In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius… I shortened this verse because I thought we might all doze off trying to listen to it. But it’s important. Listen to the full verse:
“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 Philp was ruler of the region of Ituraea and Traconitus, and Lysanius was ruler of Abilene during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas …the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Pontius Pilate. Herod. Annas and Caiaphas. For those of us who have heard the story of Jesus’ trial and death, these names should make the hairs on our neck stand up. For those of us not familiar with the story- just know that these are not good people. They are powerful, and corrupt, and have no regard for God or the people they rule over.
- In just a couple of verses, Herod is going to cut John the Baptist’s head off, and later will assist in condemning Jesus at His trial.
- Anna and Caiaphas- they’re the high priest who will arrange for Jesus’ arrest and condemnation, all the while in their corruption sucking their own people dry.
- Pontius Pilate is going to be the one condemn Jesus to death.
Pontius Pilate, The Roman Governor… Herod, King of Jusea… Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests. They are the urban powerhouses of Jesus’ day, fueled by the armies and the organization of the Roman Empire. And in the midst of this corrupt and treacherous company, it is said that the word of God came to John in the wilderness.
Friends, when the word of God comes to us, it is not usually in the midst of a Sunday social. The word of God comes to us in the midst of corruption and power-lust, in the midst of the breakdown of the social order and the oppression of the poor. And what happens to the prophets to whom God speaks? They are set before the wolves. Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiahpas.
And the word of God that comes to John is the same word that came to the Prophet Isaiah 750 years earlier: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s 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.” (Luke 3:4-6; Isaiah 40:3-5)
First Isaiah and then John are compelled by God to announce the great leveling, when ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God. ALL flesh. Not just the wealthy flesh, or the secure flesh, or the powerful flesh. No, those mountains are going to be made low, and those who live in the low valleys: those are going to be lifted up, given a rightful place. And they all shall see the salvation of God.
For we who live in the heights do not know the salvation of God; we know only the salvation of the flesh.
We who live in the depths do not know the salvation of God; we know only the oppression of the flesh.
But there will come a day, dear friends; there will come a day when ALL will know the salvation of God. But for that day, we will all need to change or be changed; repent or be cast out, as the powerful are humbled, and the weak are made strong, and we are all are offered wholeness in the great leveling.
Now, John has to know that this is not perceived as Good News by the powerful. We powerful have no interest in losing our advantage, our security, our control. Those in power in our own time have no interest in giving away their power. The Senate, the House, the President- all fighting for control, doing every underhanded and overhanded thing to maintain their position. No, the powerful have no incentive to give up their privilege.
So when John sees the powerful come to be made whole in the waters of baptism, he cries out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” (Luke 3:7)
But it’s not just the politicians to whom John the Baptist is speaking. We who are white or native-born have no incentive to give up our privilege. It’s not that we’re bad people, but we have it good. Safe neighborhoods, good schools, access to jobs, uncontaminated water, and not afraid of the police. Who would want to give up those things?
And those who don’t have those things- people of color, the immigrant at our border or in our detention center? Well, they don’t live here, and we don’t see them, so…
But John cries out to us as well: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance! Do not say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9)
It doesn’t matter how powerful and privileged we are;- if we are politicians or citizens. It doesn’t matter if we were born in this country, the children and grandchildren of European immigrants. No, in the great leveling, all that matters is that we turn from that of the flesh that makes us different from, better than, more powerful than our sisters and brothers, and turn to the God who demands life for all God’s people.
And in case we think it’s only John who speaks in this offensive, unnerving way: No. Jesus speaks the same way, in a way that speaks of chaff and wheat and the burning fire, and the judgement at the end of this time, and the coming of the Reign of God.
You have to know, I don’t like to preach on these words of Jesus an John. They are too uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable saying that we are all the children of God, and greatly loved and cherished. Because that is true. But it is only the partial truth. Another truth is that sometimes we are Pilate, and Herod, and Annas and Caiaphas. And at other times, when we’re at our best, we are John the Baptist, facing down these powers.
But we need to know that although God loves all of us, God is on the side of the trampled down, the taken-advantage-of.
Awhile back, a preacher was talking about a conversation he had had with a mother- a good mother- who had raised a large number of children on her own. He had made the comment, “I suppose you loved all your children equally, making sure that you gave all of them exactly the same treatment?”
The wise mother replied, “I loved them all, loved them greatly, but I never wanted to love them equally. I loved the one that was down until he got up. I loved the one who was weak until she was strong. I loved the one that was hurt until he was healed. I loved the one who was lost until she was found.”
“I loved the one who was lost until she was found.” Oh, God loves us all. But God loves one among us who is down until he gets up. And God loves one among us who is weak until she was strong. And God loves one among us who is hurt until he was healed. And God loves one among us who is lost until she was found.”
And if we don’t participate in the universal healing, then God will hold us accountable. Is this Good News? Yes. Because isn’t what we all desire is to be made whole? And can one of us be made whole if all of us aren’t?
The word of God commanded John the Baptist to tell us is repent. Repent, for this Realm of God is coming near. And for those of us who turn our hearts to the healing and restoration of God’s poor, this is good news. And for those of us who do not turn our hearts to the healing and restoration of God’s poor, this should turn our hearts cold.
For the judgement will not be made about how pious, how devout we are. Judgement will be made where the rubber hits the road: Have we sought justice and hope for our neighbor, as much as we have sought it for ourselves? Have we loved our neighbor as we have loved ourselves?
22 migrants have died in ICE detention centers here in the US in the last 2 years. Two Guatemalan children- 8-year old Felipe Gomez Alonso and 7-year old Jakelin Caal died in the last month in US immigrant detention centers. Who will God hold accountable? The ICE workers? The US government? The citizens of this nation, who allow this to continue?
If, with the plumb line of justice and compassion, God judges us, as an individual and as a nation to be lacking, then our very privilege will judge us.
And if, with the plumb line of justice and compassion, God judges us, as an individual and as a nation to be just, then shall come the words at the end of time, You are My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased. Enter into the joy of My Realm.
In the Name of the One who does love us, and who for good or bad will never let us go: Even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
LUKE 3:2-17, 21-22 Scripture for Jan. 13, 2019
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius… The word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. John went into all the region around the Jordan River, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“The voice one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight God’s paths. 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.’” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
And then the crowds asked John, “What should we do? And John said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must share with anyone who has none. Even tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Rabbi, what should we do?” John said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what are we to do?” John replied, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation.”
As the people were questioning whether John might be the Messiah, John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Now when all the people were baptized by John, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove. And a Voice came from heaven saying, “You are My Son, the Beloved One; with You I am well pleased.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.