Sermon for Sunday 5 December 2021
The beginning of today’s gospel is a joke at the expense of the great and the good. Luke begins with a portentous pile-up of people who are thought, or think themselves, significant enough to date events by their reign or period of office (bishops, by the way, still play this game, writing on our licences, ‘in the fifteenth year of our consecration, and the fourth of our translation…’).
Luke’s over-blown catalogue is problematic in some of its detail. Tiberius’ fifteenth regnal year, for example, has been interpreted in five different ways. Pontius Pilate is a well-introduced referent at this point, for we shall hear of him again and the tetrarchs Herod and Philip are sensible back-ups to secure a rough dating. But no one has satisfactorily explained the presence in this list of ‘Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene’. Lysanias was a real person, but why would anyone in Palestine care about him or use his post in Syria to date an event there (some have speculated that this suggests that Luke was a Syrian, but we just don’t know). Then, more eccentrically, Luke throws in two High Priests: there was only ever one High Priest at a time and the high priesthoods of this pair were separated by a three-year gap. Luke was not, we think, a Jew, but he claims to be a historian: he should have been able to find this stuff out more easily than we can. So this is not a simple dating exercise.
Luke’s punchline, after this long set-up, is that, while all these people deludedly bask in their worldly significance, the word of God has been delivered to a nobody, an apparent nutter, in the empty desert. This would have raised a snigger from a contemporary listener, especially the last bit, where he moves directly from the high priests to Weird John, the recipient of actual divine revelation. Annas and Caiaphas may have been singing High Mass, but the Lord was speaking to a scary tramp who couldn’t even get a licence from the bishop.
Without drawing breath, Luke gives John an alternative and altogether more impressive pedigree, from Isaiah the prophet, a well-regarded source of divine communication. Like all the gospel writers, Luke insists that God’s people, despite the considerable and repeated access to divine communication they’ve enjoyed, always give their attention to the wrong team. They play Old Nick’s games of competitive politics and status while the Monarch of the Universe is speaking into the desert winds.
If you read the gospel of Luke like a proper book, rather than in bite-sized liturgical chunks at Mass, you will notice something else about today’s passage. It was the beginning of chapter three. But it is clearly the original beginning of Luke’s book. Today’s gospel is his historian’s equivalent of Mark’s opening verses. They introduce John the Baptist, but we already know about him in what is now the previous two chapters. In Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, he refers to this moment in chapter 3 as the beginning of the gospel. Chapters 1 & 2 have been added to an expanded second edition, which Luke has dedicated to Theophilus, his patron (who gets another nod at the beginning of Acts). As Jesus is understood to be the Messiah, the birth narratives of both Jesus and John, not known to Mark (or, if known, not thought important) have now become essential to the record, as they would be in the biography of any significant person at this time.
In today’s passage John’s stirring references to Isaiah indicate that the truly significant figure at this moment, and of all time, is to have his way dramatically prepared, with all the natural world colluding. Cue Handel with trumpets and we’re off towards Christmas, forgetting that this prophecy is being pronounced by someone who, appearances suggest, might be sleeping on the street most days. The unlikelihood of the messenger is at the core of this story, which heralds a surprise Messiah.
Luke has already made us wait, as we wade through all those names; now, the continuity announcer tells us to wait a bit longer. John does not say ‘something has happened’, but ‘something is about to happen – prepare for it’; get ready in the queue. Prepare the way for Jesus by waiting well. That, of course, is a gospel for the whole Christian life, which we are to spend preparing to meet the Lord, waiting become, as Fr John Behr was telling us last week, truly human, by passing through death rather than being over-active now. The traditional Advent contemplation of the Four Last Things, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, arose with good reason.
We know that Jesus did not come as many expected, in a dramatic world cataclysm or a regal progress or the political overthrow of the occupying force of Rome. But John the Baptist saw Jesus for who he really was; John was the first to recognise him as the one whose sacrificial love can make crooked paths straight and rough places smooth. We can hear that as quickly as he can say it, but it takes time and patience, with others and with ourselves, to reach the fulness of our humanity in Christ.
Advent reminds us of that need to refuse the quick fix. It is not a season when we pretend that we don’t know Jesus is coming and then feign surprise at Midnight Mass. It is the season when we celebrate a patient ‘yes’, like Mary at the Annunciation, as we stand in line and remind ourselves of how blessed we are to have seen our salvation in Jesus. We can be patient, knowing that he’s already been here with us. We remember the faith of those who longed to see what we see and to know what we know. We cultivate our patience for life’s valleys, mountains, and the crooked paths where sometimes we seem to feel Jesus’ absence more than his presence, where only when we look back can we see he was with us all the time.
And while seeking patiently to prepare the way of the Lord, rather than some portentously titled celebrity, we are called to rigorous self-examination. Such scrutiny should only ever be of ourselves: examining others’ behaviour and finding it wanting is subject to Jesus’ ruling against judgementalism. It is also a displacement activity.
We are called to examine ourselves and to look on others, as God does, with love and mercy.
As Paul writes in Colossians (3.12):
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.