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Sunday 30 December 2012

The Making of a Prophet

Texts:  1 Samuel 2. 18-20, 26; Colossians 3. 12-17; Luke 2. 41-52

Today’s lectionary readings encourage us to reflect on the process by which God raises a prophetic voice in the world.  In reading the stories about Jesus early life in Luke, we find that Luke knows very little about the concrete historical circumstances in which the infant Jesus became a boy and then a man.  That is why New Testament historians call this period ‘the hidden years’.  Instead of writing a history of Jesus’ boyhood, we find that Luke presents a deeply theological reflection upon the way in which the bearer of God’s message is made or formed.  With a deft hand, he explores the environment and influences which create a prophet – one who can both hear God’s voice and become a vessel by which that voice becomes audible for a particular place and time in the world.  And we find that Luke is profoundly influenced in this endeavour by the portrait of another great prophet: Samuel, the first prophet of Israel’s nationhood.

Luke’s account of Jesus birth and boyhood is closely modeled on that of Samuel.  Like Samuel, Jesus is conceived by the direct intervention of God.  Like Samuel, Jesus is specifically set aside from the beginning for a life of divine service.  The song of Mary in chapter 2 of Luke, which celebrates the coming of a liberator for God’s people, is closely modeled upon the song of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in chapter 2 of 1 Samuel.   And today’s story of Jesus in the temple also follows many of the leads which Luke found in the story of Samuel.  As with Samuel’s parents, Mary and Joseph visit the temple each year for the Passover festival.  As with Samuel, Jesus seeks out the instruction of those who know God’s law, in the precincts of the temple.  As with Samuel, the young Jesus is described as one who increased in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favour.

What is Luke trying to tell us about Jesus, by entwining his life so tightly with that of Samuel?  Well, to put things very simply, Luke wants us to know that Jesus will be a great prophet in Israel, just like Samuel.  And he wants to show us how great prophets are made.  I’d like now to spend a little time exploring that theme. 

According to Luke, great prophets are both born and made.  On the one hand, it is clear that both Samuel and Jesus are destined before their birth for particular purposes known only to God.  But exalted destinies and plans do not a prophet make.  They must also be trained, placed in environments where they will learn how to fulfill that destiny.  Skills need to be acquired, skills for interpreting both the wide world and human nature. Passions need to be discovered and nurtured.  Ethical and spiritual disciplines need to be practiced and perfected.  But most of all, that native spiritual sensibility, that gene for listening to God, needs to be exercised and honed to a high degree of sensitivity.  A prophet with a destiny but no discipline is no prophet at all.

Luke emphasizes that both Samuel and Jesus were training in the religious lore of Israel.  He places both in the temple at crucial stages in their adolescent development, listening there to the wisdom of the elders and exploring the ways of God with obvious dexterity and depth.  By learning the stories of the faith, they found out who they were, and what their destiny was to be.  By attending to the teaching of their elders, they learned a particular way of seeing the world, a way which cut through the nonsense with which most people fill their lives, seeing instead into the very heart of things, where God dwells.  To my mind, the one thing that distinguishes prophets and mystics from everyone else, even the most devoted of religious practitioners, is their capacity to see and to hear what very few others can see and hear.  Luke tells us that Jesus could pick up an ordinary mustard seed and see there a profound lesson about the designs of God for the small and unassuming.  So it goes with the prophet.  He or she has a native spiritual intelligence, but that gift needs to be nurtured and honed within the discipline of a religious tradition, and within a community of dedicated religious teachers, before it can ever come to fruition.

Now here’s what I reckon all this means for us this morning.  There are people talking these days about the demise of Christianity, the demise of the church, the demise of all things to do with God.  And there is no doubt in my mind that our culture is becoming increasingly secular, increasingly unconscious about the things of God.  But that does not mean that we are all headed for a godless future, where the gains of Christian civilization are lost forever, and our kids are condemned to ever-deepening crises about the meaning of their lives.  For I believe that God always raises up prophets – still small voices in the wilderness, spiritual intelligences who continue to listen for God, and continue to speak the very words of God for a hungry and thirsty generation.  When Samuel came along, we are told that Israel was in disarray, that the nation was like a sheep without a shepherd.  When Jesus came along, the Jewish people were occupied by a foreign power, and were bewildered and confused about matters of spirituality and ethics.  In both cases, God sent a prophet, a person with special passions, to lift the vision of the people towards God once more.

