|Sermon by: The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
December 9, 2018
Second Sunday of Advent
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Every year, on the second Sunday of Advent, we turn our attention to John the Baptizer. Most years, when we get to 2 Advent, John bursts onto the scene. He’s depicted marvelously in the opening scene of a classic Broadway show turned movie. I’m talking, of course, about Godspell. It’s a modern-day retelling of the gospel. Ok, it was modern in the 70s. As the film opens, folks are living life amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City – exiting office buildings, crossing streets, window shopping. Suddenly, a voice cries out:
🎶 Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. 🎶
Some appear not to notice, but others stop, listen, turn, and seek the source of voice. It’s a great visual of Matthew and Mark’s accounts of John the Baptizer; he appears in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Luke opens the account of John differently. He meticulously sets the stage with almost “pedantic attention to historical details.”
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 …
In this verbose subordinate clause, which could give St. Paul a run for his money, Luke lists 7 political and religious leaders and names (or implies) 7 geographic locations, all before he arrives at the noun and verb of his sentence.
As I read the text this week, I was tempted to gloss over these first two verses and move directly to Luke’s description of what John did and said. “Luke could use a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style,” I thought, recalling Rule #1: “omit needless words.” After all, what do these guys have to do with John or Jesus?
Of course, my question reveals I already have an answer in mind. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiphas: all are antithetical to Christ, known (if known at all) for their role in his demise. They have nothing to do with the good news.
That’s my answer; it is not Luke’s. Luke believes these political and religious figures have everything to do with the good news.
The overarching witness of Scripture is that God’s salvation history is inextricably entwined in – indeed, is worked out through – world history. God initiated world history by speaking creation into being. To bring blessing – salvation – to all the world, God called Abram to leave a particular place (Haran) and to “Go to the land that I will show you.” Hearing the cries of a particular people (Israelites) in a particular place (Egypt), God called Moses to “Go tell Pharaoh” that God would act to save God’s people. When those same people were in exile in another place (Babylon), God called Jeremiah to “Go” tell the people that God would act to save them from their plight. Over and over in Scripture, God enters into human history to bring salvation.
Luke wants us to understand this and to see – in the events described in his Gospel – the culmination of God’s entering into human history to bring salvation. In Luke’s list of politicians, places, and priests, we are given a window into the “convoluted and tightly-wound” environment of particular people into which John – and Jesus – will enter and act for the salvation of God’s people. Before telling us anything about John, Luke sets this stage for us. Then, Luke continues. “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.”
Just as Luke’s list of leaders and locations reminds his audience of other leaders and locations throughout salvation history, so too Luke’s phrase “the word of God came to John” reminds us of others to whom the word of God has come. Luke is using a well-known formula:
“The word of the Lord came to Samuel” (1 Sam 15:10).
“The word of the Lord came to Elijah (1 Kings 21:28).
“The word of the Lord came to Isaiah (Isa 38:4).
“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah (Jer 1:4).
When Luke tells us that the “word of God came to John”, we are meant to hear: “God sent a prophet to God’s people.” This is big news, both for those gathered around John and for Luke’s readers, because it’s been nearly 450 years since a prophet – Malachi – has spoken to God’s people. Think about that: God’s people haven’t heard the word of the Lord spoken in their midst for 450 years. If we gloss over Luke’s introduction to John in our haste to hear what John said and did, we’ll miss the significance of John the Baptizer. His voice crying out God’s word to God’s people announced to them “the triumphal return of the presence of God among the people of God” and called them to “prepare the way.”
John voice is still crying out God’s word to God’s people. In this season of Advent, which (as Father Casey reminded us last week), means “coming,” John reminds us that Jesus is coming – that he’ll return again in power and great glory. John beckons us to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Now’s the point at which, if I were hearing this sermon, I’d be wondering: “How? How do I prepare the way?”
Friends, I wish I could tell you. I worked hard this week to arrive at handy-dandy answer – a pithy statement that would describe (in three short steps) what each of us needs to do to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming again to judge the living and the dead. But I can’t, because there isn’t one way. Each of our hearts needs to “prepare him room” in our own way. Father Casey gave us excellent advice last week for beginning this work. He encouraged us to consider the “vast majority of Christians” who daily live with food insecurity, homelessness, civil unrest – to consider all would-be refugees, those whose native lands are threatened by the Tiberiuses and Pilates of our times – to remember that most Christians in the world observe Advent by “praying fervently for the day when God will tear open the heavens and come down in order to execute justice and righteousness in the land.” We need to allow our hearts to break as theirs do – to feel the longings of their hearts. Moreover, we need to get in touch with the reality that each of us, deep in our hearts, is longing for Jesus’ return too. In reality, each of us has a hole in our heart that is God-shaped and that, in spite of what our culture and its advertisers want us to believe, can only be filled by God. How you will connect with these truths is up to you. That is your Advent assignment.
Here’s what know: rather than glossing over Luke’s introduction to John the Baptizer this week, let’s dwell here for a while. After 450 years, God’s presence returned to God’s people: first through the prophet John and then in the person of Jesus. That context included:
- Tiberius, emperor of Rome, leader of the known world in his time. Proud, powerful, and tyrannical.
- Pilate who intentionally insulted his Jewish subjects and ended up on trial for cruelty and oppression of his subjects.
- Herod, known for his cruelty, mental instability, and jealousy.
- Annas, high priest before his son-in-law (Caiaphas), who was deposed by the Romans, but continued to cling to his power for years thereafter.
This doesn’t sound like ancient history. To me, at least, it sounds like the world in which I live and move and have my being. If John arrived on the scene today to proclaim the second coming of Christ and Luke were to write about it, I wonder if it would open:
In the third year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Greg Abbott was governor of Texas, and Mike Rawlings was mayor of Dallas, during the episcopate of George, with significant assistance from Wayne, the Word of the Lord came again.
[The following italicized section was added for clarification based upon feedback received.]
Now, before I continue, let me pause and say: had I preached this sermon two lectionary cycles ago, the foregoing would have read:
In the fourth year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when Rick Perry was governor of Texas, and Mike Rawlings was mayor of Dallas, during the episcopate of James, with significant assistance from Paul, the Word of the Lord came again.
In other words, by including a list of leaders and locations from our context, I do not intend to express an opinion on their politics or suitability for office. The point I’m trying to make is that our culture and its leadership are just as “convoluted and tightly-wound” as John’s were.
We live in challenging times. Many Christians are “praying fervently for the day when God will tear open the heavens and come down in order to execute justice and righteousness.” Whether we admit it or not, we too long for that day, for each of us has a God-shaped hole in our heart which will only be filled by God. So, friends, prepare ye the way of the Lord.
And all God’s people said, Amen.
 Veli-Matti KãRkkãInen, “Theological Perspective” from Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Advent 2.
 Miriam J. Kamell, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Advent 2.
 The Rev. Casey Shobe, sermon preached on December 2, 2018 at The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration.