Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2015: Baruch 5:1-9, Canticle 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
Godspell is one of my favorite musicals. My dad had the album and often played it loudly when I was a child. I listened to the record and memorized the songs long before I ever saw the movie or stage version. So I missed one crucial detail in the casting.
After a weird prologue that I’ve never really understood, the show opens with John the Baptist singing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Then the future disciples start walking up to hear him. He gets out water and baptizes them and they all join in. This is the song of baptism – prepare the way of the Lord. Then Jesus shows up. He receives John’s baptism. He sings about God saving the people.
But here’s the detail I missed. In the show, the character of John the Baptist basically disappears, which is fitting because John was murdered by Herod early in Jesus’s ministry. Later in the show, the actor playing John the Baptist becomes Judas. The preparer becomes the betrayer.
That’s not the way the story goes in Luke’s gospel, of course. John the Baptist and Judas are two distinct individuals. They both met tragic ends for very different reasons. But Stephen Schwartz brilliantly linked them in the show to remind us how easy it is to switch from one to the other. We can be John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord to enter this world, save the people, and make things right. And we can be Judas, who handed the Son of God over to death.
Mayor Tomlinson spoke with us on Monday. Though she didn’t use these exact words, she spoke about being John the Baptist and Judas. We invited her here to talk about hope for this community, especially hope for people in need among us. In a nutshell, she said the way to bring hope to people in need is to be a voice crying in the wilderness.
I was surprised by her comments, in a way. I expected her to talk about particular initiatives or programs her office is promoting. I thought she might say something about economic development or social services. Instead, she said hope for people in need in this community resides in some part in us and in our willingness to speak up and enter civic life. She rightly pointed out that people of good will can pour ourselves out in service to others. We can coach soccer teams and mentor kids and operate food pantries and provide utility assistance and house homeless families in our church all day long. By doing these things, we will help some people, and that is a good thing. But if we don’t enter the civic arena, if we don’t support infrastructure improvements that help poor families, if we don’t encourage things like public transportation and safe ways for people without a car to walk or bike to work, if we don’t speak up in favor of initiatives that reduce urban blight, if we don’t encourage economic development, if we don’t help the city help others, the good we try to do leaves the people we seek to help with no way to get to work, surrounded by poverty on every side, with few options for the future. And she said, sadly, politics is controlled by those who speak up most often. Voices of fear usually speak more loudly than voices of hope. If we want to bring real, lasting hope to people in need around us, we have to be like John the Baptist and be the voice of hope crying in the wilderness.
So notice how the story of John the Baptist begins in Luke’s gospel. The present day equivalent would be, “In the sixth year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when Nathan Deal was governor of Georgia and Teresa Tomlinson Mayor of Columbus, just after Michael Curry was installed as Presiding Bishop.” Luke made clear mention of a specific time in political and religious history – 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.
Luke wanted us to know precisely when these things happened because the context was so important. Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, and Philip were frightening leaders. They levied heavy taxes that impoverished the masses. In Judea, they ruled with fear. It was a police state. On duty soldiers were everywhere. And Annas and Caiaphas were in the emperor’s pockets, using the Temple system to support the Roman establishment. Ordinary people were oppressed by Rome and by religion. This time in history was about as far from God’s dream and intention as you could get. Yet in that particular moment, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
John was important. Jesus called him the greatest of all born of women. But John was by no means the only person to hear the Word of the Lord. That Word came earlier to Isaiah and to many others. Despite the catchy song from Godspell, John was not the one who said, “Prepare ye the way.” That was Isaiah. Luke quoted Isaiah in reference to John to say that the Word of the Lord came to John just as it had come to Isaiah and all the prophets and Moses and Abraham and all who had worked with God to set people free.
So in that particular time of fear and division and instability, the Word of the Lord came to John.
And in this particular time of fear and division and instability, the Word of the Lord comes to us, too. We have received the same good news that empowered John. We know what God’s dream for the world looks like. Mary sang about it – God’s mercy and generosity and saving work for all people. It is the vision of the prophets – a level playing field, treating others as we would want to be treated, safety and abundance for all people. And the question is will we proclaim the Word of the Lord and call the world around us to repent, like John the Baptist, or will we be like Judas and sell out and hand Jesus over?
Becoming Judas happens in an instant. Mayor Tomlinson gave us some examples. You’re at a dinner party and someone starts spreading lies or fear. What do you do? Deny the truth? Deny what is for us the good news of the gospel? Or speak up? You don’t have to be mean about it. She said she often uses confusion as a tactic. If someone is spouting lies she often responds by saying, “You know, I’m confused by what you’re saying. I don’t understand how that can be true. My understanding is this.” She said if you speak up, if you enter into the difficult conversation, usually others will join you in the breech. No one likes to enter the wilderness first. But usually others will follow. She encouraged people of good will, people who care about the needs of this community, to speak up. That’s where hope lies.
The wilderness in which John preached was a physical wilderness with trees and brush and a river. The wilderness in which we speak is the polarization and division of our time. The wilderness is competing Facebook posts and the comments section of the Ledger Enquirer. The wilderness is the dinner party Mayor Tomlinson described. But then and now our gospel lesson reminds us the wilderness is where God is most active. The wilderness is where God goes ahead of us to fill the valleys and level the playing field and straighten us out.
God sends us into the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Amen.
Image John the Baptist by El Greco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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© 2015 The Rev’d Grace Burton-Edwards
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
2100 Hilton Ave.
Columbus, GA 31906