And God continues to send prophets.  In the fourth century, when Christianity was becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire, God sent St Anthony and St Pachomius to call his people back to the simple gospel of poverty, prayer, and dependence on God.  In the fourteenth century, when the church had become rich and powerful, God sent St Francis and St Dominic, to remind us that Christ was a poor traveler who healed and taught the simple lessons of the gospel.  In the twentieth century, God sent Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day to challenge the dominance of economics as a theory which legitimizes the permanent impoverishment of whole classes of people.  And Martin Luther King, and Bishops Romero and Belo, who stood with their suffering people against the might of evil armies of murderers.  And Thomas Merton, who lived and wrote in solitude, to remind a busy world that noise and rush and accumulation are killing us all.

And so here we are on the brink of a new century and a new millennium.  Even now, somewhere in the world, God is choosing, and training, and nurturing prophets, people who will remind us of the most significant fact of our world, a fact most of us so easily forget.  The fact of God.  And the prophet might be from your small town.  It might even be you.

This sermon was delivered at the Longford Uniting Church, Tasmania, on the first Sunday after Christmas in 1999.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Christmas: creating a body of resistance

Texts:  Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14

The stories and readings of Christmas will have little power or consequence unless we understand that the events they describe take place within a particular kind of political reality – worlds dominated by an imperial super-power, a military emperor who can make ordinary people do and say whatever he wants them to do or say.  When Isaiah was preaching in Jerusalem at the end of the 8th century BCE, that power was the king of Assyria, whose empire stretched from India to Egypt.  The darkness of his harsh and oppressive rule extended even into the daily lives of the people of Israel, whose labour and produce was heavily taxed to enrich the emperor and support his expansionist policies.  In this environment, the power of the local Jewish King was so insignificant that there was really little option for him except to become a local supporter of the Emperor’s will.  To defy the Emperor would have left Judah open to attack by one of its small neighbours, some other petty king with powerful ambitions.  In this environment, “security” and “safety” was guaranteed only by sucking up to the biggest power on earth, the Emperor of Assyria.  Yet the situation of the ordinary people could hardly have been described as “safe” or “secure”.  The Jewish people suffered terribly because there was little practical sense in which they could claim to be free.  They belonged to the Emperor of Assyria.  The economic and social privileges granted them under the covenant with Yahweh their God were severely curtailed, because the Emperor now claimed to own their bodies, their houses, and all they produced.  There was precious little of their lives or their livelihoods that the Emperor could not claim as his own.  In the words of Isaiah, they were a people who walked in a very great darkness.  They were an oppressed people ruled by the soldiers of a foreign power.

The situation was not all that different when Jesus was born over 700 years later.  The global power had changed, certainly.  It was now the Romans who ruled the roost.  Yet the lives of the Jewish people were much the same.  Their political leaders, whether kings or councils, spent most of their time sucking up to the Romans and doing their bidding.  That was the way to survive.  What that meant for the ordinary folk, the folk who actually produced the food and built the roads and the houses and whatever else, was misery.  For again, whoever they were or whatever they produced ultimately belonged not to themselves, but to the Emperor of Rome.  So that while most people could feed themselves, if they worked hard, and while some people could even become quite wealthy if they worked very hard to supply the Romans with what they wanted most, everyone (whether rich or poor) belonged not to themselves or even to God, but to the Emperor.  If the Emperor demanded something of you, through the agency of a governor or even a local solider, you had no right to resist.  If you valued your life, or the lives of your loved ones, you did as you were told.  That is what Luke is trying to tell us with his tale about an Imperial command that the whole world should be registered.  He is telling us that in the world in which Jesus was born, you did as the Great Power told you.  To resist was to die.

