viscerally evil spiritual warfare, even as we were trying to rally the Church to the fight.  So, as part of our care, Justin and Francis sent us to this former prison in Rome.
     This prison was located well below ground.  You and I would call it a dungeon by our imaginations.  The only problem is that the prison was really a house or villa.  Back in the 1st century AD the windows looked to the streets and sky outside.  Now, however, the house is well below ground.  What struck archaeologists who found it, and I must confess the details were a blur, was the fact that it was the basement or catacombs of a church, which served as the same for another church, which served as the same for another church.  I can’t remember for sure now, but I think it was nine churches built over this house.  The number was high enough that archaeologists knew it was very important to early Christians.  That’s how they preserved sites back then—they built churches over them.  In this location, the floods of the Tiber over the following centuries had forced the Christians to build new churches above the older churches.  Naturally, everyone was excited to see what was at the bottom.
     In the prison/house/villa at the bottom was little remarkable.  There were windows, a well, and other accoutrements one would expect to find.  Then on the walls the archaeologists began to notice quotations from the Epistles.  Finally, on one wall, there was a beautiful mural.  It was a scene that painted various Apostles and disciples doing their work, even as Mary held her son, Jesus.  Ironically, the Eastern churches have a tradition that the picture of Mary holding the Baby Jesus with his halo was done originally by Luke.  Being a physician, Luke had painstakingly tried to draw a likeness of Jesus based on his conversations and interviews with Mary and those who knew our Lord during His earthly ministry.  We might say it is the closest we have to a photograph of our Lord.  The Church in the West, as you might imagine, poopooed this idea.  It made for great storytelling, but there was no way to know whether it was true.  Until they unearthed this house/prison/villa.
     There, on the wall in the villa, was a scene that included the very picture of our Lord and His mother the Eastern Church knew so well.  The Church being the Church, that is all being worked out.  Officials from the Vatican have taken control of the mural and had it removed for study.  What is no longer debated now, though, is the resident of one who stayed in the house/villa/prison.  Yes, Paul.  The house is thought to be the site where Paul was imprisoned before he was killed by the Emperor.  We believe now that his faithful companion, Luke, drew the mural to help remind his master and friend of the work of our Lord.  Though Paul was imprisoned in a house in Rome, the Gospel had spread throughout the kingdom!  And though the Emperor within a few years or months, depending upon when the drawing and painting occurred, would put Paul to death for his faith in Jesus of Nazareth, an emperor some 26 or 27 decades later would bend the knee to Christ.
     It was a great place of silence and reflection and pictures for those of us present.  Archbishop David gave us many of those details for which some of you no doubt hunger, but for us dealing with atrocities that disgusted us and shook us to our cores, it was the perfect place to meditate on that question of why God allows such evil to exist.  The reminder, of course, was that in the end God wins.  Yes, the battles during the intervening years will be brutal.  Yes, we may face mockery, derision, and indifference, but He wins in the end!  We don’t know the purpose behind the mural, of course, but it seems reasonable that Paul must have wondered from time to time what God’s plan was.  How could he evangelize anybody while imprisoned?  Yet, the artwork would have reminded him that it was not up to him to reach the world, only those with whom he had contact.  God was taking care of the rest, even while Paul was confined.
     Why do I share the story?  Partly, I think it gives us insight as to one of the driving focuses of Luke.  The other reason is that it speaks to an eternal truth of which Luke wants us to know we are a part.  Luke is very good about going from the abstract to the close, from generalities to specifics, from out there, to in here, our hearts.
     Luke at your readings from Luke today.  Every three years we read this passage from Luke.  To those who must preach on this passage without a bit of knowledge of Luke, it must be incredible hard.  Why does Luke mention these rulers?  Why the big quote of Isaiah?  Why not add more to the reading to give us real preaching material?  Yet Luke has a particular focus and mindset he wants to share, if we will just pay attention.
