2 Advent – December 5, 2021
So, in our gospel this morning we start out with a litany. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and on and on. We get a listing of 7 very powerful people — an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests. Together they represent rulers of the known world, the regional lands, and the religious, political, and economic complex that stands at the heart of Jerusalem. Collectively they hold all the authority and might that wealth, military prowess, or ancestry can command.
There does seem to be a reason for naming all of these powerful people—it’s to make the point that the word of God does not come to any of those influential men of power, nor to the political territories over which they have command. It comes instead to a lone man out in the wilderness: John, son of Zechariah.
Which means that the story of the incarnation begins in obscurity, in the wilderness. The wilderness, in biblical writings, often represents vulnerability and uncertainty. And it is precisely in that wilderness place of vulnerability and uncertainty that God appears. Just as God guided the Israelites by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, God provides what is needed in the wilderness, like the daily manna or a feast for multitudes. The wilderness is where (and how) God’s people learn to depend on God.
Perhaps the first lesson about the wilderness today is a lesson about power. Let’s look again at how our Gospel this week highlights a startling juxtaposition between those who experience God’s speaking presence and those who don’t. In Luke’s account, emperors, governors, rulers, and high priests — the folks who wield power — don’t hear God, but the outsider from the wilderness does.
What is it about power that keeps these 7 very important people from hearing God? Well, they already have pomp, money, military might, and the weight of religious tradition at their disposal. They don’t seem to need God.
But in the wilderness? In the wilderness, there’s no safety net. No Plan B. No fallback option. In the wilderness, life is raw and risky, and our illusions of self-sufficiency fall apart fast. To find ourselves at the outskirts of power is to confess our vulnerability. In the wilderness, we have no choice but to wait and watch as if our lives depend on God showing up. Because they really do. And it’s into an environment like this— an environment so far removed from power as to make power laughable — that God chooses to come.
Debi Thomas shares: “Unless we’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see our own privilege, and even harder to imagine giving it up. No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain flattened. But when we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction, we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure. Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet. We experience what it’s like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths. We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape. A landscape where the valleys of death are filled, and the mountains of oppression are flattened. A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables “all flesh” to see the salvation of God.”
There is a fable called, The King’s Highway. It has to do with an elderly king who had no heir. So, one night he sent his servants out to place a pile of rubble on the road leading to his castle. The next day he sent word that he was in search for a successor to the throne, and that whoever best traveled his road would be the next king.
Wannabe kings came from far and near. When they got to the pile of rubble, they grumbled and complained, but somehow they managed to get around it. All the while, the king watched from the castle.
Now, it just so happened that there was a young shepherd boy named Michael who also aspired to be king. His friends just scoffed when he told them. “The king will never pick you,” they said, “Why, you’re nothing but a peasant.” But Michael would not be discouraged and so, he headed out to see the king. But when he got to the pile of rubble, he stopped to clear the stones out of the way. To his surprise, when he got to the bottom of the pile, there was a beautiful gold ring with the king’s royal crest. Michael stuck it in his pocket and rushed to the castle.
“I’m sorry it is so late,” Michael whispered as he knelt before the king. Then he reached in his pocket and pulled out the ring for the king to see. “I found this on the road,” he said, “I’m sure it must belong to you.”
The king examined the ring carefully. “This ring is not mine,” he announced. “But it must be yours,” Michael said, “It bears your crest.”
“Indeed, it does,” said the king, “but it is not mine. It belongs to the one who will be seated on my throne.” Then giving the ring back to Michael, he said, “It now belongs to you. I proclaimed that he who best traveled the highway would become the new king. By clearing the road so that all may travel safely, you showed that it is not fine clothing, fancy horses, or even great wealth that make a king. True greatness comes through serving others.”
The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. May it come to us, too. Like John, may we become hope-filled voices in desolate places, preparing the way of the Lord. Amen.