Lest we think all of this is ancient history, and that we have somehow transcended such oppression, let me invoke the name of General Augusto Pinochet - until the late 1990s the President of Chile.  Chile is a very small country in the grand scheme of things.  But Pinochet did in his time what the great power in our modern world - the United States - wanted him to do.  He promoted the policies of contemporary neo-liberalism.  He forced his people to give away any privileges they might enjoy under international human rights or labour agreements in order to turn the country into a quarry to fuel the engine of Western consumerism.  He killed and tortured anyone who resisted his policies, and he did so with secret police trained by the American intelligence services – principally the CIA.   And all the time he pretended to be a good Catholic.  When he was finally excommunicated from the church by the bishops of Chile, he threw some of them into prison, where they joined many other Christians, lay and ordained, who had dared to challenge the power of the state.  In the end, Pinochet fell from power because Christians finally found their voices once more, and started to articulate a different vision for Chile.  Against the story told by Pinochet - in which every person was required to sacrifice themselves, their families, and their livelihoods for the economic glory and prosperity of the nation - the church posited a counter-story in which the bodies of the people belonged to a God of love who would never force them to do anything against their will, who nevertheless called them to a different kind of prosperity, the prosperity and security that comes when people love one another, and share whatever they have so that the rich may never be too rich and the poor may never be too poor.

So what the promised coming of a Messiah meant for Isaiah’s Judah and Joseph and Mary’s Jerusalem is exactly the same as it means for us in our contemporary world.  It means that God does not surrender the bodies of his people to the oppression and slavery of whatever global power is wanting to have its way with us.  It means that just as God took our human flesh to himself in Jesus so that our bodies were no longer simply ours but God’s as well, God continues to take a body to Godself in the church, a social body which God makes for Godself in the conversions wrought through baptism and Eucharist.  It means that God stands with us and for us against the powers of this world, not in Spirit alone, but also in the body and in bodily practices that make for peace, justice and the integrity of creation.   For in Jesus the yoke of the oppressor’s power is broken.  In Jesus we see a body broken up, tortured, and finally killed by the power of an evil state. Yet.  When the powers appear to have his body absolutely within their control - enclosed within the silent tomb of death - at precisely that moment, Jesus breaks free in the power of the resurrection to show that not even coercion and death is finally strong enough to defeat the power of love.  For the truth revealed in the resurrection of Jesus is this: that the power of our political overlords is ever only the power we grant them through our fear and our failure to believe that we can be what God has called us to be.  If a child born amongst the poorest can one day threaten the power of Empire – not because he is smart or strong, but because he believes absolutely in liberating word of God that stirs within him – then the church, too, can become a community of resistance that threatens the power of Obama, Putin and Abbot to enslave us all in the neo-liberal lies of our time.

I pray that we, who take the name of Christ to ourselves tonight, may give our bodies not to the state, out of some kind of fear that we shall miss out on the ‘relaxed and comfortable’ life it promises, but to God and to God’s mission of love, that the world may find its liberation through the revolutionary giving of Jesus.  For in the end, it is only the gift of God, ever given again by his people, that shall save our world from its lies and self-deceptions.  It is precisely that radical sharing and giving, that politics of love, which we remember and perform in the Eucharist, which we shall now prepare to eat together.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to all God has favoured with his care.

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's, Mt Waverley, on Christmas Eve 2006. Another version was subsequently published in Cross Purposes: a forum for theological dialogue 26 (2011):8-10.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Rejoice! Advent Hope and Humour

Texts:  Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

Like most all of the lections we read during Advent, the Scriptures for today describe two kinds of reality.  First they describe the world as it is now, a world dominated by the rich, the unscrupulous and the powerful at the expense of the poor, the principled and the vulnerable.  Then they imagine or look forward to a day in which the tables are turned, a day when the poor, the vulnerable and the faithful will rejoice in God’s salvation, while their enemies are done away with forever.  In the Luke reading, for example, John the Baptist announces God’s supreme displeasure at the behaviour of the Jewish elites who governed Judea in the first half of the 1st century.  These royal and priestly classes had chosen to collaborate with the invading Romans in order to preserve their status and wealth, even though this meant turning a blind eye to the way in which the invaders exploited and robbed the ordinary folk of their very livelihoods.  John castigates them for their poisonous hypocrisy.  Like the prophet Zephaniah before him, John warns that a “day of the Lord” is at hand, a cataclysmic day in which all their faithless and self-serving ways would be exposed, while the faithful ones, those who suffer because of the sins of these elites, would be vindicated forever.  I quote:
I baptise you with water; but one is coming after me . . .  who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Get the gist?  The day of the Lord is like a deluge of fire.  The faithful ones are like wheat, preserved from the fire and taken to God’s own heart.  But the deceitful ones, who only want to protect themselves, are like the worthless chaff that is thrown into the fire and burned.  The outcome of that purgatorial cleansing is beautifully described in the song of praise we heard from the final part of the book of Zephaniah.  There the prophet imagines a world in which the remnant of God’s people, the lame and outcast ones who survive the punishment of their oppressors, are gathered to God in such a way that their experience of misery and shame is transformed utterly.  The song imagines a future where the people of God will praise God for ever, rejoicing in his love and mercy for all time to come. 

