South of the Hugh River, NT 2016

Out of our settled places

Luke 1:68-79

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 
68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
   for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. 
69 He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
   in the house of his servant David, 
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 
71   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
   and has remembered his holy covenant, 
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
   to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
   before him all our days. 
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins. 
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us, 
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Gospel: Luke 3:1-6

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, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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.” ’

 

Homily

The people of Jesus' time understood they had been driven from the land God gave their father Abraham by famine, and they knew the place where they took refuge, which was Egypt, had turned into a place of captivity and exile. (We see that in the stories of Joseph and Moses.)

In the time of Moses God led them out of Egypt, and they were formed as a nation, and they met God, in the wilderness. And then, with Joshua as leader, they entered the Promised Land by crossing the River Jordan.

But eventually, Israel was taken in exile in Babylon for some 70 years about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. The leaders of the country who had survived the destruction of Jerusalem were taken back to Babylon and its surrounding cities.

Even then, God was faithful, and brought them home. The book of the Prophet Isaiah charts this remarkable return from Exile in Chapters 40-55, and the quotation in the gospel reading is from the beginning of that section of Isaiah which begins with "The voice of one crying in the wilderness...

But exile happens all over again!! You can be an exile in your own land. Israel was over-run by the Seleucid empire. This was a Greek Dynasty formed from the leftovers of Alexander the Great's empire. But God was faithful, and Israel managed to drive out the Seleucids, after bitter warfare. (This was the time of the Maccabees.)

But then the Romans came, and the country was overrun all over again. Taxes were high. The Romans were brutal. Hope was low. They were in exile in their own land.

And then Jesus arrived on the scene. John is the one who announces him in today's reading.

What Luke is doing today, is showing that John the Baptist is not only announcing the coming of Jesus:

He is announcing the end of Exile; that's what the Isaiah quotation signifies.
He is announcing a new meeting with God; that's the reference to the wilderness,
He is announcing a new entry into the Promised Land; that's the reference to the regions around the Jordan.
And he says the Empire of Rome is nothing.

He says this by listing all the powers, from the Emperor at the top to the high priests who had sold out to Rome, who he puts at the bottom— not subtle! They are all there in order, including Herod and Pilate.  But then he says the word of God came to John; not to the powerful people in Jerusalem or Rome, but to John, in the wilderness, who was born at God's behest.

  • The word of God came to John in the wilderness— this is the sign of a new Israel meeting God.
  • And John was preaching about repentance— turning to God's way of living
  • and John was baptising as a symbol of cleansing—
  • John was in the region around the Jordan. This is a symbol the people of Israel who listened to his message were entering The Promised Land all over again. They would be a new people, and a new Israel.

But John was not the Messiah. John was the one preparing the way for Jesus Messiah.

So what this reading is saying— what Luke is saying to us— is that Jesus who is born at Christmas is the one who leads us out of exile, into the Promised Land, where we can be reformed, and healed, by God.

Christmas is not about life going on the same. It's not saying, well, we can get some more money now and we can keep on being the same, or something.  Christmas— Jesus— is about us being remade as people. If we think we can stay the same... if we insist that we stay the same... we will blind ourselves and shut ourselves off from God.

John and Jesus are actually calling us into the wilderness. It's in the wilderness and the unfamiliar and frightening places of life that Israel and the Church, meet God, and are set free.

We are struggling to survive as a congregation. It feels a bit like the wilderness is rolling in like one of those terrible dust storms in drought summers, and we will be overwhelmed. And perhaps it is....

but it is in this wilderness, into this new way of being outside of the settled places that Christ comes.

I remind you of the prophecy of Zechariah.

What we see as wilderness is

'the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high [which] will break upon us, 
79 [and] give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   [and] guide our feet into the way of peace.’

The Christ whose birth we celebrate will drag us out of our settled life. But we will find he takes us into a much deeper health and peace. Amen

Amen.

Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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