Sermon: Wild

Wild
A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
December 9, 2018
Audio Recording:

Scripture

Our gospel passages for this morning share pieces of the story of John the Baptist.  His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were righteous and faithful people.  In their old age, Zechariah was visited by an angel who told him not to be afraid, and told him to expect a child.  Zechariah questioned the angel, and for his doubt was silenced until John’s birth.  From the first chapter of Luke, listen to the testimony Zechariah offered after the naming of John:

Luke 1:68-79 – The Benedictus of Zechariah

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Luke 3:1-6 – The Proclamation of John the Baptist
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
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, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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.
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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Prayer

Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and lighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen.  (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)

Sermon

Preachers love this Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist week.

John was WILD! It is impossible to go over the top when describing John! I mean, this guy wore garments of camel’s hair. And I know some of you have bespoke blazers made out of camel’s hair, but that’s not what I mean.  He hung out in the wilderness.  Not, like, hiking the White Mountains like we do in the summer, John really lived in the middle of nowhere. Like an Appalachian Trail Thru-hiker on his gap year. John ate unpasteurized local honey, and I am not talking about the kind we all eat to inoculate us against regional spring pollen.  But the wildest part of all was his message. He jumped up on a rock in the middle of a desert and people came to listen and he said, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Radical. Then he starts talking about what the world will be like: The valleys shall be filled and the mountains made low.  And the people’s part in it: Bear good fruit, worthy of what God has given to you, John said. Out of the box thinking. And then, in a stunning development, people started listening to John, and they asked him to make it plain. What shall we do? (this part’s technically a little further along in Luke.)   John had the audacity to tell them to share. I mean this guy was out of control! If you’ve got two coats, give one away, and if you have more food than you need, bring someone new to the table. And he looked right at the tax collectors who had come to him to be baptized and he. Said. to. Them. Only collect the amount you are supposed to collect. To the soldiers, oh, he had a word for them. Don’t rob people. This guy was wild, I tell you.

To every one of them, he preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He put before them a chance at redemption. He put before them a new and different future, a possibility of change, a vision of a fairer and more just world.

Woah. This guy, how in the world did he get away with these wild, out of control, radical ideas?

He didn’t, actually.  Herod killed him.

I met John the Baptist once.
In 2012,
During the presidency of Barack Obama,
In the time when Geoffrey Black was the head of the United Church of Christ,
In the time when Fred Krupp headed the Environmental Defense Fund,
And near the end of Thomas Menino’s last term as Mayor of Boston,
I met John the Baptist on the Boston City Hall Plaza just as a hurricane swept in.

I met him that Fall, at a Climate vigil.  He rode onto Boston City Hall Plaza on a bicycle, hauling a trailer made from salvaged parts. It had just enough room for him to slide into and sleep, out of the wind and rain. His hair was long and wild, and he had a lumberjack’s beard.  Henry David Thoreau quotes were glued to the sides of his trailer. He played music on a homemade guitar and he ate raw kale. He stood off to the side a lot, watching, with a little bit of a wry smile.

Hurricane Sandy was on track for Boston, and the vigil organizers who had intended to stay on the plaza 24/7 closed down the vigil a day early so that people could get to safety.

He stayed. He huddled in his trailer and his witness continued and he made it through safely. I wondered at his determination, this prophet in our midst.

[Sage – his name is actually Sage – has left the hurricanes behind and seems to be studying climate science these days, although I am sure his prophetic voice continues to speak.]

~~

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,
the most powerful person in the Roman world,
the word did not come to the Emperor.
When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
the Roman ruler in situ,
the authority and power in that region,
the word did not come to the governor.

When Herod was ruler of Galilee, tetrarch of an occupied quarter,
the word did not come to the tetrarch.

During the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
Jewish ritual leaders controlling the temple,
controlled by the Romans,
the word did not come to the high priests.

The word of God in the wilderness,
The territory the people traveled when they made their Exodus,
And when they returned from exile in Babylon.

The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth,
Wild and marginal son of a humble, righteous old couple.