It’s a wonderful vision.  So wonderful that I sometimes feel that it is all too good to be true!  Of course, I have no difficultly with the part of the story that describes the evil and self-serving corruption of the elites.  Who could deny it?  At this time of year our political leaders come out with platitudes about peace on earth and the importance of defending human rights and democratic freedoms. At the same time, in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, soldiers and intelligence officers from the West are bribing, torturing, and killing local people in order to preserve and promote our economic interests – 100s of billions of dollars worth of economic interests.  Both at home and abroad, political prisoners are being denied their rights to legal representation and a fair trial, while the folk who flee these conflicts and come to our shores are being detained for up to four years while their cases are being examined.  Meanwhile, few governments in the history of post-colonial Australia has done more to erode the rights and hopes of Aboriginal people than the current government, with its suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory and other places.  Hypocrisy like this, naked hypocrisy, makes me feel sick to the stomach.  I feel angry, I feel powerless, and eventually I succumb to what some are calling “hope-fatigue.”  Bono said it all in his memorable song from 2001: 

Jesus won’t you take the time
to throw this drowning man a line
   “Peace on earth.”
I hear it every Christmastime
but hope and history just won’t rhyme,
so what’s it worth,
   this “peace on earth”?

The fact that Advent coincides with Australia’s summer festival doesn’t help the situation, for me.  As a child summer was the time when all our family friends went to the beach for a holiday.  In summer, we knew that we were poor and that neither our church nor our community really gave two hoots.  I still feel that.  It still hurts.  The feeling is compounded by all the rampant consumption that dominates our cultural landscape at this time of year.  Because of what I experienced as a child, I find it difficult to see anything in all of this consumption apart from a complete indifference to the suffering of other people.  In sub-Saharan Africa there are kids starving because they don’t have enough to eat.  In Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Columbia, kids are being sold into sex-slavery so that the rest of their families will be able to stay alive.  Even here in Australia, there are thousands and thousands of families who find it difficult to put a roof over their heads or pay the grocery bill.  Yet, each summer, middle-class Australians escape to their second or third homes at the beach and indulge in an exchange of goods which is surplus, entirely surplus, to anything they might possibility need.  Again, I feel sick to the stomach.  I feel overwhelmed at the enormity of the injustice.  In the middle of all of this nausea I simply find it difficult to believe that a day of salvation is at hand.  Very difficult.

Now, part of my anxiety about all of this is clearly emotional and psychological.  It is tied up with my experience of the world, and the narratives I create to account for that experience.  But part of the anxiety is also theological, and has more to do with a puzzle which the bible itself sets up, and puts into play.  Let me try and spell it out for you.  Here, this world:  evil, corrupt, rich getting richer, poor getting more miserable.  There, world to come:  peace, joy, no more bad guys, vindication for all who suffered at their hands.   Very great distance from here to there.  How is the distance crossed?  How do we get from here to there?  On this particular point, the “how” bit, the bible doesn’t seem to be very clear, almost as though it doesn’t actually know how.  On my worst and most cynical days, this does not inspire confidence!

