It has been such a busy week, but I have a couple of quieter days ahead before my parents arrive and Christmas comes, so I hope to blog in the next day or two. I certainly have enough to say. But in the meantime, here’s the sermon I preached on Sunday. (And for the record, this preaching every. single. week. is taking some getting used to….)
Baruch 5.1-9; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6
Monday, as some — if not most — of you will know, was the Feast Day of our patron saint, Saint Andrew, and each year, St Andrew’s Memorial Church in Jerusalem celebrates the day with a service and a big party. So Justin and I drove down (or up?) to Jerusalem to attend and to meet some of the people the Church of Scotland works with throughout Israel and Palestine.
On the Tuesday morning, before we headed back, I spent some time looking at the readings for today, especially today’s gospel. And, of course, being where we are, the words resonated strongly. But they were particularly poignant when we were driving down… and around… and down… and around that vertiginous wilderness road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea before turning left to drive along the Jordan Valley. (I’m still new enough to the country — the landscape is still unfamiliar enough — that I tremble with excitement when I think that this is where some of my favourite figures from the scriptures lived and worked and loved and fought.)
That road that goes down, that twists and turns, I hope I never tire of. I’m not sure how I could.
In our gospel reading, Luke takes his readers on a similar descent through the hierarchy of his day, swooping ever lower and lower in terms of historical, social, and political importance: starting at the heights of Emperor Tiberius … and down to the governor of Judea … and around to the ruler of Galilee … and down to the rulers of Ituraea, Trachonitis and Abilene … and then the word of God swoops down and around all of these and the politics and the declarations and the debates until our heads are spinning with dizziness, and comes to John, son of Zechariah … not in a court, not in a palace, not in a synagogue … but in the wilderness, in a place of little consequence for people of power, but a place the word of God seems to be rather fond of.
In their own way each of our readings today locate God’s word in unexpected places and place it in the mouths of unexpected messengers.
Our texts, like so many of the Advent readings, are overshadowed by exile, occupation and imprisonment. Baruch and Isaiah both tell of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE. Luke’s gospel is likely to have been composed in the midst of Roman occupation and persecution. Paul writes to the Philippians from prison.
It is into the depths of these very real human hells that God descends and from these depths, God’s word is brought forth.
From the pen of a prisoner comes a beautiful letter of joyful love. Out of the lamentation of the exile comes forth a cry of hope and consolation. Throughout the Jordan valley echoes the proclamation of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And hearing these readings should raise the question for us: where today is God’s word proclaimed? Where is it we most often listen out for it? Where is it we hope to hear it? What is the word of God saying to us today?
Where is God’s word proclaimed? In the dizzying heights of power and prestige? In religious institutions? In cosy gatherings of intellectuals? Or is God’s word still swooping and diving outside the walls of the city, beyond the turrets and bell-towers, on the street corners, in the slums, in the jails?
Who are the prophets and scribes and evangelists today? Those who shout the loudest? Those with the most political or religious power? Our world’s media? Or those on the margins, those who are a bit odd, who drive us a bit (or a lot) mad, who ask difficult questions? Those who are imprisoned, impoverished, persecuted, oppressed?
What is the word of God today? What is the word of God for today? Would we recognise it if we heard it? How, in the clamour and the shouting and the violence and the busyness and the confusion of our times, do we know where truth lies, what it is?
Advent is a time for us to slow down, to walk gently through the hilly places of our world and our lives. To tread carefully around the rocks of our stubbornness which block our path and trip us up, around the thorny patches of past hurts which scratch us as we make our way, until we reach the cliff faces of those seemingly insurmountable difficulties in our lives which either rise up sharply or drop off suddenly.
Because those are the places where our own wildernesses lie. Wherever and whoever we are, no matter what the hell we find ourselves in. There, if we pause long enough, listen hard enough, is where the word of God will come to us, a voice crying out in the wilderness.
Prepare the way of the Lord!
The hilly terrain of Luke’s gospel may seem to stand in contrast with the passage from Isaiah which he paraphrases: Prepare the way of the Lord… 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.
But when the word of God comes, when the word of God descends into the wilderness of this world with its wars and violence, illnesses and weakness, hunger and injustice, occupation and oppression, power is flattened. Valleys are filled, hills made low, rough ways smoothed, crooked roads made straight.
God descends. In this lies our hope. God speaks outside of power. To those such as Baruch and Isaiah in exile. To those such as Paul and Luke in prison. To those like John in the wilderness. To those like us, here, many years, but not really many miles away from where God’s prophets lived and breathed and loved and fought.
God descends. God is descending. And so we continue our Advent journey down and around and down and around and down and around, until we get to the ultimate depths. The deepest depths of Christmas, when God’s word is made flesh and dwells among us.