Listen to how Luke tells the story that changed the world. He begins his gospel by setting it in time. How do you know where you are on the great time-line of history? You know, of course, by noticing who is in power. Luke begins the gospel story:
In the days of King Herod of Judea, (Luke 1:5)
What happened in the days of King Herod? What significant event begins the story? A battle that ends in a glorious victory? A temple is finished and dedicated to God? No; rather, “In the days of King Herod of Judea” an elderly priest and his aged wife, Zechariah and Elizabeth have a baby; a son, and name him John.
The bible seems to delight in telling stories this way; they start off on one path, with a reference to somethings big and powerful or significant, and just when you think you are grasping the significance of the setting, suddenly something unexpected happens. And, often as not, the unexpected thing that happens starts out looking like a very small thing compared to what is happening all around it.
Do you remember the vision of the Lord that the prophet Isaiah had in the temple? The story begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died,” – which sounds like a politically significant event – like “in the year that Kennedy was assassinated” – you expect something of great political significance to follow. What great change happened to the nation in the year that her king died? Isaiah tells us, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.”
Luke does the same thing again in our text today, piling on the political references, one on top of the other, starting with the Emperor in Rome, the capital of the whole civilized world, continuing with regional governors, local rulers, and including religious authorities:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,”
What great event of power and significance happened in this time? A guy is speaking, out in the desert. Again, it’s John.
Maybe that is what it looked like to Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate – if they had even noticed John out there in the desert – which I’m sure they did not – just a guy out there in no-man’s land speaking to the wind.
How do you live?
That’s not the story Luke tells; on that day, in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea” etc., what happened was that the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Now, this is something new. The word of God came – out in the middle of nowhere, to a man who had no power at all. This is how the story starts.
What do you do if you are alive and living “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea”? You go to work, you eat supper, you try to keep your head down and stay out of trouble with the powers-that-be; you live an ordinary life in difficult times.
But what do you do if you are alive and living at the moment when all of the sudden, “the word of God” comes? And what if the word of God comes to someone who bears striking resemblance to a prophet, like Isaiah of old? Maybe you sit up and take note. And what if the word of God comes to him out in the wilderness, by the Jordan, the very spot where long ago your people stopped wandering around for 40 years and crossed over into the promised land for the first time, and your life as a nation finally began? You listen intently!
What happens when the “word of God” comes? It stops mattering who is emperor, who is governor and what year it is. Suddenly the only thing that matters is what that “word of God” says.
The Main Thing
Someone once said, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” I guess that means that there is only one question: what is “ the main thing”? This is the season of Advent, and we are people of faith; we are Christians. For us there really is one “main thing” in comparison with which everything else is secondary. The main thing for us is that the word of God has indeed come.
In this season we build towards the celebration of Christmas, the birth of our Savior, when “the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.” We prepare our homes, we prepare our church, we have concerts and candles and special readings to prepare our hearts too, because for us, this is “the main thing.”
Preparation is what the “word of God” that came to John was all about. Preparation is going to have to include making changes to the way things are. In other words, all is not as it should be “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea”. There are some things that are out of place and need to be rearranged. The way needs to be prepared.
There are valleys that need to be filled in – perhaps they were formed by erosion; something has been worn down and eaten away over time. Well, now is the time to stop the erosion and start doing some back-filling.
There are some mountains that need to be leveled; there are some mole-hills that have gotten all out of proportion and need to be taken back down. There are things that have gotten all out of perspective; some things have been lifted up and held up and made to look supremely important which deserve no such valuing.
And there are some things that, frankly, have gotten twisted, corrupted, and crooked that need to be realigned; straightened. There are places that need to be sanded down smooth again because they have become rough and unbearable.
This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet said, and how John understood preparation when the “word of God came.”
5Every 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;
Now is the time to look at our lives, in these days of preparation, and to listen in a new way to the “word of God” which has come to us. Preparation, for John, meant a time of reflecting on the things that were out of place, and making a change – or in biblical terms, “repentance”.
Where are the valleys in your life? Where are there things missing that should have been there – that perhaps have been worn away by neglect, or by distraction? Consider the classical spiritual disciplines and ask yourself: where has erosion occurred in my life in the area of prayer, worship, study, service, giving? What valleys is God calling you to fill in during this time of preparation? What changes, or “repentance” may be necessary to make the “main thing” the main thing?
What are the mountain tops in your life: the things that are most important, most highly valued? For some of us, the fact that we consider “ the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” more important than that “ the word of God came” is a problem; that we value our political or ideological commitments higher than the call of the word of God to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Sometimes when I listen to the debates over who deserves to have health care and who does not I wonder whose voice it is that we hear coming from the mountains. Perhaps in this time of preparation we need to take down some of those mountains and regain our perspective.
What are the crooked places that need to be straightened? What are the areas of your life that have become skewed, off track, and need realignment according to “the word of God?” There are always two finger prints left at the scene of the crime when things have become crooked: where we spend our time, and where we spend our money. Is the main thing the main thing, when measured by the hours of our days and by the Visa bill? Are there things that you have taken time for and spent money on that have become distorted? This is the time of preparation; the time of repentance, the time for change.
Who we are now, and the difference it makes
We, people of faith, we Christians are different, and it shows. We are not like those who think that these days are merely the days of this or that emperor, or governor, or administration, or calendar year. We are people who live in a time in which the word of God has come. We are people of high expectations that God began to do something new out in that desert where the word of God came, that is unstoppable, and is huge.
This is not just about us and our own spiritual lives; rather it is about how we find our place in the world-wide purposes of God which are at work, right now. This message that the word of God has come and demands changes does start with all of us as individuals, but it will not stop with us, or with our own church, or even our nation. What God began doing out there in the desert when the word of God came to John has global implications. It is part of God’s goal of redeeming Creation.
Who does it say will be a witnesses to these things? Will it be the people of Judea? Will the witnesses include Pontius Pilate and Emperor Tiberius? Still that would be far to small a witness stand. Luke tells us that this new work of God is something that:
6…all flesh shall see …’”
All flesh – every person who ever drew a breath will finally bear witness to the salvation that John was out there in the desert preparing the way for. This is huge; and powerfully important.
This means that every action we take to be a part of this has enormous significance. When we adjust our value systems, taking down mountains and back-filling eroded valleys, straightening out what has become crooked, we are participating in God’s world-wide mission to redeem his creation. “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
We expect that God will work in us as we repent, change our hearts and minds, and respond to the “word of God” in a new way. We expect that we will not be the same next year at this time, but that we will know God’s love, God’s power, and God’s presence in our lives in a new way, transforming us as we prepare the way of the Lord.