My high school English teacher once told me that one of the secrets to great writing is to have a good opening sentence, because it sets the stage for everything that follows. Today, after the preamble of the first two chapters, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke.
And the opening sentence goes like this:
In the 15th year of the reign of the 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, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to …
What comes next? God is about to act in history, in what is, according to Luke, the most significant event in all of history. Will he go to Rome, to the Emperor Tiberias, or to his local governor, Pilate? Will he go to the self-styled King of Israel, Herod? Will he work through the High Priests in Jerusalem?
No. The word of God comes to some nobody in the middle of nowhere. John. In the wilderness.
Can you hear how unexpected that is? When God decides to act in history, to speak, God bypasses the usual channels. The word of God came not to Rome, to the political and military powers. It didn’t come to Jerusalem, to the religious authorities and leaders of the Jewish people. It came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. In the eyes of the world, from the perspective of the powers that be, the word of God came to a nobody in the middle of nowhere.
God does not buy in to established human institutions and power structures. Instead God goes to the margins. Not only is this surprising, but it is subversive. It is anti-political. It is anti-military. It is anti-religious. This is the beginning of a revolution. God not only bypasses human power structures, but God sets herself in opposition to them. And the powers that be know it and they act accordingly. Almost immediately, Herod arrests John, and within months, he has him put to death. Not long after that, Pilate the Roman governor and Caiaphas the High Priest will collude to have Jesus executed.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Today, we are at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. And John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The word repent, or in the Greek metanoia, means literally to turn about, to change in a radical way, to reverse the direction of one’s life. It makes me think of a Nike commercial, maybe you know it, the one where all of a sudden the world has stopped turning on its axis. In order to save the world people pour into the streets and they all start running in the same direction in order to get the earth turning again. But suddenly a voice calls out “This just in: you’re running the wrong way. Repeat. You’re running the wrong way.” And the runners all turn and run the other way, and the earth is saved. That’s repentance – turning around and going the opposite direction. That’s the sort reversal that’s happening in today’s gospel. That voice that calls out is John.
At the time of John the Baptist, Jews from all over Israel and beyond would journey from the countryside up to Jerusalem for the major religious festivals. Four times a year, a great stream of people would flow into Jerusalem. But in today’s reading we hear that John is calling all the people, including those in Jerusalem, to come to the wilderness. And they do, and a great stream of people flows not into but out of Jerusalem. This is a reversal, a turning around, a change of direction.
Similarly, faithful Jews knew that if you wanted forgiveness of sin, the correct procedure was to go to the Temple in Jerusalem and to offer the proper sacrifice. But here we have John in the wilderness, about as far as you could get from the Temple, proclaiming not sacrifice, but a baptism for the forgiveness of sin.
And John’s use of baptism itself was unique. In those days, baptism was normally a ritual performed for non-Jews who wanted to convert to Judaism. It was called proselyte baptism. But in today’s gospel John is baptising Jewish people. His action declares that it’s his own people who need to be converted. Even those people who were comfortable, who thought they were the people of God by virtue of their ancestry, they are told to change the direction of their lives and experience the baptism of repentance.
All of these reversals right at the start of Luke’s gospel remind us that repentance is what we’re being called to at the start of the church year, this season that we call Advent. Repentance, changing the direction of your life, isn’t a comfortable process. It’s more likely to be difficult, even painful. I find it helpful to look at repentance in two movements. Like a hiker who is lost in the woods and heading down the wrong path, the first thing you need to do is to realize that you’re going the wrong way. Then the second step is to figure out which path to follow.
The first movement of repentance then, is to recognize and admit to yourself that there is a need to turn about, a need to change the direction of your life. For most of us, that’s not easy to do. Recognizing and admitting to ourselves that we’re going the wrong way is hard. Often we’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the path that we’re on. We’re used to it, we’ve got momentum. Sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow than to admit that we’re heading the wrong way. Most of us probably realize, to take but one small example, that rampant consumerism is the wrong way to prepare for Jesus’ birth. But what are we doing about it? Admitting that we’re going the wrong way is hard. It could mean an opening up of things that we’d rather keep closed, a revealing of stuff that we’re more comfortable hiding. It’s the admission there are things in our lives that are not right, and may even be causing pain for others.
Though this first movement of repentance can be a difficult, uncomfortable experience, it also can be a healing process which leads to forgiveness and opens up possibilities of reconciliation in our lives and our relationships. All of this is given concrete expression by John’s ritual of baptism, the washing away of things that weigh us down so that we can have a clean start.
But that’s only the first part. Remember our lost hiker in the woods. The first step of repentance is to realize that you’re heading the wrong way. The second step is to figure out what path to follow.
Now, if you’re lost in the woods, figuring out what path to follow can be really difficult. It’s especially difficult if you are out at night, when it’s dark. My friend's son Matt found this out first hand one summer. He went out to BC to spend a week with his uncle Geoff. Now Geoff is an outdoorsman, and he does lots of mountain climbing. So he and Matt flew into a remote area of the coastal mountains, and they started climbing. This was real climbing, using picks and crampons to get up the ice faces, and ropes and climbing gear to go up the rocky cliffs. Eventually they made it to the top of a 7000m peak. But it was late in the day, too late, and on their way down, it started to get dark. They came down as far as they could until they made it to a ledge. But by then it was pitch dark, and there were cliffs above and cliffs below. They couldn’t go any further without either getting lost, or even worse, falling off a cliffs. So they sat in the dark and waited for the dawn. It was too cold to sleep. All they could do was wait for the dawn, for that first light that would guide their feet onto the path that would take them back to safety.
Advent is a bit like sitting on that ledge in the wilderness, in the cold and dark. It is the time of year when we are called to repentance. We are called to examine our lives, to stop going down wrong paths, to turn from paths of injustice to the path of peace. Sometimes, before we can move off in the right direction, we find ourselves waiting in darkness for the dawn to break. The promise of Advent is that dawn is coming. In the words of Zechariah, the father of John which we heard this morning, “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This Advent, the God of surprises and reversals who bypassed the usual channels and came to John in the wilderness, that God is coming again. And she is calling us once again to repentance, to change the direction of our lives. May the light of God which is coming into the world guide our feet into the way of peace.
Homily: Yr C Advent 2, December 9 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Luke 1.68-79; Luke 3:1-6
Image by King County Parks, Creative Commons