December 9, 2018
The Second Sunday in Advent
(Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6)
Why is Luke every historian's favorite gospel? Why do we treat Luke's account of Jesus' birth as the "real one" -- the one it just wouldn't be Christmas without hearing? Even Charles Schulz used this one for Linus to recite!
Luke adds all those nice historical details that make the story come alive. Luke's wealth of names, places, dates and events animates the ancient world, making it seem less like "Scripture" and more like story time.
But do you think you might be comfortable with putting today's Gospel text into a bit more current historical context -- bringing Luke's setting a little closer to home? As an example:
In the second year of the administration of President Donald Trump, when Jerry Brown was governor of the state of California, Kevin Faulconer was mayor of San Diego, Ron Roberts was county supervisor in San Diego County fourth district, during the time when Dean Bekken was Presiding Bishop for the Universal Catholic Church, the Word of the Lord came to you and me! And you went out into your neighborhood, appeared before your city council, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Probably not for most of you, but at least it is easier to pronounce than all those names and places in Luke!
Suddenly the beginning of the Christmas story seem a bit too real, doesn't they? It's so much more comfortable and cozy to read Luke's version, to feel the life pulsing through ancient characters, to sit here safely in the 21st century and know that this has already happened, like Star Wars, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."
We don't want the Christmas story too up close and personal. Today's text is maybe most disturbing when we move it into our own place and time. It suddenly begins to dawn on us just how audacious was John the Baptist's mission and message.
Of course, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that the first-century world to which John the Baptist was called to reach and preach was a very different place from the postmodern world of today. But, when you get right down to it, was it really all that different? Luke describes it for us in traditional political terms we can all recognize. First-century civilization was organized into political entities. There were local boards, city officials, regional directors, territorial governors and heads of state. Existing organizationally separate from this political structure was a religious structure. The religious leaders thought they wielded considerable authority. Political leaders tended to let them alone until they threatened to interfere in something deemed important to the state. The two groups John the Baptist singles out, and those most reviled by the general population as needing behavior modification, are those the person in the street thought were always in their pockets (the "tax collectors") or on their backs (the "soldiers").
Ultimately, when you get right down to it, the first century wasn't all that different from the world we inhabit in the 21st century after all. But surely we can reassure ourselves that a raspy, rugged John the Baptist-type figure was needed in those days because it was a pre-Christian era, as yet untouched and unmoved by the Good News of the Gospel. That culture was organized around the worship of pagan gods or simply designed around the political and economic powers of those who were rich and powerful, those who lived by different rules and standards than common people, those with money and status who became themselves popular cult figures.
So, we have the Old World: Pre-Christian. The New World: Christian. So now the differences between centuries 1 and 21 are clear, right? Not really. The truth is that, like John the Baptist, we are all now living in a pre-Christian era.
Not "post-Christian," as often think. It's not a post-Christian era because "post" implies that Christianity was something we had so absorbed that it became part and parcel of popular culture. Can we look honestly at ourselves and our culture and claim it to be post-Christian? Did we ever make it "Christian" in the first place?
Let’s face it, as of 2010, the last “officially tabulated” count, Christianity was by far the world's largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31 percent) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth," the Pew report says. "Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population. So, not really “post-Christian”, but maybe close in some sectors. But, let’s think about this:
Who can look at the terrorists and gangs of empty-hearted youth that exist on violence and despair, and claim we are post-Christian?
Who can look at the greed and gluttony of some corporate land-sharks, and claim we are post-Christian?
Who can look at the wealth and waste of a Beverly Hills standing next to the filth and poverty of a housing project in, say Ethiopian district, for example and claim we are post-Christian?
Who can look at the loneliness and hurt in the eyes and smells of those shut away in "nursing homes," and claim we are post-Christian?
Who can look at the way we steward our resources of air, land, water and fellow creatures, disbelieve in global warming and claim we are post-Christian?
And the list goes on?
The truth is, like John the Baptist, we are still living in a pre-Christian age. We have yet to be touched, transformed and fine-tuned into communities that are Christ's bodies. Facing this truth sets us free to do John the Baptist ministries. John's message is still the precise one this culture needs to hear proclaimed: "Prepare the way of the Lord."
