I am well aware that Advent stirs up (ha!) in me the same passion that is sparked by the sports ball, or cute animals. in other people. When Family Feud asks what the top ten things that provoke emotional tears are, “struggling mightily for justice and right relationship despite great odds!” is not usually up there; a heartwarming puppy greeting his absent kid owner is.
So it is that with each Advent sermon, I run the risk of getting VERY EXCITED about parts of the story that befuddle and confuse everyone else, and such is the case with the introductory parts of Luke. Luke, like Matthew, would like you as reader to always understand the history that the story is embedded in, and so the writer is always citing either genealogy, or a list of governmental officials. I myself find this deeply moving–the thought of these pretty broken, messed-up folks, many of whom left tangible footprints on the landscape, still being witnesses to God’s coming into the world! But I do realize that my immediate emotional response is prompted by a good seven-plus years of studying this stuff. So it can be hard to translate. (Your average person in a pew will not get teary at “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius….” ).
This sermon was an attempt to change that.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 9, 2018
I was trying to decide this week which opening of the gospels I prefer—like a Buzzfeed list. Matthew’s is boring—the genealogy is theologically rich, but that’s just a ton of names. John’s sounds like a digression into poetry, so we can’t really compare it to the others. Mark outright cheats, and does what your English teacher told you never to do by baldly stating his thesis right off the bat: THE BEGINNING OF THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS CHRIST.
But this is what happens when you have to be written first.
Luke’s however—Luke’s is right up there. It sets up everything Luke is going to be.
He writes: Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
In other words, I have read all the other gospels, and they are awful, so I AM GOING TO DO THIS RIGHT. WITH DETAILS.
And so, we know right from the get-go that Luke’s gospel will give us details—details such that a Greek guy like this Theophilus would understand.
Luke actually starts each scene with a list of government figures—it’s how he locates something in space and time. In the time of King Herod, Zachariah was told about the birth of John the Baptist. (He was a priest according to the order of Abijah, and his wife was descended of Aaron, which is handy, because in that story, she comes off looking way better.)
Luke then explains how the temple priesthood handled their duties at the holy of holies—because a Greek guy wouldn’t be familiar with those customs.
At each turn, this writer wants the audience to know where and when they are. And today, Luke wants us to be very aware that as his story is taking off, the following people are in charge.
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 was ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Caiaphas and Annas, the word of God came to John, son of Zachariah in the wilderness.
As a set up, I realize this sounds incredibly boring—mostly we don’t know who these people are. and some of these names are unpronounceable. As a transition from the last scene (where Mary is singing the Magnificat) however, it is basically a title card, which tells the reader, SOME YEARS LATER—-in over-detailed Lukan fashion.
Previously, Herod 1 had ruled all of Judea and Samaria, and now he had died, and his son and Philip were ruling two parts of it, with Pilate, the Roman Governor controlling the region of Judea. So there had been a bit of a power shift, with Rome taking a firmer hand in governing their teeny Palestinian outpost.
And this is something Luke will do over, and over again. Here is who is in power. Here is exactly what was happening in our world when this miraculous thing occurred.
The point here is not whether this checks out—it mostly does, but you have to squint. The point here is why Luke would take pains to set up such an out of this world tale in the midst of the details of this world in the first place. Because that’s what he does—this gospel is not set up as a “once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away” it is not situated everywhere, and therefore nowhere. It is definitively located in a time-certain when, in a place-certain where.
All of which suggests that the gospel writer finds those details important to the meaning of the story he’s telling. That somehow, knowing the landscape of context and power is vital to understand the meaning of the story that will unfold.
But, notice that just after we get this list of high-powered officials, the word of God comes to John, son of Zachariah, in the wilderness. Not any of those people we were just told about.
Our story kicks off with God’s message being given again not to anyone in power, not to anyone with authority, or anyone who history would remember, but a young man seeking reform in the desert. That’s where God shows up. So right from the start, this gospel is going to upend the powers of this earth. When God wants to send a message, God works decidedly outside the system. The wild man in the desert receives the word of repentance, and echoes the words of Isaiah—warning everyone that God’s salvation is on the way to redeem creation, and make the kingdom accessible to all.
So one of the themes we are set up for is where God appears—God appears on the edges, in the wild places, on the margins. God, in the gospel, does not appear on that list of historical figures.
And yet—the specificity of that list is consequential too. Sure, God’s message comes to a wandering desert prophet, but that wandering desert prophet is responding to Pilate, to Herod, and to Philip. For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list of governors would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us: a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things. Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid, violent, and prone to narcissistic rages. Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them. There was a reason people felt hopeless. There was a reason fleeing to the desert to follow a guy proclaiming a new baptism of forgiveness was popular.
And it’s here that God comes. It’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says “prepare the way.” Not once upon a time—not in a vague way, not in a spiritual sense, but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems. When everything seemed hopeless. When there was no justice, and God’s people were definitely not free. That’s right where God came. In that place and time. In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius.
This, then, is the power of the Incarnation—the daring and earth-shattering idea that God can enter the human experience in the hopeless experience of the Palestinian Jews in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, That when God chose to enter the human world, God did it as one of the powerless, and one of the marginalized. And if God did that, then God must be present in a fundamental way, in each human experience of hopelessness, of powerlessness. God must be there with those who are cast out, with those who are hated, with those who suffer. Even in the third year of the reign of President Trump.
Luke lays out for us, his audience, right at the start the choice we will have to make over and over throughout the gospel. Where will we look for the experience of God? Where will we go, as followers of Jesus? Will we seek out the powerful, and the powers of this world, to lead us to Jesus? Or will we head with John to the desert, to be joined by the lost and the left out? Will we rely only on our own strength, our own riches, or will we trust that God is with us especially in our weakness, in our vulnerability?
Will we stay safe, or will we venture out to find God in the wilderness, trusting that God is already preparing a new revelation of divine love for us to discover?