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December, 9 2018

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

Reverend Richard Eslinger

 

We have not even arrived at the celebration of the birth of the Messiah this Advent Sunday and yet, here we are beginning again.  It is interesting just how similar the openings are in St. Luke for the Christmas story and for this story of the beginning of the Baptist’s ministry.  It is as if in each case, a newspaper reader in first century Palestine looked at the news, beginning, of course, on the front page.  There, with large type headlines, there would be some news about the emperor Tiberias, maybe on the occasion of his issuing a decree.  Certainly a photo of the emperor would be prominently featured.  Then, there could be a smaller article about Pontius Pilate, still on the first page.  Pilate could have been interviewed in his palace at Caesarea, right by the Mediterranean coast.  Now in order to get to any coverage of Herod and brother Phillip, you would need to flip through several pages of the paper, but in a section called “Region,” there would be some news about each.  We might learn where they appeared for a public event or maybe read some more personal celebrity-type news about their life styles and those of their families.   Finally, toward the back of the first section of the paper, you might notice a little squib about Lysanius of Abilene.  To be sure, we are dealing with small potatoes here.  Any copy about Lysanius would need to be accompanied by a map showing the location of Abilene.  This petty prince is so obscure that his only moment of fame is really provided by St. Luke in this passage of Scripture.  After all, Abilene, Texas is much better known among U.S. citizens than Abilene in Syria was known by anybody outside that barren little province.

     Now we arrive at the religion section of the paper.  Once again, there is a front page of big stories focusing on the Temple and on the High Priest that year.  Probably the story highlighted Caiaphas who was serving as High Priest at that time.  But just like we mention previous U.S. presidents in articles on the present occupant of the White House, old Annas—who had served his term sometime earlier—is brought into the feature story.  (Maybe the headline compared the policies or liturgical practices of the two.)  And finally, buried way in the back of the paper you might spot an article about the use of water in religious practices of the day—about the ritual cleansing needed before entering the Temple and about the frequent washings practiced by that strange group of Essenses down by the Dead Sea.  Somewhere in the article there might be one line devoted to a certain John who was also baptizing people along the lower Jordan.  Period.

     But for St. Luke, this entire sequence of the news of the day has it all backwards.  The front page story, really, is that the word of God came to John in the desert.  This headline is about God calling forth a prophet for the people Israel.  It is a signal that God has a word for the people and that this “John” is being called out to speak it.  Not for centuries has such a thing happened.  Most pious Jews thought prophecy was dead—an interesting series of events that happened long ago.  But this, too.  The story in Luke does not restrict itself to some ritual washings for either Temple worshippers or for the Qumran Essenses.  John’s ministry took him through “the whole region of the Jordan” and he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  It is not restricted to those who worship in the Temple or those who cut themselves off from that worship.  No, this proclamation and this baptizing is a means of preparing for the coming of the Lord when “all salvation shall see the salvation of God.”  This is front page and above the crease!  God’s Word has gone out; this John is baptizing people and preparing them for the Lord’s coming.  With this news, anything related to Caesars and Tetrarchs and High priest is insignificant, hardly worth the ink.  God’s Word has gone out.  A new beginning is at hand.

     Now let’s admit that we rather sorry human beings cannot manage much of any important new beginnings by ourselves.  How do we put it about something that is supposed to be so new and different?—“same old, same old.”  Remember in history class about how a president almost a century ago announced a new policy that was going to “make the world safe for democracy”?  Remember how optimistic experts were about curing cancer or even wiping out disease some fifty years ago?  By now, we were to have colonies on the moon and on Mars, complete the war on poverty, and be moving toward the attainment of the charter of the United Nations.  Some of us remember the lofty image of McLuhan’s “Global Village” in the 1950’s. He didn’t put it this way, but his technological children did:  “We are rapidly moving towards a digital global village in which all of the old boundaries of tribe and nation and region are becoming obsolete.”  And, to be sure, some of this is so filled with present achievements and future promise.  But at the same time, our internet servers struggle to keep up with the spam and the porn and that same internet allows terrorists to recruit others and plan even more horrendous acts of violence.  Then, too, huge portions of the world’s peoples are cut off from free access to this electronic global village because of their repressive governments.  “Big brother” has gone inside and is even more in control.  And as one commentator put it, “we are communicating through technologies that allow us to remain physically isolated?”  Let’s face it, this “Global Village” that unites all of us brings together some of the best and the worst of the human family.  We need forgiveness and we need a new beginning.

     So the Baptist cries from Jordan’s banks, “Repent!”  “Turn around!”  “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he proclaims.  This is the new Word of the Lord.  But it is a Word that brings with it a condition.  Such a turning around is really not within our human capacity to achieve.   Hear one writer:

People do not turn in a new direction of their own power.  The past holds them so tightly that something must happen to create a new opportunity.[i]

Only what God has done in giving us the Savior, Jesus Christ, is able to grace all flesh with the vision to “see the salvation of our God.”  Our God has now accomplished such a glorious gift to us.  Yet the gift of such a remarkable new beginning is always preceded by the Baptist’s cry:  “Repent.”  Children of God,…church of God, repent.  In the Anglican tradition, there is a prayer that the assembly offers before the Great Thanksgiving over the gifts.  It is known in the tradition as “The Prayer of Humble Access.”  The prayer begins, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”  Perhaps moved by the Baptist’s call, we might also offer this prayer as we continue on this Advent journey:  “We do not presume to come to this thy Incarnation, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” 

Amen.

[i] Robert C. Tannehill, Luke.  Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 78-79.

 

©Rev. Richard Eslinger

 

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