Luke 3: 1-6
Luke 3:1-2 reads: 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. What was John the Baptist doing among Luke’s veritable list of “who’s who” in ancient Palestine?
John who according to Luke was a distant relative of Jesus and happened to be the one to whom the Word of the Lord came John! Not the Emperor, or governor, or various other rulers and religious leaders, but John, the most unlikely of people; John, a ‘drop out’, a “nobody”, a loner and recluse who resided in the desert.
From him God speaks to his people. John is the person chosen by God to prepare the way for the coming of God’s Messiah!.
A particular theme of Luke is God’s suspicion of power, and preference for the marginalised. God regularly chooses the insignificant to point us in the right direction —to the world’s salvation.
John the Baptist, an insignificant, itinerant preacher; Mary the illiterate unmarried teenage mother; the insignificant shepherds at the very bottom of the economic ladder and to whom the news of Jesus birth are first the first to be told. Again and again, according to Luke, God chooses people the world easily ignores to participate in God’s world-changing, world-saving activity.
It was a 15 year old schoolgirl, Vinisha Ulmashankarv who was praised by the Duke of Cambridge for inventing a solar-powered ironing cart which aims to replace air-polluting charcoal clothes press used by street vendors in her homeland India. For this invention she was awarded Prince William’s Earthshot Prize. At a gathering of world leaders at the recent CoP 26 held in Glasgow, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden, this 15-year-old girl said: “Please don’t back an economy built on fossil fuels, smoke and pollution. Please stop debating the old debates! We need a new vision for a new future.”
“A new vision for a new future’. Is it possible that even we tend to look for God in all the wrong places?
After all, while world leader Caesar Augustus, whose pronouncements were always ‘headline news’, and Quirinius, the Syrian governor whose doings were ‘front-page’ news, it was a little pregnant, unmarried teenager who was about to give birth to history’s most significant child. Her action found no place in any news bulletin of the day. Yet, two billion of the world’s people today revere her child as saviour and Lord.
Are we looking for God in the wrong places? Are we even looking for God?
In our world, we still mostly look for hope to: Washington, Westminster, the City, the Stock Market, Wall Street.
According to Luke, an indeed the other Gospels, hope won’t come from those places; Not finally, not ultimately. Look instead to the unlikely places, to the world’s little people, the ‘nobodies’, to the victims of conflict and injustice, to the migrating hordes desperately searching for home & security. Look to the aid workers in Syria, Libya, the Yemen, the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan.
In Advent, as perhaps at almost any time of the year, it is so easy, for people in the church to have the wrong focus, to look to the wrong people. Even the manger scene has been imbued with so much glitter and sentimentality that in truth we forget sometimes that the birth of Jesus also took place in the middle of nowhere and, according to Luke, in a lowly cattle shed.
The Synoptic gospels all use Isaiah 40 to say the same thing – that the word of God emerged in John, from out of the wilderness. John’s message brings us to a place that most people prefer not to associate with Advent or Christmas, the wilderness!
The wilderness is a special place in the history of Israel. It was in the wilderness that the Israelite’s identity as the people of God was established during the wanderings of the Exodus. The “wilderness” is a place of uncharted territory. There are no maps or guides to surviving in the wilderness. You go into the wilderness and you may never be heard from again. Nevertheless, in this wild and uncharted place, God did something new.
For we who hear this reading about a nobody named John, gripped by the word of God in the bleak emptiness of the wilderness, are likewise suddenly, mysteriously, included in the story of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation that’s offered here and which culminates in the age that John ushers in.This is what is bequeathed in the birth of Jesus, and demonstrated powerfully in his life, not least his death and resurrection.
Revd Michael Diffey