      Luke sets the passage in history.  Specifically, the passage is set in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.  To us, the date may seem obscure, but we live under a calendar set up by a successor of Tiberius.  This is the way they counted dates in the ANE prior to the calendar you and I know now.  This is the way we count things in the Church even to this day.  Bishop John will have confirmed Robbie last week in the ninth year of his episcopacy—that’s how the certificate will read.  But the emperor was this far off power whose impact on daily life and work was non-existent.  Put differently, if Luke wrote about something happening in the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, how many of us would feel any tie to him?  We live in a democratic republic where we vote for our president, but I think it fair to say that most in the country feel no personal relationship, for good or for evil, with our President or with any President.
     So, in the political realm, Luke moves closer.  When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.  Ah, now we are getting a bit more local.  In our modern language, Luke might well be saying In the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, when Haslam was governor of TN.  The Emperor might be a far off figure, but Pilate was much closer, and people knew his influence, for good or for ill.  Chances are, people blamed him for high taxes, poor municipal projects, bad roads, brigands on the loose, and any number of other problems that beset them.  Pilate would, of course, journey to Jerusalem on important occasions.  Heck, on one such journey, Pilate met our Lord and sentenced Him to death!
     And Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene.  Now we are getting specific.  Herod and Philip ruled as vassals of Rome.  In fact, when Jesus is first presented to Pilate, Pilate sends Him to Herod to let Herod decide the fate of the Jesus of Nazareth, since most of Jesus’ ministries and activities had occurred in the territories ruled by Herod.  When Herod the Great had died, he had left a will dividing his kingdom among his surviving sons.  Without going in to great detail, this was the Game of Thrones in real life.  The problem was, of course, that the Augustus had to ratify Herod’s will or make his own decisions.  Eventually, after the three brothers had journeyed to Rome to make their respective cases before Caesar, the emperor largely upheld Herod’s will.  Herod Antipas managed to rule Galilee for some 42 years, a rather remarkable feat given the winds of change that drove the empire.
     For those who lived in Galilee, Herod was Rome.  He set the specific policies.  He placed whom he favored in whatever position of power.  The governor held greater authority, to be sure, but it was Herod and Philip who controlled the daily application of Roman power and law to the lives in their lands.  It was Herod who determined to rebuild buildings or to build new towns in honor of his patrons in Rome.  It was Herod who decided whether to build defensive walls or not around the cities who claimed they needed them.  Heck, it was Herod who decided to build a city over a graveyard and force people, most poor Jews, to relocate there, that despite the ritual uncleanliness of a site.  It was Herod, of course, who killed the prophet of God, John the Baptist, over an oath, knowing full well that his subjects knew John to be a prophet.  More on that in a moment.
     Phillip was Herod’s brother.  In essence, Herod Archelaus had been given half of his father’s kingdom, the west side, and Herod Antipas and Philip the other (eastern) half.  Phillip ruled the northern half; Herod the southern half.  Between the rulers, of course, all political power was covered.  And, both men had their share in ungodly behavior.  Philip, as it turns out, ended up marrying Salome, his niece, she of dancing before her mother’s lover or uncle and, as a result, securing the death of John the Baptizer.
      Little is known today of Lysanias.  His coins bear the inscription “high priest and tetrarch.”  Josephus claims that Lysanias offered a Parthian satrap 1000 talents and 500 women, if he would place his son Antigonus on the throne of Judea.  Of course, Josephus also claims in a later work it was someone else who made the offer.  What seems clear is that Lysanias ran afoul of Cleopatra, who wanted his territory.  So, near the time of Jesus’ death, Marc Antony put Lysanias to death.
     Putting these three positions in modern political language might be to consider them glorified mayors, with Herod and Philip splitting Nashville while Lysanias ruled Clarkesville.  The end would be that most of us in central TN would be familiar with the political powers that be.
