Second Sunday of AdventDecember 6, 2009
Luke sets this gospel firmly in a time and place. He tells us that it’s the 15th year in the reign of the Emperor in Rome. More specifically, he tells us the religious authority was Annas and Caiaphas. Out of this specific time, place, and structure, the word of God came in the wilderness to John. It didn’t come out of nowhere; it always comes out of somewhere and breaks through traditions, systems, and structures to speak something new. The task of preachers since John first cried out is to pick up his voice and express, as explicitly as possible, the hope pregnant in our world, in our time and space—where love is being born. Wherever we hear the cry of John in the wilderness our task is to preach it and remind the world that on our journey toward the kingdom we move from the structure and authority that is visible and concrete to places where the hope of love bursts forth. It is then that we can stand with Mary in this season and scatter the pride in our own hearts. It is then that we can remember our hunger and how we have been fed. It is then that we remember how God has remembered his lowly servants and blessed us beyond our imaginations. Fredrick Buechner says, “If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives…Into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks” (The Sacred Journey). We can be moved by the inexpressible eloquence that rises up out of the mystery of not just our own lives but of life itself.
So, in the 15th year in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests, the word came to John in the wilderness, telling him, “Prepare ye 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.”
In the first year in the reign of Obama, when Bredesen was governor of Tennessee, and Dean was the mayor of Nashville, and John was the Episcopal Bishop, the word of God came to voices crying out in the wilderness. The word of God came in a letter from a woman in the wilderness of prison to this community as she remembered her spiritual roots:
"I will be locked up until November 2010, but, Tara and Gwen, gave me hope when they came here. I am still wondering if I can make. I was molested by my Dad’s father when I was 6 until I was 11. I don’t remember a lot about those years, but there are a few memories. Does the madness end? Can we become someone that we accept and respect ourselves? I have stole, lied, manipulated, conned, hustled, whatever it took, and so it took me. And so here I sit wondering is there life out there for me? I was once a very spiritual person."
Then the word of God came from my child as we were driving home, and he spoke a word of faith as he said, “Mom, if you die, I will still believe in God.” Then the word came from a woman who was leading a vigil hours before the state’s fifth execution in Tennessee as she stood and said, “There are plenty of reasons to grieve in this world, but there are more to reasons to hope. We remain a people of hope. Our hope is not grounded in rose colored optimism that pretends violence and death are not powerful or real. But we gather and light a single candle at midnight and say to the darkness, “I beg to differ!”
Then the word of God came from a naturalist who spoke about an 8-year-old American chestnut tree she found in the park, a descendant of the trees that once graced hills all across America until blight killed four billion of them in the early 20th century. To get there we walked near an old abandoned graveyard, sunken holes in hallowed ground long since forgotten in this city. The chestnut was meek, with branches broken and no signs of leaves in the bleak mid-winter evening. “That’s it,” she said, explaining that this tree was probably the seventh generation to sprout from the roots that died almost 100 years ago. “And even though it is blighted, it is a sign of great hope,” she said as she kissed the bark. That American chestnut with its history, humility, and destiny was the prophet crying out and carrying the voices of prisoners, children, and those railing against principalities. Someday it will be well. People will be free, those we love who die we will see again, and blighted roots will spring up. Someday 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.
The word of God fills the wildernesses in and out of our lives with a word of hope, breaking through long dead stumps buried deep in the earth. No one would have ever heard John crying out if they didn’t venture into the wilderness to listen to the voice. Waiting in Advent is not a passive position. It is the faithful action of paying attention to the stories all around us and extracting the hope that breaks through the barriers of this world. It is not just waiting; it is waiting in hope. In those glimmers of hope we see the advent of love coming our way. It is then that we share the love of the Philippians that overflows more and more with knowledge of what is best. It is then that we join the cantor in singing, “The dawn of the most high shall break upon us and shine on those who dwell in darkness and guide our feet to the way of peace.”