Of course, the theologians have tried to fill in the gaps in the biblical witness.  Theologians like to do that.  The evangelicals say that Jesus will return with a whole army of heaven and whip the nasty people’s arses.  Then he’ll wave his kingly sceptre and the world will return to an Eden-like state in which we’ll all love each other the way that God loves us.  But this theory raises more questions than it solves.  Amongst other things, one must ask why Jesus would behave so very differently on his second visit than he did on his first.  The first time around he didn’t force anyone to do anything.  He invited, he loved, he cajoled and argued forcefully, he exampled a different way to be.  But he didn’t compel anyone to do anything.  That would have been to override the freedom we have as human being, a freedom apparently so prized by God that he allows us to use that freedom to do evil.  Wouldn’t a powerful army of arse-kickers kind’ve undermine that whole God-is-love image, God as the supreme protector of our right to choose?

“Damn right,” say the liberal theologians, “let’s attend more closely to the story as it’s actually told.”  That God became a child, one of us.  He was born in our midst, full of grace and truth.  He went about the place healing, driving out our demons, and teaching us how to love one another.  But then the rich elites got hold of him.  They tortured him and nailed him to a cross.  Sure, there was a resurrection, but it’s all rather mysterious.  Now you see him, now you don’t.  He lives on in the world as a kind of memory or spirit of the good.  Perhaps this suggests that God is like our deepest and best self?  God changes the world only when we decide to change the world.  God prompts and pricks our conscience, but refuses to do anything other than what we choose to do for ourselves: giving our second coat to someone who needs it, to pick a relevant Scriptural example.  But again, I’m really not sure that this theory solves anything much.  It makes a mockery, for instance, of all those bible passages which insist that it is not we, ourselves, who make the world’s salvation, but God alone.  By grace, the action of God, are we saved through faith, and this is the gift of God, not of human works, lest anyone should boast (Eph 2.8,9).  If the liberal theory were correct, then I would personally consider the whole hope-of-salvation thing to be no more than a cruel joke visited upon us by a God who raises our hopes and expectations, but never intends to meet them with anything real.

Well.  What’s to be done with all of this?  What am I to do with the anxiety of my lived experience?  What am I to do with the theological conundrum?  When in doubt, I have often considered it wise to take a break from all the anxiety and tell a story.  A story takes you out of yourself, and here’s a good one I came across a few years ago.

The time has come for St. Peter's annual three-week vacation, and Jesus volunteers to fill in for him at the Pearly Gates. "It's no big deal," Peter explains.  "Sit at the registration desk, and ask each person a little about his or her life.  Then send them on to housekeeping to pick up their wings."

On the third day, Jesus looks up to see a bewildered old man standing in front of him. 

"I'm a simple carpenter," says the man.   "And once I had a son.  He was born in a very special way, and was unlike anyone else in this world.  He went through a great transformation even though he had holes in his hands and feet.  He was taken from me a long time ago, but his spirit lives on forever.  All over the world people tell his story."

By this time, Jesus is standing with his arms outstretched.  There are tears in his eyes, and he embraces the old man.

"Father," he cries out, "It's been so long!"

The old man squints, stares for a moment, and says, "Pinocchio?"

This story is not an ordinary story.  It is a joke.  A joke distinguishes itself from a story as such by introducing an unexpected element into what would otherwise be all very familiar.  In this story, we expected that the old man would squint and say “Jesus?”  We were set up for that by everything that went before—the religious setting, the details about the old man’s son.  But the story transcended its own boundaries and became a joke by taking us by surprise, by shocking us with the arrival of something entirely unforeseen.  Parables are like that as well.  They subvert the rules of the game.  And the greatest parable of all is Jesus.

You see, John’s hearers expected that their messiah would come along to whip the Romans with superior military strength.  They were wrong.  And our own expectations, all these years later, are probably just as misguided.  Whether we are evangelicals who expect that Christ will change things one day by the might of his superior power, or whether we are liberals who expect that Christ is so much one of us that he is only able to help those who help themselves, we are probably all mistaken.  For the story of Christ is still in motion, and we are not privy to the punch-line.  In another part of Luke’s gospel, we are told only that we cannot know what is to happen, or how.  For the punch-line is God’s.  As Jesus shocked the Greeks with his human weakness, and scandalised the Jews by his failure and cross, so this fool from God will appear a second time.  And while we moderns may pretend to have followed the story so far, the joke, the punch-line, will surely leave us all so gob-smacked that the only response available to us will be to be astonished, to laugh, to rejoice. 