     Luke, of course, is not done.  He goes on to mention the religious rulers.  During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.  Annas had been removed from being high priest by the Roman authorities, but his influence behind the scenes was rather strong.  Five of his sons and at least one son-in-law, Caiaphas, served as high priest.  All faithful Jews knew this family.  Who do you think it was that was responsible for turning the Lord’s house into a market?  A den of evil?  Who do you think it was that adopted policies which elevated their words to the words of the Lord?  Who do you think it was that placed in positions of power those who like to mouth pious words or be seen as religion, rather than lead the people in the worship of God?  It would be like us naming a time of a bishop or pope as reference.
     In the midst of this grand narrative, however, Luke does something remarkable.  As the political powers and winds are shifting around the people, elevating some while killing others.  While politics have invade the Lord’s sanctuary, the Word of the Lord came to John bar Zechariah in the wilderness.  Yes, politics is important.  Yes, religious institution is grand.  But out in the wilderness, as far as one could be from the seats and thrones of power, God was doing something new!  He was raising up a prophet!  For the first time in three centuries, God was speaking again!  And this honor and obligation fell not on Herod or Philip or Lysanias or Caiaphas or Annas, but upon someone on the margins of society.
     John’s ministry, we are told, was very specific.  He went about the Jordan proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  Baptisms were not unique in the worship of the Jews.  Gentiles would be adopted into the family of God, as full descendants of Abraham & Sarah, through a ritual bathing.  It is likely that Ruth, about whom we read a couple weeks ago, underwent such a ritual, such a sacrament.  How else do we explain her determination to follow and serve her mother-in-law Naomi, as part of her service to Yahweh.  Yahweh had become her God.  And her service of Him and loyalty to her mother-in-law, as much as her good looks, captures the eyes and ears and imagination of Boaz.
     Jews would also cleanse themselves after the appropriate sacrifices.  Righteousness was something they felt was conferred and earned by one’s attention to the torah and one’s observance of the sacrifices.  When Paul claims he was righteous under the law, he is not being arrogant.  He is stating a fact that, when he sinned, he made appropriate sacrifices and underwent the ritual cleansings whenever he was made unclean.
     John’s baptism, though, was new.  He was proclaiming a baptism of forgiveness.  If I had cross words with Shane, and we determined to make amends before the next service at Temple, each of us would be required to make some sort of sacrifice.  If we were just a little mean to each other, we each might owe a turtle dove.  If we had been ruthless in a business transaction, we might each owe an oxen.  You get the idea.  In this way, appropriate sacrifices, righteousness, became the purview and opportunity for the wealthy.  They could rob foreign visitors or blind or steal widows’ houses, but as long as they made the sacrifice required, everything was supposedly ok with God.  Think in terms of the mafia and its relationship with the Roman church.  Think in terms of those who claim to be Christian in our midst, at least for ninety minutes a week, but then spout evil or engage in activities that are supportive of evil.  If you were poor, of course, you were screwed.  Absent the appropriate sacrifices, you could never be righteous.
     Heck, this week I received a letter from a US Senator in my former state.  In it, he was proclaiming how proud he was to support efforts to curtail child slavery in the US labor markets and how supportive he was of our efforts to end slavery.  I have not yet heard back his response to my letter (I forgot to mention I had moved, but I will repent of that in a moment), but I wonder why the language was changed.  The original bill introduced in the Senate called for the end of all slavery in our labor markets.  All slavery.  Male.  Female.  Adult.  Child.  All.  Yet this self-described Christian senator seemed to think that the fight against child slavery was somehow morally superior to the enslavement of adults, this coming as a follow-up to his vote against the federal effort to fight slavery in our midst, that despite his promise to a bishop that he was on the side of God in this fight, as if God cared a whit for the political ties that caused him to vote against the federal legislation, as if God was somehow more supportive of adult slavery than He is child slavery.  Can you imagine?  To those whom much is given, much is expected.  Naturally, he wanted me to share with members of my congregation about his wonderful support.
