The God of Real Things
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
December 9, 2018
All Saints’ Church
Advent is a season of repentance, so today I would like to concentrate on the most boring part of the Gospel lesson. You just heard it, so you know what I’m talking about. Luke, Chapter 3: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…blah blah blah. All those names of middling Roman governors of weird-sounding places. And poor Deacon Jennifer having to pronounce those names! Ituraea. Lysanias. At least Abilene sounds familiar, although I doubt many people here have actually been to Abliene, Texas.
Can you imagine if someone wrote a similar story today and it was read two thousand years from now? “In the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Andrew, son of Mario, was governor of New York and Phil Murphy was governor of New Jersey…” Who cares?! Any one of our acolytes could write a better beginning to a story.
The thing is, Luke is a great writer. So why bother with this level of detail? This specificity of time and place that seems so irrelevant to us today?
Here’s why: because salvation doesn’t just happen in the abstract. Redemption isn’t just a concept. Grace is more than an idea. God works through real things, events, and people—times and spaces that we know and can feel and touch. There is no such thing as an ordinary day in God’s time. There is no such thing as a godforsaken place. Every moment, every spot on this globe and beyond—all of it holds within it the Word of God, because all of it was created by God.
We see this in the story of John the Baptist. John is not a supernatural being. He is John, son of Zechariah, a priest of the temple. The angel announced John’s conception to his mother, Elizabeth, but even this miracle happened to specific people in a specific time and place. John begins his ministry or prophecy in the Judean wilderness. His was not a general word offered to all people at all times. Instead, he went out on the fringes of his own society to those people—real people—who never really had anyone come out to their little corner of the world. They lived in the time of Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was their governor, somewhere between 26 and 29 AD. You can still visit the towns and farms of the area. Real people. Real places. The real and living Word of God.
That real and living Word of God—that’s Jesus. John the Baptist makes the way ready for this Word that will come into the world to meet and transform the lives of people where and when they are. In this season of Advent, we are not awaiting the coming of an idea or a philosophy of life. We are keeping vigil because we know that that child who was born in the backwater provincial town of Bethlehem to simple people will ALSO be born into our own lives. We know that he is at work even in this bizarre time, to this people alive now, whether we deserve him or not.
You see, this is the power of prophecy, the power that John and Isaiah before him exercised. The power of the prophet is to remind the world that God is holding us all accountable. There is no way for any person to hide from God, no corner of history that is free of God’s justice, no secret cave for a person to hide in. Greed and cruelty, injustice and terror, all the evils of this world—God sees them all and is responding, even now, with justice for the wronged, kindness for the abused, and the Spirit of love to cover this planet that we are trying so hard to destroy.
You know, it’s taken me a long time to come to believe this stuff. I used to think that great people, great thinkers, great events in history, and the rest of us are just kind of floating along under their influence. I didn’t really believe that the specifics of everyone’s lives and times mattered—and I mean “Matter” with a capital M, matter in the big picture, cosmic sense of mattering.
God made all people and places and times and God is working through all of them, so that, in the words of Paul, all things could work together for salvation. All things work together for salvation! That includes the most mundane, ordinary things we encounter. So think about it for a second. God made that day, and God made you and me. God made the people you love and the people you can’t stand. God made the best days of your life and the worst ones. John the Baptist might not have mattered to the Roman history books. He may have been born in a backwater and preached to powerless people in a forsaken place. But he mattered. His words mattered in the time and place he spoke them. They matter even now, because even now they are preparing the way for Jesus to enter this confused and broken world that so desperately needs him.
Who are you? What is your life story? How on earth did you find yourself here, on this December morning, in this building, listening to a litany of names of people you never would have heard of otherwise? I’m asking you these questions because the answers matter. They matter because God is working out a plan of salvation through the very facts of your life and mine. They matter to God, because God made this day and every other day you have been alive—and all the other days too. God made Brooklyn and New York; God made Mario and Andrew Cuomo and even Donald Trump. Talk about radical theology! We happen to live in these times, but even these times are pregnant with holiness just waiting to emerge.
That’s what we do in Advent. We wait for the way that God is working in our own time and place to be revealed for all to see. We wait, patiently, expectantly. We wait even when it makes no sense at all still to have hope in anything. We wait because we know there is a mighty word stirring, and when that word is made flesh, all of our longings will come to fruition and the righteousness of God will be the glory of all people. That’s something worth waiting for—and there’s something about this time and this place that is pushing forward divine history to get us to that point.
December 9, 2018 is a holy day. December 10 will be too, along with December 11. Park Slope is the site of salvation. So is all of Brooklyn, and New York, and…New Jersey. You get the point. God is here, even now. So let us prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. Because 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 ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God. Amen.
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