You can listen to this sermon here.
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “
As the parent of a 3 and a half-year-old, I’ve been watching a lot of children’s movies lately. We’ve recently instituted a new family tradition at our home – family movie night. A couple of weeks ago we watched that seemingly classic film Shrek.
If you haven’t seen it, it is an animated-comedy about a big green ogre, an annoyingly nagging donkey that talks, and their journey to rescue Princess Fiona from a castle guarded by a fire-breathing dragon.
On the way to this castle, the talking donkey wants to know why Shrek isn’t more like a typical Ogre. You know, monster-like. Violent. Destructive. Frightening.
To which Shrek says, “There are more to Ogres than you think.”
“Example?”, the donkey asks.
“Okaay…Ogres are…like onions. Ogres are like onions.”
You mean they stink?
They make you cry?
Oh! You leave them out in the sun to long and they get all brown and start sprouting little white hairs?
NO! Layers! Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. You get it?! We both have layers.
Ogres are like onions. They both have layers.
Call it a pretty lame example if you will, but it dawned on me this week that Scripture too is like onions. Because they both have layers.
Part of the beauty of Scripture is that there are layers upon layers of meaning. We say that Scripture is the living Word of God, which is to say that it has layers of meaning that can speak to each one of us wherever we are at this moment in life. Which is a great gift – because the truth is we all come here to worship from very different places in life.
Some of us, today, come to worship full of joy. Perhaps at the birth of a new grandchild. Or set free by retirement now to do the things in life you have waited so long to do.
But some of us come to worship furious and heartbroken by the state of our country and world – caught up and bound by the debate around guns and race and immigration. Feeling powerless to do anything about it but also convicted that something must be done.
And today, for some of us, it can be hard to have much passion for gun control or race or immigration discussions when you are just trying to hold your own life together. When you are just trying to make sure your kids grow up okay. Or that your marriage holds together. When you are just trying to find a job before the savings run out, or to stay sober, or to keep your aging parent comfortable as life slows down.
Part of the beauty of Scripture is that there are layers upon layers of meaning. Layers and layers of meaning that can speak to each one of us wherever we are at this moment in life. And today’s gospel reading is no different.
This morning, I just want to share with you the three layers of meaning that have stood out to me this week, in hopes that they might give you something to hold on to this week as you step back into the life from which you came.
Layer #1 – The Word of God Shows Up.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I read or hear Scripture and a long list of names and places come up, like the ones we just heard in our gospel reading, I can feel this slow glaze start to creep over my eyes and my consciousness starts to fade.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of….
Can you feel it? Can you feel your mind start to fade?
It just sounds like boring historical introduction and the temptation to skip over it and get to the meat of the passage is really high. Which is unfortunate. Because when we do that, we miss a layer of meaning. These names and places are meant to instantaneously transport you back to the feeling of the time and space.
For example, if I said, “In the days of Hitler…” I suspect all of us are transported back to a time of great terror. Some of us a little more viscerally because we lived through that time. Or the great example of my day, “On the day of 9/11…”
You say, “On the day of 9/11…” and almost all of us are immediately transported back to that day and where we were and what we felt. 9/11 – Lion’s Pause. St. Olaf College. Watching the second tower fall in fear and disbelief.
To Luke’s audience, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…” would create that same reaction. Immediately transported back to a time of terror. They would remember that Tiberius forced some of the grandparents to serve in the Roman army – the very army oppressing them. They would remember how Tiberius enslaved some of their people.
To glaze over those names would be to miss Luke’s point, and punch, and promise that… In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came.
It is a promise that in the midst of all of that, the word of God showed up.
A promise that in the midst of dark days and terror and chaos and fear that will weigh you down, in the midst of rulers who rule over and priests who profit, the word of God shows up.
And that alone is enough good news for one day. That the word of God, the voice of the Lord will not be silent, when fear and terror reign, but rather it will show up.