This is the way Luke tells every tale: it is the humble who are lifted up, the outsiders who challenge the system. The last shall be first, starting from the first moment of Luke’s gospel.

It is the unknown who make known the good news for all the world. It is the nobodies who share salvation with all people.

John had no power but the power of the Spirit.
John had no power but the power of God’s message.
John had no power but the power of wilderness.
John had no power but the power to point to the one to come.
John had no power but the power to set aside power.
John had no power but the power of water washing away sinfulness.
John had no power but the power of his word, the power of God’s word to him to the people.
But John’s power threatened the Powers.

~~

God’s prophets are an interesting kind of people. They are almost always outsiders, whether because they have always walked the margins or their message has pushed them outward. Their message is specific to a time and a place and a community, but it resonates universally.  They point to a source far greater than themselves. They call for change from the ways of the past and the present.  But most of them also preach hope and possibility for the future, aligned with that great source.  The prophets that have no vision of the future, who cannot see beyond the problems of the moment to a future redemption, who are not pointing up, actually get into trouble with the source of their message. When the prophet Jonah refused to acknowledge Nineveh’s repentance and reconcile with them – God had a word for Jonah.

John, though, has a vision of a hopeful future right in his opening words, drawn from Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

He may have eaten locusts and worn hair shirts and spoken a wild word that the powers and principalities could not tolerate – but he also preached a better future.

Now, we are not John the Baptist.  We are not called out into the wilderness to eat bugs and put our hands in bees’ nests, to stop showering and shaving for the sake of a prophetic word.  We are not even called to build our own bike trailer and sleep in it through a hurricane. Most of us are not even called to prophesy alone.[1] Building compassionate and inclusive and justice-oriented community and creating space for people to come when they have been in the wilderness is our communal call.

But we are called to the prophetic word.  In this particular time, in this specific place, we are called to prophesy welcome and inclusion, compassion and justice, creation care and neighbor care. We are called to envision and embody the kin-dom of God and to invite people into a community of hospitality and justice.  We are called to prophetic and hopeful honesty, called to prepare the way of the Lord, called to see the people in the valleys and lift them up, called to flatten the mountains of inequality, called make a pathway for our God, to proclaim as loudly and wildly as John, the kin-dom of God is near!

One preacher says it this way: “Just as the birth of John restored the voice of his father… this season of preparation [may] restore the prophetic voice of the church.  This is our work, to go out into the wilderness, to proclaim to a weary world that hunger, poverty, inequity as we know it will not have the final word….The valley of the shadow of death will be filled; it will be lifted up. The mountains of struggle, pain and poverty will be made low. God entrusts this message to the church and charges us to make it plain.”[2]

Zechariah looked down at his little baby boy and recognized that this tiny child had a role to play in the renewal of the world.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare God’s ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

And what more amazing calling could we possibly have, than to be modern day John the Baptists: to prepare the way of our God, to make room for this community, and this city, and this state, and this country, and this world to know salvation, forgiveness, and hope –  to wake one morning by the tender mercy of our God to the dawn from on high breaking upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

At the end of the second year of the first term of the 45th president of the United States,
who is preaching to people in the wilderness, or the margins, at the border?
At the end of the first year of the first term of the first woman mayor of Newton,
Who is lifting up those in the valleys of Newton Corner?
As the ninth national leader of the UCC is nominated to a second term, who is building the kin-dom of God for the people of progressive faith?
In 2018, who is pointing to the Coming One and preparing the way?
I hope that we are.

Here is a piece of good news:
We are not lone voices in the wilderness. We are not alone.  We may be in the wilderness. We may be. Those who are also walking through the wilderness and those who are in the valleys need to hear our prophetic witness that holds both a call for change and a hope for a future marked by love, equality, equity and justice.

John had no power but the power of the Spirit.  But it was enough to get the message across.  And it’s enough for us, too.

Amen.

[1]  I am indebted here to a preacher Will Green, on The Word Is Resistance podcast of December 7, 2018 for this insight: in 2018 we do not have to be solo peacemakers and justice seekers.

[2]  Liz Myer Boulton, Christian Century, December 1, 2009.

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