"What Were They Waiting For?"

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  Luke 3:2

At this moment I can’t think of many sentences more profound than that.  At this particular historical moment of time, this one verse of scripture pops out at me and demands some attention.  To tell you why, we need to take a quick look at John’s particular historical moment of time.

Preached February 1, 2015  at St Paul and St Andrew UMC, NYC by K Karpen

And because I saw a few of your eyes begin to glaze over somewhere between Ituraea and Trachonitis, somewhere between Tiberius and Lysanias, I’m going to do you a favor and read that part over again, bit by bit. You’re welcome.

3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,

In the 15th year, so the guy should have been well established in Rome. But while he’d been a great general, he was no great thing of an emperor.  Pliny the Elder called him tristissimus hominum, the gloomiest of men. He never actually wanted to be Emperor, they made him.  He spent a lot of time sitting in the dark by himself. And a couple of years before this particular historical moment, he gave up on it altogether and left Rome, and left the empire in the hands of a couple of unscrupulous prefects, who ruled cruelly and sometimes randomly, so it’s not a good time throughout the empire.

when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,

We know about him, he’s the Roman lackey running the show in Jerusalem, the one who liked to wash his hands. We know that he is in the province of Palestine to keep order.  We know that the people he was theoretically there to protect were often the victims of the violence of his soldiers and police.

and Herod was ruler of Galilee,

That’s Herod, Jr. Not the Christmas Herod who murdered the children, but the ‘walk across my swimming pool’ Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. Stepfather of Salome, the dancer. The guy that’s going to make John the Baptist really lose his head.

and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,

I have no idea where Ituraea is, and Trachonitis sounds like a respiratory disease.  Philip is thought to be a little less insane and despotic than the others mentioned in this passage, but maybe that’s just because we know less about him.

and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,

Now, we’re getting into the religious context, which, with Rome in charge of the whole region, is not very different from the political context. According to the gospels, Caiaphas is the high priest who will charge Jesus with blasphemy and with claiming to be the messiah. Blasphemy wasn’t something the Romans cared about, but Messiah was a title with political and even military overtones, and that Rome cared about very much.  More on that in a minute.

And finally, after this exhaustive and maybe wearying historical introduction we get to Luke’s whole point, which is my point as well.

Remember? Help me-

…the word of __ God came to __ John son of __ Zechariah, where?    In the wilderness.

After all these famous and powerful people are listed off ad nauseum, the word of God came to nobody son of no one out in the middle of nowhere.


In the wilderness.  The Judean desert, the deserted desert.


But it is not deserted for long, because once the Word of God arrives, once John begins to earn a reputation for plain speaking and challenging the status quo, people begin flocking out to the middle of nowhere to hear him.


And what does John tell them to do?  Quoting Isaiah, he tells the people to get ready.  To get ready for the inbreaking of God.  To get ready for the possibility that this Word of God, which has found it’s way improbably into the middle of nowhere, will find a place in their lives as well. In whatever wilderness they find themselves.


John tells them that what they have been waiting for will soon be with them.


And what were they waiting for?


Like us, they were waiting for a few different things.


An end to fear and violence.

An end to selfishness and exploitation.

And end to despotism and demagoguery.


They were waiting for a political figure who would restore hope and justice in place of a political and social and economic system that benefitted only a very, very few at the expense of the many.


They were waiting for a religious figure who wouldn’t be self-serving, self-aggrandizing or corrupt.


They were waiting for a leader who could bring the social order closer to the prophetic vision of love, justice and reconciliation.


And they called that figure the ‘anointed person’, the Messiah, ha-Meshiach in Hebrew, Christos in Greek, Christ to you and me.


They are waiting.  But John calls them to an active waiting.


Prepare the way of the Lord,
make God’s paths straight.

he tells them. Prepare, get ready, straighten the paths. Interesting that the word for paths is plural.  We forget sometimes that scripture understands there are many paths to God, and many paths for God.  Prepare the paths, Get ready. Don’t sit around.  Preparing the paths requires some heavy lifting.  Preparing the paths involves some extensive roadwork.

5 Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth;

And, finally, comes this remarkable phrase:

6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ‘

All flesh, all people.  Not just the Jewish flesh.  Not, for us, just the Christian flesh.  All flesh, all people, will witness the amazing life-saving, hope-restoring work of God.


We could use a little of that salvation, a little bit of that life-saving, hope-restoring work.  All of us could.  All flesh could stand to witness a bit of that.


It’s been a rough few weeks.  You don’t need to hear from me the litany of what’s been going on.  But our already shaky sense of safety and well-being has been rocked to the roots.  And that has allowed the purveyors of fear to have more of a say than maybe they should.


Anti-Muslim rhetoric has poured out of the mouths of people who should know better.


Christian chauvinism is too often pawned off as the religion of Jesus.  It makes me want to spit, it really does.


Only the latest is from the mouth of the head of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., who told his students, to rousing applause, to carry concealed weapons on campus to counter any possible armed attack, saying, quote We could end those Muslims before they walk in.”  Probably not meant the way it sounds, but still.


I know people are upset, I know that people can say whatever they want, but don’t call it Christian, don’t slander the name of Jesus, don’t go hindering the cause of Christ by promoting self-defense in the name of the one who told us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, who lunched with is haters.  Don’t confuse the cause of Christ by mixing revenge in with the guy who said, ‘Father forgive them’ as he hung dying on a cross build of hate and fear.


So, this Advent, I think we have some heavy lifting to do. And it has very little to do with toting present-laden bags back to the apartment.


It has to do with this: Preparing a way for our Lord.  Straightening out the paths for God.  Make the will and way of God clear to people who are understandably confused.  Getting ourselves ready to receive Christ, the real Christ into our lives so we can share Christ, the real Christ, with other people.


Getting this world ready for the inbreaking of love and hope, so that surely, someday, all flesh can witness together the life-saving, hope-restoring salvation of our God.


I’ll have more to say about this next week.

But, for now, get ready for some heavy lifting.



I want to be ready, like John

I want to be ready when he calls me

I’m trying to get my house in order

So I can walk in the wilderness just like John