There is a layer of meaning here that promises that in the fifteenth year of the 21st Century, when ISIS reigns in our nightmares, and mass shootings over flow the days on our calendars, in the year when a spouse dies much too soon, when an addict relapses, when parents collapse from exhaustion, the word of God will come. The voice of the Lord will not be silent. And sometimes, like in this season of Advent, we have to wait for it. But we wait with hopeful expectation trusting that the word of God will comes to us in the midst of whatever chaos we are living in.
Layer #2 – The Word of God Comes to Unlikely People in Unlikely Places.
In that list of rulers and emperors and high priests, Luke names 7 of the most powerful people in the world.
In one sentence, Luke makes sure we all know who all the big deals were in that part of the world. Luke has named everybody who is anybody. There is this great build up of suspense and expectation…who’s he going to name next, who’s he going to name next…who could be more powerful and a bigger deal than these guys…and the word of God came to….
Son of Zechariah.
In the wilderness.
The word of God came to who? Son of whom? Where?
Luke gives us this imposing list of the kind of people who think they make history, and yet God begins a world movement of transformation, renewal, justice, and peace, nowhere near them. But rather through an unknown person in the wilderness named John. An obscure son of an obscure priest.
To make the point, to get to this layer, we might rewrite it this way: In the fifteenth year of the 21st century, when Obama was president of the United States, when Mark Dayton was the governor of Minnesota, when Dana Graham was mayor of Northfield, when David Anderson was President of St. Olaf College, and when Pam Fickenscher and John Quam and Jonathan Davis were pastors at St. Johns Lutheran, the word of the Lord came to…
Son of Billy Sr.
At a bar.
Do you see? This layer of meaning says that the word of God comes to unlikely people. In unlikely places.
The word of God is just as likely to come to you as it is to me. So what is God speaking to you at this particular time in life? Are you listening for it?
Because you just might be a messenger of God for the rest of us.
Layer #3 – The Highway of the Lord Passes Through Your Very Own Life
In the midst of these big deals, the word of God came to a nobody from nowhere named John. And through this word of God, John had a message for the world. A message that was to prepare the way of God coming into the world so that all flesh might see the salvation of God. And that message from John to the world was…”Repent.”
It is time to prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord is on his way and we have to prepare the way. We have to make the road straights. We have to lower the mountains and raise up the valleys. We have to make the rough spots smooth, so that nothing, absolutely nothing can get in the way of the Lord’s arrival. So that nothing, absolutely nothing can block the Lord from getting to someone. But rather so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
That’s the promise. That is the goal. And the way to do that, John says, is to repent.
That word repent comes with plenty of baggage to our modern ears. But it does not mean to feel really, really bad about the things you’ve done. It does not mean to feel guilty or ashamed or small. It doesn’t mean to say you’re sorry. To repent means to change. Which implies that we can change. Which is hope enough. It is to turn around. To change the things that are destructive to your life or the lives of others.
According to John, the way to prepare for the Lord, the way to make the road of God straight and smooth is for us to change the way we live our life.
Might a layer of meaning be that the road of God, the pathway for God entering into this world passes right through your very own life? To say that God isn’t simply coming into the world to you. But that God is coming into the world through you. And your life.
Which is to say that your life is a section of highway upon which God will arrive into the world. And God is headed in one direction. To the place where all flesh can see the salvation of God. And your life is part of that pathway. Which is incredible news. But also, a great responsibility. Because if we are honest, we all have a little highway clean up to do.
So what needs to change in your life so that all people might see salvation, and by salvation I don’t mean going to heaven when they die, by rather I mean so that all people might see peace and freedom and rescue and unconditional love and life abundant. It might mean the way your relate to other people or the way your relate to yourself. Whatever it is, it is important preparation. Because your life is how God can reach the lives of others.
Friends, God is among us. God is active here. In this fifteenth year of the 21st Century. Speaking to unlikely people in unlikely places. And that God is coming into the world, not only to you, but through you, so that you all flesh might see the salvation of God.
May all of our hearts and eyes and ears be opened, this Advent season, to the coming of the Lord, here and now. Amen.
 I am indebted to Rev. Peter Storey for his insightful sermon on this text. http://www.cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/peter-storey-sermon-2012-12-09.mp3