How many days until Christmas? Is anyone counting down? I think it’s 14! Are you ready? What kinds of things do you do to get ready for Christmas?
You make your list. You might buy presents. What else?
Now, I have a slightly different question. Are you ready for Jesus’ birth? What kinds of things might you need to do to get ready to welcome Jesus?
Read the Bible, pray, worship, sing, celebrate with family and friends.
What’s the difference between getting ready for Christmas and getting ready for Jesus?
Let’s pray. God, we thank you for sending us your Son to live with us and die for us. While we get ready for Christmas, help us get ready to welcome Jesus, as well. Amen.
Technically, our gospel passage this week should have stopped with John’s proclamation to prepare the way of the Lord…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. But with the Christmas program next week, we miss an important part of John’s story, so I decided to put it all together for us today.
What I find interesting about putting it together, however, is just how subtle Luke is in crafting what is going on in the story. He book-ends John’s ministry with powerful people, powerful positions, and powerful actions. Luke starts out by setting the landscape. He names seven of the most influential people in Israel’s world: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brothers Philip and Lysanias, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. And at the end of John’s story, we learn that he is arrested by Herod, who was not only corrupt and evil but didn’t like what John was saying about his affair with Philip’s wife. Herod used his power to get what he wanted.
But in between the powers, we find something altogether different. Just after Luke lists the seven influential people, he saves the real action for John. “In the reign of Tiberius, when Pilate was governor and Herod and Philip and Lysanias were rulers and Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. The Word didn’t come to the Emperor or the governor or the president or the mayor or the king or the bishop. The Word came to the crazy guy in the wilderness. Not exactly how one expects a mighty God to work. But there you have it.
The word of God came to John. Imagine how the opening part of this text would sound today. “In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, while Pete Rickets was governor of Nebraska and Mike Foley Lieutenant Governor, when Chris Beutler was Mayor of the city of Lincoln, during the time when Elizabeth Eaton was Bishop of the ELCA and Brian Maas was Bishop of the Nebraska Synod, and Warren Buffet of Omaha was one of the richest people in the world, the Word of God came to…who?
Came to the farmer in Clatonia. Came to the factory worker at Kawasaki. Came to the secretary at Randolph Elementary. Came to the homeless man on 12th & P. Came to the migrant living with his cousin in a 1-bedroom apartment alongside seven other people. Came to the first-grader struggling with math. Came to the teenager addicted to meth. Maybe you can name these people, maybe you can’t. But this is how the Word of God works.
When Samuel was sent to anoint a new king after Saul turned away from God to pursue his own glory, Samuel went to Jesse. Jesse brought out his seven finest sons for Samuel to consider, but God told him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
As Karoline Lewis says, “Our tendency to immortalize our influence with names on towers, to capitulate to people who wield power with their wealth alone, to bank the promise of our future on those who have only themselves on their minds, continues. And yet, at the name of Jesus, power is thus reoriented. The name of Jesus demands that we construe power differently. Those who seem to have power, especially contingent on name alone, should have their power questioned — just what kind of power is it? On what is it based? By what authority? And for what purpose?” The Lord looks on the heart. And the Word of God came to John in the wilderness.
He was not the Word, but he witnessed to the Word. He pointed to the Word. The Word came to him in the wilderness to be baptized. The Word came to him in humility. He came anonymously. He came as one unknown, not famous, not recognized, unfamiliar and unaccepted. And he changed the world. He began the process that is still at work in the world—the valleys are lifted up and the mountains brought down low. This isn’t a commentary on physical landscape but political landscape.
There’s a reason Luke places John’s proclamation in the context of the powers of the world. Because those powers will not last. They are temporary. Fragile. They will not last. Money will come and go. Positions will come and go. Those who stake their well-being on their own status—on their name—will not be here forever. And they aren’t as influential as they think they are.
However, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is a lasting power. Born to a single mother, raised by a dad not his own, brought up in an inconsequential town, in an inconsequential country, a refugee for a time, a nobody to the people—this Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one is the lasting Word that cannot be erased from the world. He is the name above all names. He is the first Word and the last. He is the One who establishes justice and peace and hope. All those other names and people and powers and positions—they are nothing compared to this nobody who steps into the world without anyone noticing.
He’s not even mentioned by name in today’s reading, but he still wields a power that calls people to ask, “What shall we do?” And John’s answer? Live your lives with integrity. With honesty. With kindness. Give when you already have enough. Don’t take more than your share. Don’t place your trust in names or status or wealth that cannot fill you. Place your trust and your hearts in one who even I am not worthy to serve. And yet, he will serve us all.
That’s what a true leader looks like. The word came to John in the wilderness, and John knew exactly what to do with it. He spoke the word. He proclaimed the word. He served the word. He loved the word. The Word of God has come to you and to me, as well. We, who are both powerful and lowly in various contexts. The Word of God has come. And the Word of God is coming again. Thanks be to God.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church