Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
6th of December 2015
In the first year of the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull; when Daniel Andrews was premier of Victoria; and Tim Watts the member for Gellibrand and Wade Noonan the member for Williamstown; when Francis was Pope and Stuart the President of the Uniting Church, the word of God came to the members of the Williamstown Uniting Church in Electra St.
Today’s gospel reading is very short and almost 40% of it simply sets the historical scene. That’s a lot of time to take just to tell us when the word of God came to John. If all Luke had wanted to tell us was the date, all he really needed to write was the very first phrase: ‘in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius’. Everything after that is gratuitous. So what is it that Luke is telling us?
For a Jewish audience, what Luke was doing was reminding them that John the Baptist was the latest in a long line of prophets. If you have a look at the books of prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures you can see that they all have very similar beginnings: In the days of X, or in the reign of Y, or during the thirtieth year, the word of God came to Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Zephaniah. By beginning his story of the adult John in the same way, Luke is reminding his Jewish audience that John the Baptist is a prophet just like the prophets of old.
Luke’s historical scene-setting would have had a different meaning for his Roman audience. The message for them would be that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were part of world history. It wasn’t something that happened once upon a time, or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This was something that happened in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, in the wilderness around the Jordan, a particular time and a particular place. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God entered into human history, and Luke’s elaborate dating is telling us we can actually date the moment at which God did that. It’s something that we acknowledge every time we say the Apostles’ Creed together. Every time we recite the creed we affirm that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. When we say that, we assert our belief that Jesus was a historical figure executed by another historical figure. We also believe that Jesus was much more than that, as the rest of the Creed proclaims, but we certainly don’t believe that Jesus was anything less.
Then there’s a third reason for Luke to list all the leaders, political and religious, of the time. Luke is providing us with a contrast. He lists the high and mighty ones of the world: the Emperor; the governor; kings and priests. And then he tells us that the word of God came to none of them, but to a man in the wilderness. Luke doesn’t give us the further details about John that Mark gives; he doesn’t tell us that ‘John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.’ (Mark 1:6) But we still get a picture of someone who is way, way out on the margins of society. It is to those margins that the word of God comes, and to the people on those margins that Christ will minister.
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, is known as ‘Peace’ Sunday. The prophecy of Baruch says that a day will come when Jerusalem will be named ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’. In the canticle of Zechariah, John’s father, which we heard this morning instead of a psalm, Zechariah sings to his baby son: ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’.
By calling this second Sunday of Advent ‘Peace’ Sunday the church is saying that God’s peace, the peace prophesied by Baruch and Isaiah and all the other prophets, came to earth when Jesus was born: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ the angels sing to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). Looking back at the events of this past week, and this week has really been no different from any other week, how can we possibly say that peace has come? We live in a world of civil wars and terrorism – how can we say that peace has come? We live in a world in which desperate refugees flee for safety and in a country which locks up those who make it to our shores – how can we say that peace has come? We live in a country in which domestic violence is widespread – how can we say that peace has come? And yet today, on this second Sunday of Advent, that is what we proclaim.
We could get around the contrast between the violence in our world and our assertion that peace has come by saying that we are talking only of inner peace, the peace that comes from knowing God, from experiencing for ourselves God’s love and mercy. That might be what Zechariah is referring to when he tells his new-born son that: ‘you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.’ But it seems pretty clear that when Baruch prophesies that: ‘God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God’ and Isaiah says that: ‘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,’ they’re talking not just about inner peace, but about the literal, outer, peace that comes when swords are turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. We are celebrating both types of peace today.
Once again, as I’ve said so many times before, we are living in the tension between the already and the not-yet, between the time of Christ’s life on earth and the time of his second coming, the Parousia for which Advent is preparing us. We proclaim that peace has come, just as Zechariah in his canticle proclaims that God has already ‘raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old’ before Jesus is even born, because we are certain that God is giving us the gift of peace, each and every day. This means that we know that violence and fear, a world in which the strong oppress the weak and the rich turn their backs on the poor, is contrary to the will of God. For us as Christians, nothing can ever justify violence and oppression, because we know they are antagonistic to God’s gift of peace.
Knowing that God’s peace has come also means that we are more open to seeing it. Sometimes, when we’ve been watching the news or reading the paper and we’re overwhelmed with humanity’s inhumanity, we can overlook the many places in which God’s gift of peace is visible. In the love of friends and neighbours; in the welcome of strangers; in the forgiveness of those who have hurt us; in seeking to understand those who are different from us – we see peace among people of goodwill. The word of God came not to any of the political or religious leaders, but to an unimportant man in the wilderness. In the same way, often we see the wonders of peace not in the relationships of nations, but in the relationships of unimportant people like us.
Finally, we celebrate this Sunday as the Sunday of Peace to remind us that peace is not just God’s gift to us. It is also our calling. We are called to be peacemakers. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves to follow Christ, and one of the ways in which we follow Christ is by making peace wherever and whenever we can. Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, for they will be called children of God. We are the children of God, and peace-making is our vocation.
In Jesus Christ the Word of God has come to this small congregation in Williamstown. We are not important or powerful in the eyes of the world, any more than John the Baptist was. But we are the children of God, and so we are called to help create a world in which everyone can walk in the ways of peace. This is our vocation, today and always. Amen.