Preparing, Transforming

+ A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 5, 2021 +

Text: Luke 1:67b-79; Luke 3:1-6


I remember how excited I was when Google Earth first debuted.
You know, that program that put a globe on your screen and allows you to explore the world with all sorts of detail using satellite images.
Well, I have loved maps since I was a kid, so when I had the chance to fire up that old cable connection on our ancient family computer to spend hours looking at maps, I was all about it.
And I remember how my mind was blown when I typed in the name of a city or an address and Google Earth would do a slow zoom to focus on that location.
Like it would go from the whole globe and pan down to see Buckingham Palace in London or the White House in Washington, DC or even my house in little Eagle River, Alaska.
That the farthest reaches of the globe from the greatest cities on earth to the smallest villages were suddenly accessible and viewable because of this program.

So, perhaps that’s why when Saint Luke starts the story of John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading, my mind goes to Google Earth.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,” as the image on the screen zooms down from the whole globe onto the mighty Roman capital, “when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,” as the picture pans over to Jerusalem, “and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,” focusing in on impressive palaces throughout Palestine, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” back to Jerusalem and the glorious temple mount… “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Wait what?
Suddenly the picture on the screen is of a baren nowhereland, the image a little fuzzy and not high quality.
After our tour of the ancient world seeing the halls of power and a who’s who list of the rich and mighty, we focus in on John in the middle of the wilderness.

Now, for most of us, we know who this John is—this is Jesus’ cousin who would baptize him in the Jordan.
We hear about his ministry every year during Advent.
We know how important he is in paving the way for Jesus.
But to the original audience of Luke, this would have been a surprise.
That it’s in the middle of nowhere, to an absolute nobody, that the Word of God is made known.
Not to the emperor, not to the governor, not to the rulers of the land, not even to the religious elites, it’s John whom God uses to prepare the way of the Lord through a proclamation of repentance.

And, I know, when we modern listeners hear that word, “repentance,” we can sometimes get a little uneasy, right?
It might remind us of those guys outside Sounders and Mariners games waving nasty signs and spewing hatred in their megaphones telling us we need to turn or we’ll burn.
But the word repentance, or metanoia in Greek, is not rooted in fear or coercion, but in transformation.
It means turning around, turning away from what was and embracing something new.
It means putting aside our own selfish desires and focusing on the needs of those around us.
It means rejecting the ways that hold us back and working to reshape our lives, our community, our society to better reflect God’s intentions for us.
And Luke puts this message of repentance and the ministry of John the Baptizer in the context of the prophet Isaiah—a message from centuries earlier to his people living in exile.

If we used our Google Earth again, we would pan east across a foreboding wilderness with mountains and valleys, vast desserts, and perils unknown to find the Judean people held captive in far off Babylon—modern day Iraq—longing to return home.
The prophet is speaking to these people who are losing hope, who are longing for the good old days of yore, who are feeling abandoned and speaking a word of promise that they will return home.
That God has not abandoned them.
That no barriers—not even daunting distances or treacherous topography—would be able to prevent God from fulfilling this promise and guiding them into their new future.

When the people finally do return home after decades in exile, they didn’t just have a metaphorically transformed wilderness to guide their travels, they found a literally and radically transformed homeland from the city and land they, or likely their ancestors, had known when they left.
The metanoia they experienced not only figuratively terraformed the treacherous wilderness into safe passage but gave them a very real opportunity to build something completely new and unlike what came before.
A new city, a new society that learned from the failings of their ancestors and better aligned with the intentions God had for the people and for the world.

And then in our gospel reading today, more than five centuries later after Isaiah gave comfort and hope to his people, John travels through the wilderness to proclaim that same type of repentance, to enact radical metanoia, to prepare the way of the Lord—the way of Jesus whose transformation will be unlike anything this world has known before.

