Advent 2: Sunday December 9, 2018
Rev. Laura Everett guest preaching at the Federated Church of Hyannis
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontious 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 the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” ~Luke 3:1
Now, you and I can hear how hard it is to get through this run-on sentence. Imagine it in Greek. Imagine it, a sentence not written down, but told around the table, around the fire. You can hear the piling up of power, Emperors and Governors and Rulers and Priests. The Gospel writer Luke is name-checking the powerful, placing this story in a particular time and place. And for all of Luke’s Jewish listeners, they would have not just heard a list of names, but names of foreign powers and kin complicit with the Roman occupation of Judea. Luke isn’t messing around. He’s not just calling out the political occupiers, but he drops in the names of the Temple priests- all men of authority and power.
Seven powerful men. Important. Famous. Men who could make things happen or destroy your life. Men who controlled your civic life, political life, your movements and even your access to God. Men who set the rule and could decide when they could break them. Men who had all the worldly power they could muster, and more often than not, used that power for themselves. After all those bold-faced names, Luke declares, “The Word of God came to John, the son of Zachariah, in the wilderness.” Who? You know, John. The Son of a small town priest Zachariah? A wandering mystic best known for eating locus and wearing camelhair. Where does the Word of God come? To a nobody in the wilderness.
Outside of the city, outside the control of the Governor, outside of the Temple, the Word of God shows up in the wilderness of Judea. The word in Greek is ἔρημος (er’-ay-mos) and used as an adjective it can mean desolate or deserted. When used as a noun, it can mean a lonely, desolate or deserted person. This is where the Word of God chooses to show up- to a strange person in a lonely place. And we’ve been here before.
When the Israelites were enslaved by Pharaoh, God sent them into the wilderness to get free. They were heading to the promised land, but first, they had to be in the wilderness. There are no promises that the wilderness will be easy. But God does have a tendency to show up in the wilderness.
One of the great joys of my ministry is that I get to visit lots of churches: big churches, small churches, main street/center of the town churches and hard to find churches, financially wealthy churches and churches barely scrapping together enough money each week to pay the heating bill, let alone pay the pastor. I get to visit churches that date their founding to the Pilgrims and churches full of new immigrants. And for many churches, this is a time of wilderness. What you are experiencing here is not unique. In fact, many local congregations are struggling, for a number of different reasons. The wilderness is harsh, and the path uncertain, but it is also where God has a tendency to show up.
And a word of caution: there’s a danger in the wilderness. For more established churches, and in my experience, white, and well-off churches, we have a tendency to think that we know how to navigate the wilderness. We are capable, competent, smart, and have resources. We’ve led classrooms and corporations. We have an expectation that money or skill or hardwork can solve our struggles. And so, we think that we can lead ourselves out of the wilderness. We think we can tell God how long we’ll be in the wilderness and when we’d like to be home for supper.
In my experience, the churches across Massachusetts that are thriving are not all the same. Some are small, some large, some with innovative worship and some very traditional. Some have enough money and others don’t. But they share two characteristics that I’ve noticed. First, they are wildly interested in the flourishing of life in their neighbors. And not just in some “we welcome everyone “ once they get in the door” kinda way. They are outwardly focused. Their neighbors’ lives are qualitatively better because of that particular church.
Second, they actually trust God. These churches have rich spiritual lives, regardless of how much is in their bank account. They are watching and waiting and listening to God. They are slowing down enough together to listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit. They follow where Christ leads them, and not the other way around. Churches that are flourish are growing accustomed to the wilderness, and trusting God to lead them.
But we don’t like the wilderness, do we? It’s hard to manage, hard to trust. This season of Advent asks us to wait. Not to rush ahead, but to wait in the wilderness for the Word of God to be born. The nights get longer and it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever see the sun again. We fear that wilderness, that darkness. But that is where the Word of God appears.
The poet Lucille Clifton has a glorious poem from 1987 about John the Baptist I’d like to read to you:
BY LUCILLE CLIFTON
somebody coming in blackness
like a star
and the world be a great bush
on his head
and his eyes be fire
in the city
and his mouth be true as time
he be calling the people brother
even in the prison
even in the jail
i’m just only a baptist preacher
somebody bigger than me coming
in blackness like a star
For Lucile Clifton, she imagines john the Baptist saying “I’m just a Baptist preacher/ somebody bigger than me coming/in blackness like a star.” It’s only the dark night sky, only the blackness that allows your eyes to see a star. It’s only the quiet wilderness where you can hear the voice of One crying out. It’s only when we are outside of our comfort that we trust God to lead us.
A few weeks ago, I went to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary art in western Mass. There’s a big exhibit up of art by James Turrell. He explores ideas of perception, sculpting with light. We’d enter rooms where the light from behind a white wall would trick your eyes into seeing things, or confusing colors. It was all strange and beautiful. But the piece I remember the most was one that started in darkness. The wall text said something like “Be patient. It can take up to fifteen minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.” My wife, sister and I entered this pitch black room, through a long hallway. We ran our hands against the wall, unsure of where we were going or what was in front of us. We fumbled around and found a bench. And we sat. And we waited. Other people came in to the room, unsure of what to expect. Some left almost immediately. Others spoke to their companions, seeming almost scared. But after a while, we settled into a silence. Our eyes kept adjusting, and after some more time, slowly what was in front of us emerged. There was more color, more light, more going on than we had initially understood. We could see more. The wilderness cannot be rushed. Attend to the blackness and give your eyes time to adjust so you can find that star.
“In the second year of the reign of President Trump, when Charlie Baker was governor of Massachusetts, and Bill Keating was Representative of the 9thDistrict, including Cape Cod, and Eric R. Steinhilber was Town Council President and Mark Ells the Town Manager of Barnstable, during the high priesthood of Philomena Hare, the word of God came to the Federated Church of Hyannis in the wilderness. “
Attend to your wilderness and stay there.