Minister's Sermon - Sunday 9th December 2018
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 9th December 2018

Malachi 3.1-4

Luke 3.1-6

Just as we can only get to Christmas when we can see through the clutter of our preparations. We can only get to the manger through the wilderness. Every Advent, before Jesus arrives on the scene, we remember the story of John the Baptist. He’s the child promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth before the angel Gabriel appears to Mary. The child who jumps in his mother’s womb when she and Mary meet. And just before we get to the stores of Jesus’ birth, we read of him, “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” So, this morning, I want to reflect on the wilderness. On the word of God that comes in the wilderness. On what it has to do with sin and repentance. And on what we see in the wilderness.

In Luke’s Gospel, the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, is announced like this. “It was the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Herod was ruler of Galilee. And his brother Philip was ruler of the territory of Iturea and Trachonitis. Lysanias was ruler of Abilene. And Annas and Caiaphas were High Priests. At that time the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” I wonder what struck you about these verses? Was it the list of names? Or maybe it was the final verse? I suspect, that what we hear, is affected by where we are hearing from.

When Luke wrote his Gospel, he chose to firmly ground the events that he was writing about, in historical time. In one sentence he lists the emperor, the governors, rulers, and high priests passes. Seven seats of wealth, power, and influence. Of political and religious authority. In her lectionary essay, Debie Thomas says, “Seven Very Important People occupying seven Very Important Positions.” (1) I suspect most Western Christians aren’t at all surprised by this. We know people in similar positions in today’s world. We talk with them. We don’t always agree with them, and they sometimes exasperate us, but we’re not afraid of them. They belong to the same world of a largely middle-class church. A country with religious, political and economic freedom. A nominally Christian society. And because we mostly think of ourselves as good, Christian citizens, when we hear that God’s word comes to John in the wilderness, we think of all this in spiritual rather than material terms.

For those who aren’t as fortunate. For those living in poverty, with limited freedom, unable to influence those who hold power, these verses sound very different. For after listing all the powerful people in the world, Luke tells us that God’s word doesn’t come to any of them, it doesn’t come to the emperor, nor does it come to the governors, the rulers or the high priests. Instead “…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” To an unknown prophet. Far away from the centres of power. Of course this isn’t news to Luke’s readers. Mary said “…he has remembered me, his lowly servant!” But can we really believe that the difference between those who experience God speaking to them, and those who don’t, is about power, wealth and influence? And that it’s when we’re in the wilderness that we hear God? Well it is what Mary’s song proclaims! “He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

This is a challenging message for Western Christians. So, Debie Thomas wonders, “What is it about power that deafens us to the Word.” (1)  Whether that’s Tiberius, Pilate, Herod or Caiaphas. Today’s global leaders and institutions. Our own government. Or ourselves. She makes two suggestions. The first is that those with power “can’t receive a fresh revelation from God because they presume to hear and speak for God already.” The second is that they don’t care, because they think they already have everything they need, and “don’t need God.” (1) I’m not convinced these reasons apply to most of us. Instead, I wonder whether it’s our fear of loss that prevents us from hearing God’s word. The loss of things that are precious to us. Our own self-understanding, of our relationships, of the church we’ve chosen, our possessions and beliefs. Things we don’t want to lose because we depend on them. But the fall from where we are to the wilderness isn’t very far. Being without a job or a home, needing to negotiate the benefit system, becoming ill and being a patient, getting caught up in the legal system as victim or perpetrator, or even belonging to a church that no longer seems to be what it used to be. All of these situations can lead us to a place where life feels raw or risky or where all our illusions of self-sufficiency fall apart. And when we find ourselves on edge of power, subject to the decisions of others and unable to influence them, feeling powerless in the face of change, we discover just how vulnerable we are. That we have no choice but to wait as if our lives depend on God showing up.  And they do depend on God. For it’s there in wildernesses such as these, so far removed from power as to make the powerful almost irrelevant, that the word of God comes to us. (2)

John’s message, the message God speaks to all in the wilderness, is summarised in today’s reading and expanded in next weeks. This is it. “Turn away from your sins and be baptized, and God will forgive your sins.” The phrase “turn away,” is usually translated as “repent,” and like the word “sin,” it’s loaded with associations that many of us don’t like. Some of us grew up the idea that sin angers God so much that it will lead us to hell. For others, fear of God, leads to self-loathing or a paralyzing guilt. Some connect sin with particular agendas, with sex, “homosexuality and abortion being big, bad ones, while our rape of this planet and our systemic disregard for the poor are not.” (2) But most of us never connect over-work, over-consumption, or similar things with sin. All this baggage makes it hard to hear John’s message. Yet if we can’t get to the manger unless we go through John, and John invites us to consider sin and repentance, then maybe this is a moment to reconsider what we mean by them.

