My sermon for this week on Luke 3:1-6.
To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.
The concept of balance has been much on my mind lately, largely because I have none in my life these days. Maybe you can relate.
For the Christian, Advent is supposed to a time of peaceful, prayerful reflection in anticipation for Christmas. Even for the non-Christian and non-religious, the month of December is a time for renewing and reinforcing bonds between family and friends, sharing the messages of joy and peace that the birth of Christ ultimately represents, and joyful anticipation of vacation time.
But despite all these joyful things, the month of December finds many of struggling to maintain balance in our lives: a balance between work, family, friends and leisure. Many of us have to triage special events that we attend: office parties, family gatherings, dinners with friends. For those of us who are active in church, we have a number of additional responsibilities: special services, special events, turkey suppers. The list goes on.
So while the reason for the season is peace, love, joy and hope, many of us (present company included) are stressed to the limit, short-fused and very tired.
Talk about a lack of balance.
The Gospel passage for today has always fascinated me, not only for its content but for its form as well. What's funny is that the passage starts off with a list of really important people at the time: Roman prefects, governors, tetrarchs, high priests. It takes up nearly half the passage.
Then you get sucker-punched: during the period when all these super-important people were doing their super-important things in their super-important places, "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness".
On other words, "the word of God came to a nobody who was a son of a nobody and who was living nowhere".
Furthermore, the word of God came to a nobody who was (and would still be today) deemed crazy because he eschewed the comforts of a home, a bed, good food and comfortable clothing for a a cave in a desert, bugs and honey, and a camel hair shirt.
For the life of me, whenever I read this passage, I think of God setting the scales right. As the list of governors and prefects goes on, I always picture a balance that is tipping more and more to one side. These people have positions, power, money, education, respect. One would have expected the word of God to come to them, right? Because God would surely only bother talking to important people, right? Because surely only people with all those things are worth talking to or listening to, right?
Cue sad trombone.
Christ, and John who announced his coming, had this way of turning everything his contemporaries thought was true one its head. Thought at the time (and sadly still today) was that some people were more important than others, and that importance was a result of them being more beloved by God. Quite literally, the logic was "I am more powerful/rich/important because God loves me more than other people.
But here is the message that God brought through Jesus and John: I love you all equally, regardless of your circumstances, and your circumstances are not a reflection of how much or how little I love you because I am love.
At least in the New Testament, wealth and power are not celebrated, and Jesus spends a great deal of time warning his listeners against wealth. I will reiterate that I don't think Jesus thought being wealthy in an of itself was evil, but he seems to have been keenly aware that wealth has a tendency of distracting us from what is really important in life, namely the aforementioned things like spirituality, family, friendship and community.
These are some of the hills and mountains that I think the author of Luke had in mind when he associated his quote from Isaiah and applied it to John and Jesus. Wealth, power and self-importance has a way of puffing us up and placing us on mountains where we feel above it all and too cool to care.
Jesus and John would see these hills made low. But the flip side of this Gospel passage, and the one that is least focused on when this Gospel is preached on, is also that John and Jesus would also see the valleys filled.
There is a darker side to the holidays. Perhaps due to the short days or the increased responsibilities, December reports of depression, anxiety, stress and even suicide are higher than other months. Many people don't have enough money to put food on their own table, much less take part in the artificially instilled consumerism that pervades this season. Many people can't afford to heat their homes. Many of us are spending our first Christmas without a loved one. Many of us have living friends and relatives with whom relationships are fractured, and the spirit of this season leads us to reflect on that.
In other words, some of us know precisely what it is to be down in a valley at this time of year, struggling to get up to level ground.
This, just as much as wealth, can distract us from the things that really matter, and John and Jesus would see those things leveled as well. Those who are up to high for their own good need to be brought down, and those who are too low for their own good need to be brought up. We need to be on level ground, both individually and communally for things to be right in our lives and in our world.
This Advent a Christmas, we need to reflect on those obstacles that may be in our lives, whether they be ego or a lack thereof, whether we feel above our fellow people or below them, whether we feel we are too important to care or not important enough to make a difference. These are obstacles we can do without, and God would have us live without them,