On the Road
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Antioch Baptist Church, Godfrey, Georgia
December 6, 1997 (Second Sunday of Advent)
Sometimes I think that the writer of the Gospel of Luke would have made a good script writer for the movies. If you close your eyes and listen to the words, you can almost see as the camera switches angles, as it moves from face to face, as it fades in and out as it zooms from place to place. At the end of chapter two, the camera fades out on a twelve-year-old boy standing in the temple, surrounded by wizened old men with astonished looks on their faces.
When the camera fades back in we are in the Roman throne room. Draped with colorful banners, surrounded by columns of expensive marble, this is clearly a place of power. At one end of the room, sitting on a gilded chair upon a raised platform, wearing the robes of authority, flanked on either side by bowing generals and senators, sits the Roman emperor Tiberius. Everything about the setting and the man tell you that he is in charge. It is quite a startling transition, from the image of the poor carpenter’s son standing in the temple to, the throne room of the most powerful person in the known world, but Luke does it with a purpose.
You see, many of the prophetic stories in the Hebrew Bible begin in just this way, by naming the person who was in power at the time that the story actually happened. Luke is about to introduce us to the words of a prophet, and he warns us of that by introducing the prophet in the same way the Hebrew Bible authors would have, “In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius…”
If that was all that Like meant to do, however, he over did it. You see, he doesn’t stop with the emperor. The camera fades out, and then fades back in on the significantly smaller but still impressive throne room of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. From there, it zooms to the even smaller throne rooms of the four puppet princes who ruled the territories under Pontius Pilate. Finally, Luke’s camera pans to the inner sanctum of the temple, where we see the High Priests of the time, the men who were the voice of God to God’s chosen people.
Luke has not only shown us a time reference for this new prophet, he has gone to the trouble of showing us every person of power, significance, and authority for the whole nation of Israel. These are the ones who controlled the laws, commanded the armies, and spoke for God. And so, when we read in the next few words that “the word of God” came to someone, we expect that someone to be on that list.
Well he isn’t. The word of God does not come to the Emperor, or the governor, or the petty princes, or even the High Priests; it comes to a hairy, smelly, dirty man dressed in animal skins. His name is John the Baptist. He is the son of a poor country preacher, and to say that he would not fit in at the country club would be an understatement. In fact, they probably would not even let him park the cars at the country club for fear that he would get fleas in the seats. Rumor has it that he does eat bugs after all.
Nevertheless, he is the one to whom God spoke, and the one who speaks to us, through Scripture, in our text today. That is the kind of God we serve, not one who speaks through Presidents and Senators. We serve a God who speaks through men and women with dirt under their fingernails and barely enough time to run a comb through their hair. We do not serve the god of the wealthy and the powerful, the god of the people who think that they are in control of their world, and perhaps, the greatest lie of all, the people who think that they are in control of themselves.
The people whom Luke names at the start of this Gospel were in control of everything, everything that is except God. And God chose to skip right past them and work through the callused hands of a scary looking mountain man. My friends, this is where the gospel was given and were it belongs. Not in the sterile corridors of power, among comfortable furnishings and manicured lawns; where soil and sunshine; fear and laughter are just abstract ideas. The gospel that we follow belongs to the people who live where life and death are so real that they can touch them, people who are forgotten, forgotten perhaps because they are scary, and scary perhaps because they look too much like what we would look like without our comfortable clothes and safe surroundings. The gospel was given first to them, and belongs to them, and to us if we are willing to walk with them.
Sometimes its not so clear that it is with them that we are identifying. You may not be aware of it but this building, like almost every Christian church in the Western world, was modeled after a Roman court of law. The seat where I sit at the beginning of worship is the seat where the judge would have sat. You sit where the citizens would have sat, and if I’m not mistaken Betty Jo is sitting right where the accused sat. W.T., I guess that makes you the accuser, I’m not sure that I want to know the charges.
This is a place of authority and a place of comfort. It is a place of safety familiar security. At its best, a courthouse can be all of those things, and for that reason our churches were patterned after the courts of the day. For that same reason, I tell you, it is probably harder to hear the gospel in here than it is anywhere in the world. You see, the gospel does not belong where we are safe, where we are in control. It belongs in the places where we are scared, where we are not in control. In our day, it belongs in the AIDS clinics, the refugee camps, the back alleys of our cities, and sometimes even our own empty living rooms.
If that is true, and everything in Luke’s gospel says that it is, then why don’t the people who are in those places know that this gospel, our gospel, belongs to them? If they don’t, I assure that it is not their fault, it is ours. We have built buildings and built organizations and gathered money, all in the name of serving the ones whom Jesus served: the alone, the wounded, the ignored. Somewhere along the way we forgot about the people themselves.
Anytime the gospel becomes comfortable, or familiar, or safe, or easy, then we have lost it. It did not come to be any of those things. In fact, Luke tells us that the word of God skipped over every chance it had of being comfortable and safe, and instead went to the very outskirts of society, and stayed there. John the Baptist was so far out on the fringes, that some people even thought he was possessed.