Let’s think about this. Are you as willing to stand out in a crowd as was John the Baptist? Are you as willing to ruffle some feathers as was John the Baptist? Are you as willing to speak out against customs and conventions that defy the Lord's ways as was John the Baptist? Are you as willing to look odd or foolish for the sake of the Gospel as was John the Baptist? Are you just as willing to live life in "the Way," in "God's Way," as was John the Baptist? When we are honest, we all probably would answer, “no”, to these questions.
We may not be a post-Christian country, but we are a post-Resurrection people. In fact, this pre-Christian culture desperately needs a post-Resurrection people.
Of course, some things have indeed changed since John the Baptist urged the crowds who followed him to participate in a "baptism of repentance." Because Jesus entered into human life as a newborn baby, lived a human life as a simple man, and died a sacrificial death on the cross as our Lord and Savior, we can now offer a message of salvation accomplished, offer a baptism of not just repentance but of new life, and offer a hope and love that transcends all human experience.
That's why Advent is a season of preparation. Christmas is not just the celebration of the birth of a baby; it is the beginning of a nuclear chain of events that transforms human existence. Christmas is not just recognizing God's gift of the Incarnation -- it is also our acknowledgment of what this Incarnation now means for every man, woman and child.
The new word that will reach and preach to this old world is this:
"Christ is born, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
Let me leave you with this. A Gen-Xer hungry for God wrote a poem that explains what this pre-Christian culture is looking for (Tim Celek and Dieter Zander, Inside the Soul of a New Generation).
Do you know, do you understand that you represent Jesus to me?
Do you know, do you understand that when you treat me with gentleness, it raises the question in my mind that maybe he is gentle, too?
Maybe he isn't someone who laughs when I am hurt.
Do you know, do you understand that when you listen to my questions and you don't laugh, I think, "What if Jesus is interested in me, too?"
Do you know, do you understand that when I hear you talk about arguments and conflict and scars from your past that I think, "Maybe I am just a regular person instead of a bad, no-good, little girl who deserves abuse?"
If you care, I think maybe he cares -- and then there's this flame of hope that burns inside of me, and for a while, I am afraid to breathe because it might go out.
Do you know, do you understand that your words are his words?
Your face, his face to someone like me?
Please be who you say you are. Please, God, don't let this be another trick. Please let this be real. Please.
Do you know, do you understand that you represent Jesus to me?
If you will represent Jesus to this postmodern culture, if you would speak this new Word to this old world, then you have to be willing to be all that this poem says you should!
Let us pray.
To take up the opportunities that this season of Advent brings to us, to slow down enough to hear the voice of God in our hearts. We pray to the Lord.
To simplify our lives where possible, to let go of things that prevent us from focusing upon the essence of this pre-Christmas season. We pray to the Lord.
For all who are sick, for those who find themselves forgotten, abandoned or without hope, that they may experience God’s tender care. We pray to the Lord.
For those who have lost hope because of poverty, injustice or violence and for the will to offer hope supported by workable solutions. We pray to the Lord.
For those who endeavor to provide hope to others: family members and friends, neighbors and co-workers, teachers and counselors, therapists and spiritual guides. We pray to the Lord.
For those who diminish hope through selfishness, incivility or cruelty and for a spirit of repentance when we have violated others’ hope. We pray to the Lord.
For forgiveness for all that we have done to harm the Earth for future generations. We pray to the Lord.
For the will to work for lasting care and sustainability for the planet, especially regarding the environment and weapons of mass destruction. We pray to the Lord.
For those among us who need loving support at this time and for those whose hope we seek to enliven through our parish ministries. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, help us to remember that we are still living in a pre-Christian era, because we have not gone out into the wilderness like John the Baptist, and we are even further from living in the example of Jesus in most of our lives. Because of this, Dear Lord, we need Your help in keeping ourselves focused on helping this world in any way we can to live as a post-Christian world.
In the world we live now, we have the tools and wisdom of Jesus to help convert the world to a place where those who are hungry are fed; those who starve for love are comforted; those who thin war and terrorism is the only answer to find peace in non-violence. We can only do this when we all become John the Baptists and become a voice crying out in the wilderness and prepare the way of the Lord! Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.