For that is what we humans do when we are genuinely surprised.  We absorb the shock, we adjust our imagination, and then we laugh!  Like Sarai at the announcement of her old-age pregnancy with Isaac.  Like the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came near with the Christ-child.  That is why Paul counsels the Philippians to cease their worrying and rejoice.  Stop trying to master it all with your brain, stop trying to second-guess God, he says.  Instead, surrender your concerns into God’s hands.  Relax into that surprising peace which surpasses all understanding.  The peace that is absurd.  The strange peace that we have cannot have manufactured for ourselves, because it defies every effort at human reasoning.

On my better days I see that Advent hope is a choice.  It’s about believing in the possibility of surprise.  It’s about believing that our tragic and repetitive history has an unforeseen and unpredictable punch-line which will fly in the face of everything that either the evidence or our secular reason might cause us to expect.  And that’s the hope I encourage from you as well.  The hope of a Mary of Nazareth who, in that ancient time of Advent waiting, become a bearer of the impossible to a tired and un-surprisable world.  Rejoice, people of God!  For while the night may be filled with tears, joy shall indeed come with the morning.  How, I have no idea.  But I believe it shall come.

Monday 10 December 2012


Texts:  Malachi 3. 1-4; Philippians 1. 3-11; Luke 3. 1-6

In this second week of Advent, we turn our gaze to the career of John the Baptist, one of the more intriguing figures in the gospel, one whom Luke describes as the forerunner of Christ, the one who announces his coming.  But who, exactly, was John the Baptist?  Where did he come from, and why did he end up preaching in the desert region east of Jerusalem?  You would be aware that I grew up a Baptist.  My family attended a Baptist church.  And so when I first started hearing the stories of John the Baptist, I assumed he was named that way because he was the first Baptist Christian, the one who started our denomination.  Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized my mistake.  I soon learned that John was called ‘the Baptist’ because he baptised his converts in the Jordan river, washing away their sins in a dramatic sign of repentance.  I also discovered that John was a very fiery preacher, one who didn’t mince his words in calling people to abandon their lax attitudes to religion.  John believed that the kingdom of God was coming very soon, and that people ought to repent of their wrongdoing in order to be ready for that day. 

When I was growing up, John the Baptist came to represent for me something like the ideal revivalist preacher, a person who was ultimately concerned with the state of each individual soul, and wanted to save that soul from the fires of hell.  Of course, the way we read the Scriptures is invariably influenced by the kind of church we are part of, and the kind of spirituality which is valued there.  My church was essentially revivalist.  It had inherited its theology and its spirituality, its way of believing and practicing the faith, from the frontier evangelists of 18th century America.  These were preachers who believed that Christianity was about saving souls from hell, and that the way to save souls from hell was to get them to repent of their drinking, swearing and fornicating and believe in Jesus, who would forgive them of all their sins and set them on the path to clean living and churchgoing.  It was only very much later, at university, that I began to see that John the Baptist was probably not THAT kind of revivalist preacher, that John’s understanding of salvation and saving souls was perhaps a little more nuanced.

To show you what I mean, I’d like to return to our text in Luke’s gospel, chapter 3.  There you find that Luke is very careful to give us a context for the appearing of the Baptist in the desert.  And it is important to note both what he tells us and what he does not tell us.  He tells us nothing about the private lives of those coming to hear his preaching.  We hear nothing about the private sins that would have been high on the agenda of 18th century revivalist preachers:  booze, fornication and bad language. What Luke does tell us about, however, is politics and social ethics.  He tells us about who is in power at the time, and who their political allies happen to be.  Because, for Luke, the Baptist is a preacher whose primary concern is not the private sins of individuals but the public sins of a people and a nation.  This means that the Baptist is much more like Martin Luther King Jr. than Billy Graham, if you get my drift.  He gets himself mixed up with politics.