I sometimes wonder why the Word of God came to John and why it found him in the wilderness?
Why not go to a more powerful, influential person, with a better chance to make substantive change?
Why did God not choose Caesar Tiberius in the capital city?
Why didn’t God call the governor, Pilate, or any of the kings of the land in their palaces?
Why was the Word of God not made known to the religious elites in the Temple?

Perhaps the transformation that God intends is so profound that it can only be inaugurated from the wilderness.
That it is so complete that the in power and authority cannot even conceptualize what it means.
That this new world that John proclaims is the dream of the exiled, the hope of the marginalized, because it will challenge all the ways of this world and flip the focus from the halls of power and the grandest buildings to instead focus on the needs of a people looking for a home and a better future.
And from that voice crying out in the wilderness, a movement would spark that would transform the whole world.

I also wonder if Holy Cross might be in a wilderness of our own right now.
We’re not exactly a hall of power—certainly not the largest or mightiest congregation in our synod.
We are all too aware of our numbers these days: the numbers in the pews, the numbers in the bank, the numbers by which we measure our impact in the world.
Some of us are filled with hope and expectation for what lies ahead, some of us are feeling the fatigue of our journey and are ready to rest.
We are wandering, wondering what our future may look like.
Looking back at our past, looking around at our present, and trying to see what tomorrow may bring with a mix of anticipation and apprehension.

And yet, the Word of God has come to us this morning.
It comes with a message of metanoia, of transformation.
We hear again a call in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.
And on this day when we will meet, not only to plan the year of ministry that lies before us, but also to finally decide how we will use our land and our resources to better serve our neighbors, I hear something different in this call.
I hear the Word of God speaking to us in new ways for our situation on how we can build a place for Christ unlike anything we knew before.
I hear a call for a transformation so complete, a metanoia so profound, that we may have a hard time even conceptualizing what it will look like.
I hear a call for a transformation that can only happen in this place when our very landscape is terraformed to build something new even as we care for God’s creation.
An opportunity to bring hope and opportunity to families we haven’t even met yet even as we build ourselves a future.
A chance to better align our community and our congregation with God’s intentions for our world.

Maybe we needed to be in this present wilderness to see the way forward.
Maybe we needed this uncertainty to understand how we can be part of God’s transformation.
Because if we were high on the peaks of power and prestige, we wouldn’t want the mountaintops to be made low.
If we were deep in the pits of despair, we may not even be able to perceive the prospect of the valleys ever being raised up.
But in this time of wondering and wandering, perhaps we are open to possibilities we couldn’t have considered before.
Perhaps we are willing and able to hear where God is calling us to journey into the unknown, without a satellite image roadmap to guide us, fully reliant on God and confident that the same God who is leading us and traveling with us along the way will bring us home into a new, transformed, and promised future.
And perhaps through God’s work in this congregation, God’s transformation of this place, that future will help all flesh to see and experience the salvation of God.

Today, we also hear from another section of Luke’s gospel in our first reading.
It takes place chronologically about 30 years before the gospel reading when John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a song for his newborn son.
This canticle has traditionally been called the Benedictus and echoes through the ages through the voice of Christians around the world who sing it every day during morning prayer, Matins.
Because even though Zechariah sings a song of prophecy for his son, it’s a song for us too.
A song praising God’s faithfulness throughout all time.
A song praising God’s protection and deliverance from evil and the ways of death. And a song of purpose, giving us guidance for how we can live in response to these gifts of God.

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

And you child, will go before the Lord to prepare the way.
To build a place for Christ’s love to be known, shining like a beacon for those who are despairing.
To allow all people to experience God’s salvation in their lives, bringing healing and wholeness and life.
To transform the world to better reflect the design God intends for us.
God has called you, called me, called us, to this holy work.
What will it look like for Holy Cross to live into this song of prophecy and praise?

Long ago, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness through a proclamation that not only bypassed the halls of power but shook them to their core.
A message that would upend all the established institutions and lift up those on the margins.
A mighty word that would transform the world and invite the savior of all peoples.

Now on this day, we pray, may God speak to us again that same powerful and transformational word.

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