Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 6, 2015

2015.12.06 – “A Word to Us Nobodies” – Luke 1: 68 – 79; Luke 3: 1 – 6

Central United Methodist Church
A Word to Us Nobodies
Luke 1: 68 – 79; Luke 3: 1 – 6
The 5th Sunday of Advent
December 6th, 2015


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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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.               
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;               
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

– Luke 3: 1 – 6, the New Revised Standard Version


Each morning – as time allows – I spend time scanning the news of what’s happening in the world. Nothing remarkable about that, I expect most of us do.

We do this because we want to be informed with regard to what’s happening in the world, as well as because we may be a little bit scared at what’s happening in the world. I do it for those reasons, plus a sense of obligation as a weekly (not weakly) preacher, so that what I’m talking about might be relevant to what’s actually happening, not only in the world but in our lives. As I have often stated, my philosophy of preaching is the one espoused by the 20th century theologian Karl Barth, who said “a preacher ought to preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.”

When we read the news, most days, we may not know whether to laugh or cry. There are almost always political shenanigans going on (especially here in Chicago), which would be endlessly entertaining except for the fact that they wind up impacting people’s lives, sometimes regarding life or death, as we have seen over the last few weeks here in Chicago, with the release of the video of the police shooting of 17 year-old Laquan McDonald. Under pressure, heads have rolled (such as Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy) with calls for more ousters to follow, specifically Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez. Whether or not this happens, the real question is whether anything will at long last lead to change. Will the attitudes and actions of the past, which have led to abuse and cover up, be corrected, and will all the people of Chicago, white and black, north-siders and south-siders, be equally served and protected by those who are sworn to “serve and protect.”

What we say about Chicago we could continue at both the state and federal level, but I’m assuming you would like to be out of here for lunch and I don’t want to try your patience. There are those who see all these spheres of authority and government as political theater, which sometimes it is, if it weren’t for that fact that, as I said before, it impacts real lives and lots of them, including ours. I have never been among those – and there seem to be many now – who believe, as Ronald Reagan once put it, “that government is not the solution, government is the problem.”  Seems to me that if you do away with government – even dysfunctional government – you wind up with something far worse, like what’s happening in Iraq or Syria or even parts of the south side of Chicago. Someone or something worse always shows up to take government’s place.

Which is not to say, that government and authority and the powers that be are the only place we ought to look for change for the better, whether in society or in our lives. Just as we are wrong when we think government has no role to in righting wrongs and doing good, so are we equally wrong when we assume that only government has that power, when in fact, in a democracy – as skewed as it may have become – the real power for change lies with “we the people.”

Which happens to be the message of today’s Gospel: God is doing great things, though not necessarily in the places we expect, in the ways we expect, nor through the people we imagine. The question for us today is, “Can we be one of them?”

After all, it is the 5th out of 7 Sundays of Advent, the season of preparing not only for Christ’s 1st coming on earth, but the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. This is what the Advent scriptures are about: big changes are coming, and here’s what God has in mind – here is God’s dream – for a more just and loving and more perfect world. But where and in what ways is this happening? That’s what today’s Gospel is about.

Did you hear how Luke – historian that he is – sets the context, naming names that generations of readers have tripped over ever since:

“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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . .”

It’s Luke’s equivalent of naming those names we read about in the news every morning, like this:

“In the 7th year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when Bruce Rauner was governor of Illinois and Rahm Emmanuel Mayor of Chicago, and when Blasé Cupich was the Archbishop of Chicago . . . “

But then – after quoting the names of the newsmakers of his day, Luke has the audacity to say: “But don’t look there, look here: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Not to the Emperor Tiberius, not to Pilate or Herod, not even to the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, but to John the Baptist.

We have actually met John before, but we may not remember. It was long before he was the Baptist, when he was just John the baby, in Luke chapter 1. Like many Biblical heroes, John was the long awaited child of Zacharias and Elizabeth. So shocked was Zacharias at the news that he was going to be a father that he was struck speechless. But when he opened his mouth, we should have known that change was coming.

