A voice in the wilderness
Sermon at All Saints Coddington for Advent 2 2015
Luke 3.1-6; Luke 21.25-36
After the first reading, you may well have been quietly asking me, what’s with the list of names we’ve never heard of? And the places you can barely pronounce, let alone locate on a map? Tiberius, Lysanias, who were they? Abilene, where on earth is that?
It’s a good question, lists of names in the bible can be, well, slightly dull. To some extent, the list is a device for narrowing down the date perhaps, but here, I think there’s something else going on. These were the big names of the day, well known to the original intended readers all those years ago.
So it’s saying, when all these big-wigs were ruling the roost and strutting their stuff, God spoke to... John. John? Who’s John for goodness sake?
Bear with me while I play with that idea a minute.
Towards the end of Barrack Obama’s presidency, when Vladimir Putin was doing this and that, and dreadful things were happening in the Middle East, but, hey England’s football team had qualified for the European Cup, God spoke to Janet? John? <insert own name> in a small parish church in Herefordshire.
It’s that sudden mismatch of the great and the good in the reading with ... John? John who? that makes the list worth hearing. It’s a powerful reminder that God’s way of seeing the world is quite different to what ours can often be. To God, everyone is important, everyone matters. To God a life of quiet faith from any one of us is a source of joy to him.
There’s another mismatch in the run-up to the other reading we had from Luke, much later in the gospel. For one disciple it could have been a case of “I wish I hadn’t broached that subject.” Imagine, one sunny day, as mentioned in Luke 21.5 and various other gospels, the disciples were strolling through Jerusalem near the temple and one of them chanced to comment on how nice it looked - impressive stonework and any amount of beautiful decorations, what a picture it was on such a lovely sunny day. Or words to that effect. An innocuous enough comment, you’d have thought but it was the cue for a solid 31 verse mouthful from Jesus which started with the prediction to mark his words and know that it would all soon be destroyed and gone, building through a fearsome description of the end of days and finishing perhaps somewhat breathlessly along the lines of “so you’d better keep your wits about you.”
We heard the latter half of that discourse in our gospel reading and I bet it was more than that disciple bargained for when he spoke - I only said the temple’s looking quite nice!
It’s perhaps worth emphasising the extent to which this apocalyptic talk by Jesus came right out of the blue. His ministry to that point had been local, relatively low key. Probably his disciples were beginning to feel quite comfortable with their lives, happy to be tagging along with this popular fellow Jesus, just strolling through the city. When bang! It’s not going to carry on like this, Jesus reminds them - nothing in this world lasts for ever. Keep alert!
And that’s the reason I’ve asked for two readings both from Luke’s gospel. The one from early on reminds us that in the first three chapters global expectations are raised - think of the magnificat and Zechariah’s song in chapter 1, recall the appearance of the angels and the song of Simeon in chapter 2 then John himself in chapter three forecasting as he did:
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.
And then we read of Jesus’ ministry as it gradually unfolds. It’s impressive, yes, and full of good teaching and wonderful deeds but fair to say, I think, all very local and rather low key, at least by the standards that John seemed to be expecting.
Until we get to that second reading from right near the end of his ministry when Jesus is the one with the apocalyptic forecast. It’s not going to carry on like this, he reminds his hearers - nothing in this world lasts for ever. Keep alert!
It’s very fanciful, I know, but you can almost imagine John saying “yes, that’s more like it.”
There’s something in that for us, I think - we shouldn’t make this apocalyptic stuff the whole story but remember that much of Jesus’ ministry was local, low key. It’s not a bad thing to be going along quietly, faithfully in a low key fashion. Most of the time it’s going to be like that, but just once a year comes this timely reminder that it’s not always going to be that way, and we should just keep aware of that.
Tiberius, Lysanias and all - it was an impressive list of names, but the word of God came to... John. John who? Someone no-one had ever heard of. Likewise the world at large may have have little idea who or indeed, where we are but what has happened here this morning is significant. We have heard the word of God and sung his praises. Allelujah. May all we be strengthened in lives of quiet faith in him. Amen.