Second Sunday of Advent
The word of God came to John out in the wilderness, so says Luke. After giving us the names and offices of the powerful in his day – Tiberius Caesar, Governor Pontius Pilate of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, and Annas and Caiaphas the high priests – Luke says the word of God comes to none of them. Bypassing the centers of power, the word comes to one outside.
This is no small thing with Luke. In the previous chapter, the well-known and much beloved Christmas story of Luke 2, Mary and Joseph are told there is no room in the Inn and they must go outside, to somewhere else to have the baby, whom we know is none other than the very Word of God incarnate. Furthermore, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (verse 8). Here are shepherds out in the country, away from the crowd, caring for sheep. Given their vocation it is likely that they were considered unfit for the Imperial Census; they were rejected or at least, over-looked. Not counted in the census they are discredited and denied the stature of full personhood. They are outside too.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid (v. 9).
It is these, rejected and outside the Inn, who hear the Good News of the coming incarnate Word.
Thomas Merton has a classic essay from 1966 called “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room” (in Raids on the Unspeakable), in which he says that we must understand the severity of our present time. We need to understand that we are in a world inhospitable to God Incarnate, the Prince of Peace. The Inn was too crowded and there was no room for Jesus.
Merton says that we live in the time of the Crowd: where there is a “vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of turbulent mobs.” It is a time of “the display of power, hubris, and destruction;” a time of “suspicion, hatred, and distrust.”
He goes on to say that this is the time when
…everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and place the anguish produced within them by technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power, and acceleration. . . . We are numbered in the billions, and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.
There is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention.
There is no room for the Good News because it is drowned out with all of the noise.
The Word of God’s Good News comes to those rejected and outside the crowded Inns of power and wealth and influence. It comes to those who either by choice or by circumstance find themselves outside the Inn-siders. The Gospel is for those who can find no room in the Inn – the drowned-out, the crowded-out, the missed-out, the worn-out, and the left-out. The poor, the displaced, those in the darkness of depression, the old in nursing homes, the lame, the blind, the lepers and the ones with AIDS, refugees caught in a war by powerful armies, homeless people on the streets of the wealthiest nation in the world, and all those overwhelmed with grief. The Good News comes to all who suffer, who search, who are outside.
This outsider, John, the one who hears the word, is the one who begins to preach the word of repentance and forgiveness of sin.
Would he have ever heard it had he not been outside away from the power and noise? Would the shepherds have missed the good news if they had not had ears sensitive to angel voices?
In our own church we’ve had outsiders with scruffy beards, raggedy-clothes, and needing showers showing up on Sunday mornings for worship. They are voices from the wilderness preaching repentance. For nearly two months anywhere from four or five to thirty young protesters of the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline (construction of which is about 20 miles away) have been attending church, coming from all over the U.S. Some are from the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York; others are veterans of protesting mountain-top removal in Appalachia; some have blocked the cutting of old-growth forests in California, while several are from various places in Texas. Some have family support while others have been rejected by their families and a few don’t have families, having grown up homeless.
As for religious faith, they are all over the map: some Christians, all of whom agree that the church is more of the problem than solution (we’re much too much Inn-siders), a few practice Buddhism, while others observe various additional religious traditions and spiritual practices. What they have in common is an extraordinary commitment to trying to protect the Earth from tar sands bitumen, which is shockingly toxic. They are putting their lives on the line to keep this filthy energy source from adding to our global warming.
They come in the door on Sunday mornings and join in, singing hymns, praying, setting up chairs, washing dishes, jumping up with excitement when we take them out to eat or invite them to our homes for dinner, showers, and a chance to launder clothes. They sit on the edge of their seats during my sermons and I preach as hard and as passionately as I’ve ever preached in my life because I know that there’s a good chance that in the next few days some of these young people will be pepper-sprayed, hand-cuffed, arrested, charged with felonies, and assessed high bails all because they dare stand up to the Powers.
For our congregation, there is no doubt that these young pipeline blockaders who are living out in the wilderness hear the word and call us to repentance.