And he was possessed, by the Spirit of God, and that made him as much of a misfit then as it would today. Look for that kind of misfit. Look for what scares you, look for what makes you uncomfortable, look for what does not fit in, and there you will find the gospel, the gospel of a God who took on human skin and walked among prostitutes and drunks, not to tell them how bad they were but to tell them how much he loved them.
John the Baptist however, as he readily confesses, is not Jesus. His is the first part of the gospel. He is paving the way, preparing people’s hearts so that they can receive the teaching of the Christ. How does he do that?
The first thing that he does is tell them to repent. Remember that John was a Jewish priest preaching to a mostly Jewish audience. One of the hallmarks of their faith, the faith of the Hebrew Bible, was their keen and honest understanding that to be human was to live a life estranged from God. They understood that human nature draws you away from, and it requires an effort of will to turn toward, the face of God. Recognizing that, they had created an elaborate system of sacrifices and prayers to constantly turn their eyes again and again toward God. In addition, they claimed, rightly, the covenant which God had made with Abraham to bless the nation of Israel.
John says, “It is no longer enough.” If you want to be prepared to receive the coming messenger of God, you must look inside yourself, not as part of the church and its teachings, not as one of the children of Abraham, look just at yourself and repent of your own failings in your relationship with God. If you do that, you will be transformed, and the outward sign of that transformation will be your baptism.
This repentance, of course, is not our salvation. This is not about God, it is about us. But to open ourselves to knowing God, we must first start to look at ourselves. We cannot place our hope in institutions, or other people, our hope is in Christ, who did not come to John’s followers because they were children of Abraham any more than he comes to us because we are Baptist or Catholic, or Methodist or Episcopalian. Christ comes to us when we first look at ourselves, alone, and see the emptiness that is there without the presence of God. Christ comes when we see that it is our weaknesses, doubts, and fears that have kept God from living inside us, and then ask him to be strong where we are weak and to provide assurance where we have doubt.
Perhaps that is why the word of came to a mountain man rather than the Emperor, it is a lot easier to see who you really are in the wilderness than in a throne room. John says that when you take the time to look, in silence, you will want to turn toward God.
John didn’t stop there, however. He said that when you turn to face God your relationships with other people will change as well. Turning toward God means a change in your priorities. In verse ten, the people ask, “What kind of change?” John answers, “It means seeing things with God’s eyes. That spare shirt hanging in your closet, that’s not yours, that’s God’s and God would rather it be on the back of someone who has no shirt at all. That extra food in your pantry, that’s not yours, that’s God’s, and God would rather see it in someone’s stomach than gathering dust on your shelf.”
The tax collectors said, “Well what about us? How will repentance change us?” “You’ll be fair.” said John, which is indeed quite a change since the tax collectors were widely considered to be the most corrupt and the most selfish people living in that time.
The soldiers, equally unpopular among the crowds in a time when authority meant oppression, asked, “What about us, how will we be different?” “You won’t use your power for yourself.” John says, “No more taking advantage of the position in which God has placed you.”
When we look at ourselves, when we see who we are without God and then turn to God, confessing our weaknesses and seeking God’s strength, we change, and our relationships with others change. John is not talking about metaphorical coats and hypothetical food. He says, if you really mean this thing, not only will you show it by letting yourself be buried and then drawn out of this really cold water; the things that used to be important to you won’t matter any more. You will change, and the way you see the people around you will change as well.
John is not talking about salvation here. That too is a transformation, but one that requires Jesus’ action and our acceptance. Something that we are only taught about later in Luke. Salvation is about our relationship with God. John is talking about repentance, and that is about our relationship with ourselves. Repentance is a way of preparing ourselves for God’s action of Salvation. In John’s time, it was a way of preparing to hear the Good News of Jesus. In our own time, it is a way to prepare for the second coming of Christ, because whether it comes tomorrow or a thousand years from tomorrow, as Christians we believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
To prepare, we repent, and John says that repentance is a transformation, one with visible signs. It begins when we see ourselves as who we are. That may mean seeing our own lack of discipline. That may mean facing our own doubts. That may mean coming to understand that the things we enjoy without effort are not the things that bring us closer to God, and the things that fulfill us are not necessarily the things which we desire, but are more often the things that we have to sacrifice to obtain. For each of us it means different things, but John makes it clear that it means one thing for us all: it means change.
Preparing for the coming Christ, preparing to receive Christ, means change. It means acting to indicate that change to the world, through voluntary rituals like baptism, and it means acting upon that change to change the world.
This is not a one time thing. Unlike salvation, which is a gift, repentance is a process. We will repent and we will change, and we will also forget and we will also fail. Repentance is a road that we will travel, sometimes forward and sometimes backward. The good news is that wherever we are on the road, as long as we get on it, Christ will come and meet us there and walk beside us.