Advent 2 Luke 3:1-6
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On my Facebook page is a video that asks “Did you know that the top ten in-demand jobs for 2010 did not even exist in 2004? We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet. The amount of technical information is doubling every two years. For students starting a four-year technical degree this means half of what they learn in the first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.”
In such a world what does it mean to prepare for anything? How can you prepare when the week’s newspapers you put out for recycling contains more information than a person living in the 18th century would come across in their entire lifetime?
When I was eight my teacher who was approaching retirement age stunned us one day when she shared that when she was our age she rode to school in a horse and buggy. We could not wrap our minds around a world without cars or how old she must really be. Now that I’m about her age, my eight year old grandson would be equally stunned that when I went to seminary only half my lifetime ago I used a quaint device called a typewriter to write papers and went to a place called a library to research them.
Beyond things like preparing a meal or preparing to go to bed, being prepared for what’s coming in life is nearly impossible and only getting more so. If we are not careful we could spend all our time preparing for life instead of living it. Yet on the Second Sunday of Advent every year God tells John the Baptist in the wilderness it is time. Time to prepare a way for the Lord.
Granted, Luke didn’t live in the digital age, so preparation may have been a little easier when folk didn’t have an inbox full of email. But for the sake of argument, even today he might have written this because some things never change, especially power and those who wield it.
Luke seems to be suggesting that there are political implications to preparing the way for the Lord. Look at his introduction of John: "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, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
He could’ve just said, “On the 10th of December in the year 30 the word of God came to John?” Why does he say more? Well, let me change the names and let's see if it gives you a feel for how it might have sounded at the time: “In the second year of the prime ministership of John Key, when Barack Obama was President of the USA, and Gordon Brown was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and John Banks was Mayor of Auckland, during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and while John Paterson was the Bishop of Auckland, the word of God came to Bertie Boggs in the bush, and she went everywhere announcing that it was time for people to wake up to themselves, turn things around, and get things back on track.”
Changing the names evoke real life associations for us. We see that locating John's message in the midst of it is making a direct challenge to the status quo maintained by those in power. All these folk together think they are in control of every square inch of the world. They seek to make sure it is their word we listen to. Luke challenges this notion. Luke is suggesting that established political and religious powers are not going to come up with a strategy for preparing a way for the new life Jesus represents. They may be able to build a bike path from Cape Reinga to Invercargill, but no matter how many hills they can level or valleys they can fill doing it they are not going to prepare a way for us to live as fully as we were created to live.
No, according to Luke, God didn’t speak to the political and religious powers of the day to announce something radically new. God knows that’s the last place to announce something like that. They would just seek to distort it, contain it, tame it; use it to maintain control. God needed a John in the wilderness. God needed to go bush.
It isn’t just that the wilderness isn’t in the city where governments, universities, media outlets, cathedrals and other mainstays of the status quo reside; the wilderness is more than a geographical location. It is a state of being that is beyond the fringes of normal certainties. It is a place where we can see with different eyes; a place where the new and unimaginable can happen; a place where divine love might break through and change us. The wilderness is a mysterious place of transformation.
Luke suggests if we want to hear God, the wilderness is the place to go because it is by definition a place beyond human control. The problem is when most of us think back at our times in the wilderness we don’t think of it as a desirable vacation spot we wish to return to precisely because it is a place where we are out of control. It is often a place of loss; a place of grief; a place of disappointment. It is where our lives have unexpectedly been turned upside down by a bad medical prognosis, a family death, a lost job, a broken relationship to name but a few. Usually we are thrust into wilderness spaces, but what Luke implies is that we should go there voluntarily as well.
Social theorists have a term for the wilderness. They describe it as “liminal.” The term was first coined to describe worship and rituals that are rites of passage. Baptism, Confirmation, Communion and Marriage are all liminal rites. A liminal place or time is where boundaries dissolve a little and we stand there, on the threshold, getting ourselves ready to move across the limits of what we were into what we are to be. It is the space where we are cut loose from the normal realities and we take the risk of living beyond the bounds of the known and safe and predictable and explainable. If transformation occurs, we don't just return to the old realities. We come out as new people in a new place. We are changed. The old is gone, and all things are made new. The wilderness is that risky and uncertain place where we might hear something new and be radically changed by it. In Luke’s story, John not only lives in a liminal place, he is a liminal person. He is the last of the prophets. He is the best of what we were. Yet, from the wilderness he calls us to what we can be, Jesus. His message, God’s message, is that the way things are is not the way things have to be. We have the power to make that shift. We are not helpless in the face of all that would diminish us.
Too often the liminal place seems too risky, too outside the norm; too uncontrollable. When we are outside the wilderness it seems too much of an ask to embrace it. Why upset the apple cart? One reason to do so is pragmatic. Life’s circumstances will thrust us there anyway. Embracing it instead of living in the illusion that proper preparation can help us avoid it changes our whole mind-set. The wilderness becomes a sanctuary where we seek more of life. It is where we can remember, no matter how bad it gets, I’m still alive; I might as well give living it fully a go.
God, through John, is calling us to always give it a go. But embracing the wilderness means embracing its transformative power. That means it will be hard work leveling hills and filling in valleys. It begins with opening ourselves to the wild possibilities that are beyond the reach of the powers that be, in their arrogant belief that they have the territory all carved up and labeled and under control. It begins with letting go of the notion that the state or the church or a superman god can magically change our circumstances. It begins with listening to the god within us. It begins with opening ourselves to the absurd possibility that we can live life fully alive no matter what happens next. We proclaim that Word every time we break bread and share wine together. By embracing the wilderness we become a liminal people offering more hope to the world than all the politicians and scientists and theologians can ever prescribe. As a liminal people we become the Way of the Lord. We become the rite of passage for love to enter the world.