Zacharias sang that great song of praise known in Latin as the Benedictus – our Psalm today – prayed every day by those who pray the Daily Office. It’s no wonder, because the words of Zechariah’s song apply equally whether it is an Emperor that makes us miserable, or a difficult colleague. Whether it is a Roman occupation that oppresses, or a struggle with a powerful addiction. Whether it’s rulers like Herod that threaten to destroy, or a struggle with illness. Whether its unsympathetic priests that underwhelm, or feeling lost at school or work with no friends. Zechariah’s song of praise, the Benedictus, remains so powerful and so popular, because it expresses the intentions of God for all God’s people:

“Out of God’s deepest mercy
A dawn will come from on high,
Light for those shadowed by death,
a guide for our feet on the way to peace.”

This is the message of Luke’s Gospel; the outrageous claim that God regularly chooses people the world sees as insignificant, to do great things. There is Mary the illiterate unwed teenage mom, and there are the no-account shepherds at the bottom of the economic ladder, who serve as the audience for the heavenly choir. In today’s text, God chooses a nobody, John the Baptist, to prepare the way for God’s own Son to come among us. Again and again, says Luke, God chooses people the world could easily ignore, as participants in God’s world-changing, world-saving activity.

Might it still be, that God works in unlikely ways, in unexpected places, through unknown people? Might God still work through unwed teens and out-of-work adults and corporate executives and stay-at-home parents and underpaid caretakers and night-shift workers and police officers and volunteer coaches and burned out preachers, to announce the good news of God’s redemption?

Might we awaken to the possibility that we don’t have to be celebrities or rulers or among the rich and powerful – the kind of people we read about in the news – to be used by God?

Might we realize that God is eager to use our talents and abilities and gifts to change the world, even in small ways, through our relationships, our jobs, our family and civic life to make this world more loving, more just, more peaceful?

As just one example, if you read the papers and watch the news, you know that perhaps the number one problem of late is the extreme violence – especially gun violence – in our society, and our society alone, among the wealthier nations of the world.  There was the terrible shooting in California, which now looks like it was terrorist related, but nevertheless, the couple had legally amassed an arsenal.

Now, everyone is scared of homegrown terrorist attacks, to the degree that tonight President Obama will address the nation. In reality, according to New American, a research organization in Washington, the death toll from jihadist terrorism on American soil since the September 11th attacks – 45 people – is about the same as the 49 killed in terrorist attacks motivated by white supremacists and other right-wing extremist ideologies. Both tolls, however, are tiny compared with the tally of conventional murders – 200,000 – over the same period. And – of course – the common element in all of them: guns. (Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, “California Attack Has U.S. Rethinking Strategy on Homegrown Terror,” New York Times, December 5, 2015.)

Here in Chicago we don’t have to go that far to encounter the problem, in a big way. We know of the gun violence on Chicago’s south and west side, including the killing of children.

Because I am concerned about this problem, Michele and I went to see Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-raq, when it opened at Village Crossing last Friday. It begins with a voice announcing, “This is an emergency,” and then points out that there have been more gun deaths in Chicago than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

But the question is “What to do about it?” Taking his premise from the play Lysistrata, written by the Greek playwright Aristophanes in 411 BC, and transplanting it to the South Side, women conspire to stop the violence through a sex strike on their men. Frankly, Chi-raq is a mix, part tragedy, part comedy, part musical and part sex farce, so please don’t take your children to see it and then say, “Pastor Haley told us to see this?”

But where the movie is really good is when it portrays what an emergency this is, the pain and suffering it causes (Jennifer Hudson portrays the mother of a child gunned down by the violence), and most especially, the peacemaking efforts of mothers and fathers and pastors (John Cusack portrays a thinly disguised Father Michael Pfleger) and churches (such as St. Sabina) and ordinary people, to stop the violence and senseless killing and find a path to peace.

While all this is outrageous, it is an equally outrageous claim Luke makes, that the “Word of the Lord” came to this nobody named John in the wilderness, who would come to be more important than all the newsmakers of his day. Why?

Because the Word that came to John is a Word that fills valleys and levels mountains, a Word that straightens out what is crooked and smoothes that which is rough, in order to build a path through the wildernesses of life, whereby God can come to us, bringing love and justice and mercy. This is the same Word that comes to us nobodies, in our nowhere congregations and communities. Though we too may be only a voice crying in the wilderness, may we – like John – instruments of God’s work on earth.



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