You see, at the time when the Baptist appeared things were not at all well in Israel.  Judea and Galilee were small vassal states within the great empire of Rome.  Tiberias was the emperor, and each province of his empire was overseen by a local governor or procurator.  The procurator of Judea was Pontius Pilate, and he was garrisoned at the aptly named Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast.  Pilate was a cruel man who routinely and summarily put people to death.  He was not noted for looking too deeply into the facts of a case, preferring to make an example of pretty much any Jew who seemed to him to represent a rebellious spirit.  And the procurator’s power was absolute within his territory.  He could order a massacre, and none of the locals could do anything about it, least of all the Jewish kings or high priests, all of whom were only tolerated by Rome’s good grace.  The kings of trans-Jordan and Galilee, the Herods, had absolutely no power apart from Rome.  Though Jewish, and descended from the aristocratic leaders of the past, the Herods were puppets for Rome, collaborators in the repression of the Jewish population at large.  Even the high priests at the temple in Jerusalem, traditionally the key advisors to kings and wielders of political power in their own right, were largely compromised in this highly charged setting.  In order to preserve the legitimacy of their temple worship, the priests were also forced to play Rome’s game, to participate in repressing any person or movement which sought to question Rome’s authority in any way.

So when the Baptist appears in the desert to preach, we find that his preaching has a resolutely political edge. ‘In the wilderness’, we are told, ‘the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah, and he went into the whole region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.  And what kinds of sins did John have in his sights?  We find out as we read further in our text.  John is interested not in fornication or drinking, but in questions of social justice.  Under the economic conditions encouraged by Rome, some were growing rich but most were extremely poor.  The rich ones were usually collaborating with Rome in some way.  And so John commands those who have more to share what they have with those who have little, even down to clothes and food.  He commands the tax collectors to take no more than Rome asks them too, to stop ripping people off to line their own pockets.  So too with the soldiers who served in Roman garrisons.  ‘Stop using your power to extort money from people’ he tells them, ‘or you will be in big trouble when the kingdom of God arrives’.

The ‘kingdom of God’ featured very highly in John’s preaching, and Luke sees John as the forerunner, the messenger who announces that the kingdom of God will arrive very soon.  He quotes Isaiah chapter 40 to make his point:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain shall be levelled.
The crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

When that sermon was first preached in Babylon, during the exile of the Jews in the 6th century BCE, the prophet imagined a great highway being built from Babylon to Jerusalem, with the Lord returning to his holy city in a fiery chariot to save his people.  But in the hands of Luke, the sermon takes on a more specific meaning.  For Luke, the kingdom of God preached by John is going to level out the scandalous inequalities in Jewish society.  The tall mountains, those who have grown rich on oppression and collaboration, will be knocked down.  And those who dwell in the valleys of death’s shadow will be raised to the sunlight once more.  For Luke, and apparently for John himself, the coming kingdom of God is a kingdom of which will bring both despair and salvation.  Despair for the rulers and collaborators, but salvation for all who are victims and trust in the Lord.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because I believe that the kingdom of God began to arrive in the person of Jesus Christ, whom John announced.  In him we see the compassion of God for the poor and the victims.  In him we see God’s judgement on the rich and the oppressors.  In Christ we see a God who sides with the victims against the overwhelming power of their enemies, and promises that their reign of terror will come to an end.  Can you see how relevant that message is for our own world, a world which is ravaged by greed, and the misuse of power?  Ours is a world in which people are tortured and killed for questioning their governments or senior business operators, a world in which the poor become even more poor day by day, because they must service their interest repayments before they can build their schools and hospitals.  If this Advent season means anything at all, it means that there is hope for these people. There is HOPE.   Because Christ has come in the flesh, because Christ became a victim himself, and because Christ rose from death to overcome the worst that people could do to him, there IS hope for all who struggle under the yoke of our inhumanity towards one another.

This gives us, perhaps, quite another spin on Christmas from the one many of us were raised on.  The Christmas of the revivalist preachers was about the salvation of the individual from their individual vices.  But I’m here to point out that God’s plans are much bigger than that.  They include the salvation of all who suffer for political and social reasons as well.  And I’m proud to be part of a church which continues to preach in that tradition, the tradition of political preaching which found its patron saint in John the Baptist.

This sermon was preached on the second Sunday of Advent in 2000 at Devonport Uniting Church.