     It is against that backdrop of the human condition that John strolled out of the wilderness preaching the words of Isaiah.  The hills will be made low, the valleys will be filled in, the twists and turns will be straightened, and all flesh will see the salvation of God.  What John preached was novel.  God was going to make forgiveness possible.  God was going to make forgiveness possible to everyone.  The offer was going to be made to the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, the Jews and the Gentiles.  The offer was going to be open to all who would accept it, to all who would grasp at it.  There would be only one stumbling block, that of the Lord providing the way of forgiveness Himself, in the flesh of His Son our Lord!  That was the message of John.  That’s why the people flocked to see him and to hear him.  God had been silent for generations.  Now, while Pilate was governor, while Tiberius was emperor, while Herod and Philip were tetrarchs, God was fulfilling His promises to Abraham & Sarah.  It was an amazing time to be alive.  And God was beginning this effort not in the forum of Rome, not in the palaces of human kings, not even in His own temple.  No, God was beginning this fulfilment with a word planted in a man in the wilderness and through the birth of a child born in a village!
     Brothers and sisters, you and I share in that same ministry of John!  You and I are called to remind ourselves that we are heralds of peace, harbingers of hope, and full of joy.  We are disciples of that salvation.  Each time we gather, each time we come to worship God, we give thanks for the death, resurrection, and coming of our Lord Christ.  It is the very heart of our message.  When we could not atone for our sins, when we could not hope ever to earn forgiveness, our Lord offered it to us through His own ministry, through His own action.  You and I are called to proclaim that light in a dark and dreary world.  And you and I are called to proclaim that light, in word and in action, with everyone with whom we interact.  It does not matter their ethnicity, it does not matter their education, it does not matter their profession, God’s salvation is open to all who would proclaim Him Lord and join us, through that amazing sacrament of baptism, into new life!  He has entrusted you and me with the most amazing invitation, an invitation for which He has paid the cost in its entirety.
     As Luke goes to great pains to remind us, all of this takes place in the “real world.”  Luke places his Gospel narrative and the action of God in its place in history.  Luke reminds us that God acts in this world, through people living in this world, to effect His purposes.  To those hearing the Gospel for the first time, it no doubt sounded crazy to think that the work of John could have amounted to anything significant.  Certainly, his work would have seemed to pale in comparison to emperors, or governors, or tetrarchs, or high priests.  John lacked the funds to reach the rich and powerful; John lacked the education to convince people He was intelligent; John even lacked the religious pedigree to make people think He was anything significant in religion.  But John did received the Word of the Lord and responded faithfully.  As it turns out, that was all he needed.  Those who were seemingly far above his influence feared him and the Word he proclaimed.  Those who discounted his wilderness education could not contend with the wisdom granted by the Lord’s Word.  Even those who were keepers and stewards of God’s holy mysteries found themselves drawn to his preaching and teaching.
     That same word which was active in John’s life is alive in yours and mine.  That same Word which frightened the powerful, baffled the intelligencia, and caused the religious elite to pause and listen is present in us.  He has promised!  And that we might know He is able to keep all promises, He raised His Son our Lord that third morning, raising us along with Him in that life that is to come.  Adventers, this is our patronal season.  This is our time.  Those who founded us named us after this time when baptism of forgiveness goes out.  It is in our spiritual DNA and in our heritage that we celebrate His first coming even as we await His Second coming in power.  Whatever the obstacle, He will overcome.  That is His promise and that is His practice.  It matters not whether an emperor fights us and imprisons us; it matters not whether bosses and co-worker mock us or try to take advantage of us; it does not even matter whether a neighbor responds with indifference.  In the end, every knee will see His salvation and our glorification in His Son!  How will you respond to that call on your life?
     In the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, when Haslam was governor of TN, when Megan was mayor of Nashville and Ron was mayor of Oak Hill, and when Justin was Archbishop of Canterbury and Michael had just taken over for Katherine in the church, God called you and called me to proclaim His salvation, offered through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.