[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 3:1-6. You can read the text here.
In the sixty-seventh year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – when Theresa May was Prime Minister, Craig Tracey was Member of Parliament for North Warwickshire and Chris Watkins was Mayor of Nuneaton and Bedworth – during Christopher Cocksworth’s term as Bishop of Coventry, the word of God came to the people of St Giles’ church, Exhall, in the Diocese of Coventry.
That’s how today’s Gospel reading might have begun had Luke been writing about the twenty-first century West Midlands. But he wasn’t: he was writing about first-century Palestine, and he was careful to attend to the historical details, listing no fewer than seven historical political figures.
The question is, why?
God acts in history
As I was doing some background reading in preparation for this sermon, I read one commentator who suggested that if you daydream during the first verse of the Gospel reading – the verse where Luke lists all these political bigwigs – you miss the whole point. And that point, of course, is this: all the events Luke is about to narrate, concerning the coming – or advent – of God, will occur in history, in a time and place with which Luke’s readers are familiar.
We’re not dealing here with a god or gods acting in a far-off, disembodied realm, a god whose actions only tangentially affect the real, physical world. No: Luke is at pains to make clear that the stage on which God is about to act is human history, the world of people, societies and nations. Whatever form God’s salvation is going to take, it isn’t going to involve inviting people to detach themselves from and escape from the world. God is stepping right into the world, to be a shepherd to his people and to share in history with them.
John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us”; Luke fills in the details, telling us exactly when and where God in Christ came and pitched his tent among humankind. And, of course, the context Luke describes is not just geographical and chronological; it’s also very much a social and political context. The world Jesus steps into is characterised by oppression, volatility, inequality, religious and cultural tensions, uncertainty about the future… Any of this sound familiar?
Why is it so important, then, that we remind ourselves today that God acts in history, in the very real, complicated context of our lives, our neighbourhoods, our social, cultural and political world?
Well, one of the ways Christian faith is sometimes presented and understood is purely as a matter of personal belief: something I choose to believe that gives me a sense of personal security, fulfilment, peace or whatever. And of course, there is a strong personal element to following Jesus: we must choose to follow him as individuals, not just as part of a crowd or group. But Jesus doesn’t come to us only in the realm of our beliefs: he also comes to us in the realm of our lives, in all their fulness and complexity. It’s true that he brings us reconciliation, peace and healing as individuals; but he also sends us out to bring reconciliation, healing and peace to a needy and suffering world.
So perhaps an important question we might ask ourselves is not just “What do I want Jesus to do for me this Advent season?”, but rather “What can I do to bring God’s hope, reconciliation and justice to the world around me this Advent season?” The answers to that question will differ for each of us, according to our abilities and resources. But I’d like to challenge you to really give it some thought, and maybe ask Jesus to show you how you can be someone God uses to bring His light into the world around you in some way.
So, Luke sets God’s coming action in its historical context by naming the political bigwigs, the movers and shakers of the day. But I wonder if there isn’t an edge of irony in Luke’s listing of this cast of characters. After all, however powerful and important they are in the world, the really important news is about John the Baptist, not the heavyweights Luke lists.
That in itself can and should be an encouragement to us: in our world today, even as the power-brokers scheme and plot on the global stage, God is quietly working His purposes out, often choosing the lowly, the unlikely and the insignificant to bring his kingdom to life in the world.
Responding to God’s call: repentance
So, having set the historical stage, Luke tells us that the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness, and that “he went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance”. And Luke places John’s preaching ministry firmly in Israel’s prophetic tradition by quoting from Isaiah chapter 40, clearly positioning John as the one who is to fulfil what Isaiah foresaw: a voice of one calling in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord. We also heard something very similar in our Old Testament reading from the book of Malachi (Malachi 3:1-4).
But what exactly is this repentance John is urging people to engage in?
We noted a few moments ago that the Christian faith can easily be misconstrued as a purely personal matter, something that’s between me and God alone. In just the same way, it’s very tempting to think of repentance as a purely private affair, where I confess my wrongdoing and say sorry to God, He forgives me, and I can go away feeling relieved of guilt. And, just as there is a very personal dimension to Christian belief, there is, of course, a personal dimension to repentance: I do need to personally bring my sinfulness and brokenness to God, and to receive the assurance of His forgiveness and healing. But is that as far as it goes? Or is there also a wider dimension to repentance, just as there’s a much wider dimension to the Christian faith?
Well, since Luke places John the Baptist in the Hebrew prophetic tradition exemplified by Isaiah, if we want to understand John and his call to repentance, we need to understand it in the context of that tradition. That tradition is largely about preparing the way for restoration, return from exile, and a time of Jubilee. What does this preparation involve? As the passage Luke quotes from Isaiah says, it involves removing boulders from the highway, making crooked paths straight, raising up valleys and levelling hills. Now, Isaiah isn’t telling people to literally go out with shovels and spades and get digging; these are all metaphors, pictures that illustrate something very specific that Isaiah’s Jewish audience would have understood: doing justice by mercy to restore shalom. That’s how you prepare the way of the Lord. And shalom, of course, doesn’t just mean an individual sense of peace; it means peace and wellbeing for the entire community.
Just like Isaiah before him, when John the Baptist calls people to repent, he’s calling them not just to engage in private acts of contrition, but to go and do justice by mercy to restore shalom. This becomes very clear if we take a sneak peek at part of next week’s Gospel reading. A bit further on in the same chapter, the crowd asks John, “What should we do then?” Here’s John’s answer: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same”. Here’s John’s advice to tax collectors: “Don’t collect any more than you’re required to”. And to soldiers: “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
What does that sound like? To me it sounds very much like doing justice by mercy to restore shalom.
You see, sin isn’t just a private matter resulting in personal guilt; it has consequences in our relationships, in the social structures that surround and include us, and in the world more widely. John’s call to repentance is not just a call for us to get ourselves individually “right with God”; it’s a call for us to go out and partner with God in undoing the damage caused by sin – and what that looks like is doing justice, motivated by a desire to extend to others the same mercy God extends to us. And the end result is shalom: peace and wellbeing, not just for us as individuals but for our families, our communities and society as a whole. Maybe that sounds like a pipe dream… but I believe it’s God’s dream for the world. Jesus called it the kingdom of God.
Injustice manifests in the world in many ways: poverty, hunger, wealth inequality, exploitation, discrimination… We don’t have to look very far to see it all around us. We can see it on TV in faraway places; but if we open our eyes, we can see it right on our doorstep, in Exhall, Bedworth, Coventry… in our own street, or maybe even our own family. So perhaps, as part of our repentance this Advent season, we need to be asking God not just to forgive our personal shortcomings and failures, but to help us see the injustices on our doorstep, and to show us what small steps you and I can take to do justice, by mercy, to restore shalom.
To recap, then, today’s Gospel text reminds us that God comes to us in our time and place in history, looking for people who are willing to help give birth to the life of God in the world. Perhaps you and I hear God’s call and ask “What should we do then?” The answer is the same for us as it was for those who asked John that question: repent, not only by asking for and receiving God’s forgiveness, but by actively doing justice, sharing God’s mercy, and restoring shalom in the world around us.
May we have ears to hear the call and willing hearts to respond; and may the Holy Spirit guide each of us in helping prepare the way for the Lord this Advent. Amen.