So, what is sin? In a brilliant little book, Barbara Brown Taylor who is one of my favourite authors, says this about sin. “Sin is our only hope, it’s the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility if true repentance.” (3) She says that three words are used for sin in the Hebrew Scriptures. One means “to miss a mark.” A second, “to act wrongly.” And the third, “to rebel.” “What links … these words together is their common theme of going against God’s will… [of being] out of sync with God.” (3) This being out of sync with God cuts deep. Because if we’re out of sync with God, then we’re also out of sync with other human being, and with creation. Brown-Taylor tells a story of being in a preaching workshop. One woman said her stomach cramped every time she stood up to preach and sometimes it was so painful that she had to stop. Another immediately said, “It’s sin.” (3) Like me, Brown-Taylor said it wasn’t something she’d have normally listened to, except that they trusted the woman who’d said it. So, they “dared to the explore her insight. As it turned out, the woman with the stomach problem had deep doubts about her worthiness as a preacher. She had grown up in a household where little girl’s voices did not count for much, and her… decision to go to seminary had met with her family’s disapproval. [And]… in the church, [there was] a woman around her age who consistently made cutting remarks about her sermons. She had never thought about her problem as sin, she said, since she’d always heard sin defined as…” selfishness at the expense of others. That day the women recognised that sin is also about self-denial or negation. And the result is the same. A refusal to accept our God-given place in the community that prevents us – and the whole community - from living fulfilling lives.

So, what does repentance look like in situations like this? The Greek word for “turn away” is “metanoia,” and it literally means, turn around. Like this (turn around). Turn round and face the other direction. It’s something we must decide to do. Repentance is a decision to choose to life and behave in ways that are in sync with God, with the community of God’s people, with ourselves - our minds, spirits and our bodies - and with creation. It demands change. And that may be painful. For the woman Brown-Taylor talks about, turning into life began with letting go of the ideas she’d been fed as a child and young woman, and seeing herself equally made in the image of God. Just in case you think I’m suggesting medical problems should be diagnosed as sin, I am most emphatically, not. Anyone who has a concern about their physical or mental health should go to the GP. But it may also be true, that after a full investigation, it becomes apparent that there is sometimes an element of sin in ill-health. So, one of the things I know about my chronic fatigue, is that it is made worse by overwork. Something about our life that we need to turn our back on if we’re to be fully in sync with our bodies again.

When we sense something isn’t quite in sync in ourselves, the church, the community and the world. When we feel we’re not being the people God is calling us to be. We’re probably being invited to consider whether there is there sin that we’re being invite to repent of. But before we start seeing the things other people are doing or not doing, as sin, beware. We are part of a system. So, if something is out of sync, it’s likely to involve us all. Whether that’s the result of building ourselves up at the expense of others or denying ourselves. I like Debie Thomas’s description of sin as “a walking death.” She suggests it’s “easier to spot, name, and confess a walking death in the wilderness than it is anywhere else.” (1) If that’s true, we still need to listen to the word of God coming from those who are on the edge it, people who really have no power and influence. And ask what are they seeing? What they’re saying? And wonder how the life they are living might inform the way we shape our future?

Luke completes his introduction to John the Baptist by connecting him with the great prophets of Israel. Here, he quotes Isaiah, but later on and in the other Gospels John is also the messenger Malachi spoke about. John is shouting in the wilderness about the preparation required for the Lord’s coming.

“…make a straight path for him to travel!
Every valley must be filled up,
    every hill and mountain levelled off.
The winding roads must be made straight,
    and the rough paths made smooth.”

Like the other prophets, when John invites people to turn towards life that’s in sync with God, he’s inviting them to see their lives and the life of the world with the clarity and honestly that will enable them to share in God’s work of levelling inequality and oppression.  When we’re in the wilderness, we can see own privilege, and when we see how others do not share it we are invited to turn around and to let go of it for the sake of everyone. Debie Thomas says, “No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain to be flattened.  But when we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction, we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure.  Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet.  We experience what it’s like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths.  We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape.  A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables ‘all flesh’ to see the salvation of God.” (1) God’s salvation is found in Jesus. God with us. And who now surrounds our lives - before us, above us and below us. Who comes with mercy, love and grace, to rough and twisted places and people, and welcomes everyone. Especially those who know they are sinners - tax collectors, women of ill-repute, people who are ill and poor and vulnerable – people who have no power, who know they live in the wilderness. John the Baptist, the child who grew up in the wilderness and stayed there until the day he appeared publicly to Israel, points to Jesus. He announces his coming. But he also embraced the life of the one he points to. And invites us to do the same.

Last week, a school in North Yorkshire made the papers, because it threatened to cancel Christmas. They said Lady Lumley’s School in Pickering had “cast itself as a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge when it told pupils that the true meaning of Christmas had been ‘buried under an avalanche of commercialisation’… and said there would be no cards, no parties, no gifts and no Christmas tree’ unless pupils wrote a persuasive argument about why the school should celebrate the holiday.” (4) It seems that some parents complained, saying it was miserly, horrible and disgusting. But they didn’t understand that the students were being invited to question the status quo and ask why we should do things just because we’ve always done them! The students did. And sent over 500 emails and letters making a strong case for it. I’d love to know what they said! The articles didn’t say that. They just took it for granted that celebrating Christmas like this is a good thing. I doubt that any suggested we need to go through the wilderness to get to the manger. But that’s hardly surprising, since it’s not that’s evident in the lives of Christians, or the church. Yet unless it’s evident in our lives. Unless we demonstrate through lives that are in sync with God, with the community of all God’s people, with ourselves and with creation - or it’s clear we are trying to be - the people we live amongst, won’t understand either. So, what about you, this Advent?  Are you open are to hearing God’s word in the wilderness people and places? What does sin and repentance look like for you?  Where is God levelling your life and how will you share in the uncomfortable - but essential - work of levelling life for all God’s people? These are the questions the God who speaks in the wilderness invites us to wrestle with now for ourselves, for this church, and for God’s world. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

Adapted from

Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, 2000/2015, 47, 34-5, 44-45

Josh Halliday, The Guardian, Thursday 6 December 2018 p6