Promise of a new way – Dec 9, 2018
The story of God, and the relationship between God and humanity, is the story of God’s promise. God promised after the flood to never destroy the whole earth again, no matter how humans behaved. God promised to make a nation of Abraham’s descendants. And when that went wrong and they descended to slavery in Egypt, God again promised salvation. After an arduous journey through the wilderness, they settled in the Promised Land. And again communal life did not live up to God’s dream… not even when God gave the people clear and specific commandments by which to live through Moses. And so God promised a kingdom, an everlasting line, to his chosen, King David. When David’s kingdom broke apart and all was overcome and destroyed by Babylonian power, God didn’t give up, but instead God promised restoration.
Today we hear two prophecies, two promises, of restoration from the time of the Babylonian exile. First from Baruch and then from Isaiah as quoted by John the Baptist. Baruch is a book of the deuterocanonical collection known as the apocrypha. The Book is set in Babylon and is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe. To the broken people in the wilderness of Babylon, Baruch reads words of comfort and call: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction… Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God…” Baruch calls the people to “Arise… stand upon the height…” and watch for their salvation, for God, to come again. Whatever happened in the past, whatever trouble and brokenness has been experienced, God has ordered a straight path to be made for God to come to the people once more. We hear it also from the prophet Isaiah, first addressed to the people in the wilderness of Babylon, but today quoted by John the Baptist, to people of a wholly different time and place. Across the ages, John reminds the Jewish people under the oppression and domination of Rome, about God’s promise of ever expanding salvation.
After detailed, parallel accounts of the annunciations and births of John and Jesus, John begins his prophetic ministry in the Judean wilderness. The Gospel writer Luke is careful about detailing the temporal reality into which John preaches: “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…” It is a lot of detail about who holds political power in John and Jesus’ time and place. And Luke doesn’t stop at the political leadership, but goes on to detail the religious leadership as well, noting it’s “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” Such carefully laid out details point to the importance of locating John’s ministry in history. But it’s more than that too. More than the religious and political geography, it provides context and contrast to John’s mission, ministry and message. The rulers who would be expected to have God’s ear and receive God’s word are demoted. Instead, “… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
The story-telling clearly indicates that John’s ministry and John’s message is different than what the people know. The rulers of the world might act like God, they might think they’re like God, but they are not God. The God of Israel has always shown up in the wilderness and rarely been found amongst the powerful of the world. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has always spoken through and to the least and the last. The call and role of the prophet is to speak truth to power, occasionally from within the royal courts, but more often from the margins. Just 2 chapters ago, upon saying “yes” to an intimate partnership with God for the salvation of the world, the young girl Mary sang her joy that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…” (1:52) Her prophetic words are already coming to fulfilment as “… the word of God [comes] to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Roman rule largely followed patterns of so-called leadership that persist in our own world, at all levels. It is rule that tends toward being autocratic, domineering, bullying. It is about the one, strong man, perhaps charismatic but in it only for the few. It is unilateral power over others that is secretive, exclusive, arrogant, intimidating and manipulative. It is a rule of violence born of weakness denied and fear of a deeper, stronger and longer lasting kind of power of an entirely different kind. While perhaps less extreme, at least at times, we continue to witness and experience the same dynamics in our reality. In ways large and small, whether it be amongst nations or between family members, power is too often wielded in ways that divide winners and losers and that sacrifice the lowly so the powerful can stay on their thrones. We will even support oppressive and destructive forces for the sake of maintaining our own comfort.
But when the word of God turned it’s back on Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate, on Herod and his brother Philip, on Lysanias and on the high priests Annas and Caiphas, in favour of John, son of Zachariah, in the wilderness… something new began – a new kind of rule and a new kind of leadership. Instead of unilateral ‘power over,’ a stronger relational ‘power with’ is growing in a womb. Instead of secrecy, scarcity and exclusivity, strength is found in openness, honesty and inclusivity. It is leadership that doesn’t manipulate but inspire, and that foregoes intimidation for partnership. It is rule that doesn’t seek to maintain the world as it is, but is generative in creating a world that could be. It is strength found in weakness lived out through sacrificial love, in the service of peace. God goes to people in the wilderness… people who are already broken and scared and vulnerable… and God offers the grace of a new way, a repaired and upgraded roadway, the way of the Lord. God is breaking in to fulfill long-standing promises of return, of belonging, of salvation. A new time is just around the corner when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
All through history, God’s people have disobeyed God’s commandments. We turn on one another and trust in worldly power instead of following God’s way. Or we simply forget God altogether. And yet every time God finds a way. God makes a new promise and creates a way for salvation. In the moment of his infant son John’s circumcision, Zechariah saw it all in the third prophecy we heard today. Zecharish had a vision of God’s salvation for all flesh and sang out: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us…” God creates possibility where there is a dead end; when suffering and death seem to reign supreme, God works a miracle to bring life. God’s faithfulness to God’s promise of life through grace and mercy means that we are free to serve God without fear. Before his son was even out of diapers, Zechariah was given the grace to know that God remembered his holy covenant and it would be Zechariah’s own son who would “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” The infant John would one day “give light to those who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.”
This season of Advent is a time of darkness when we pray for God’s light to come anew. Advent is a time of expectation when we prepare for God’s promises to again be fulfilled. Advent is a time of wandering in the wilderness and remembering God’s past faithfulness. Advent is a time of waiting for the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Advent is a time of hope that our feet will guided into the way of peace, and that we will have the courage to follow.