Readings for this Sunday:
Malachi 2:1-4 | Luke 1:68-79 | Philemon 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6
Institutions are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. They are vessels for human organization. They are vehicles for the stewardship of life on earth—either for better or for worse.
There’s an all-too-easy simplification that happens when it comes to understanding what’s going on in our human systems. We can surely see it in the public portrayal of our two-party American political system. In general, we know that the Republicans lean toward limited government. They tend to look elsewhere—to the various institutions represented by the private sector, for example, to achieve human well-being. Democrats, on the other hand tend to put more value in the power of government to make all lives better and equal the playing field.
There’s a quote from the opinion writer Paul Krugman that nicely captures this Democratic sentiment: “I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. That makes me a liberal, and I’m proud of it.”
Hubert Humphrey similarly underscored the Democratic ideal of government that protects the most vulnerable: “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”[i]
Conservative principles are similar although the emphasis is different. Ronald Reagan was good at the quotable quote: The great communicator, as he was known, was able to sum up the Republican perspective in a few lines while simultaneously subverting the other side: “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” He was also pretty good at the zinger: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
I mean, come on, no matter your political persuasion, or your perspective on current needs, you’ve got to admit, that’s pretty clever stuff.
But perhaps my recent favorite quote about government is one I came across from the French statesman Charles de Gaulle. I’m not sure it has anything at all to do with what we’re talking about today, but it’s worth the price of admission: “How can anyone govern a nation,” he wondered “that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?”[ii]
Institutions are on my mind this morning because of the Luke reading. You’ve got this who’s who of the ancient near-eastern world: Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and Philip. These few verses set the nativity right in the middle of the political context of that historical moment. John, and Jesus who will follow him, existed in history, in particular times, with particularly complicated questions, political realities, and cultural settings—kind of like us.
Here are a huge number of Roman leaders, all crammed into a tightly wound moment in history in a tightly wound region of the world. And these political leaders, as Luke writes, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” That’s priesthood, singular, not priesthoods, plural.
In the later history of the Roman Catholic church there are only a few moments when multiple popes appeared on the scene at the same moment in history.[iii] And let’s just say those were not the best of times. Yet here, along with a crammed and chaotic political scene, you have a priesthood—a singular priesthood—and two names that occupy it.
That’s a lot of cheese to govern.
Religion and government—two institutions both in chaos, in a small and highly explosive region. Not really a recipe for peace or stability. And then Luke adds this: “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”[iv]
Now, you might think that the word of God here is avoiding conflict—choosing to pass right over the seat of power because it just isn’t governable, opting instead for the simplicity of wilderness and no-name prophets. But that’s not quite right, because John is the son of Zechariah, a priest. He is himself well-connected. He comes from a storied family with its own set of expectations.
And if we haven’t already, we should probably wonder why John hasn’t followed in the family business, because that’s the way it worked. John has made a very clear and controversial break to end up where he has baptizing all sorts of dissatisfied people into a new way of being. Streams of people come to him because they were ready to take a different path.
Thomas Jefferson said “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”[v] Certainly we would say the same of religion. Zechariah, John’s father, with the first words out of his mouth after nine months of silence waiting for John’s birth says as much: “In the tender compassion 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 ways of peace.” And if anything is clear it is that in that moment human life is not being cared for and peace is a rare commodity. There is some sense that just about everyone is asking how to make the path straight.
And it is here, into this mix, that the Word of God comes to unsettle and save. It is probably fair to say this is always where the word of God comes—right into every situation where repentance—a turning, a change of direction—and renewal are needed. God’s salvation comes precisely where it is needed—no matter the conflict, no matter the cheese.
Teddy Roosevelt said “The government is us; we are the government, you and I.”[vi] We are the ones who make it better. God’s salvation happens in us. So it follows that John’s message of repentance is really good news, because this changing of direction, this turning away from what endangers the people toward what blesses them is what prepares us for the coming of God into the world. It is what makes the path straight. There is no them, only us, when it comes to God’s Spirit and the question of how God will come. The writer thanks God for the church at Philippi “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”[vii]
And there is no “where” but only “here” when it comes to the question of God’s salvation. “The dawn from on high will break upon us”—in our time of chaos and terror, of confusion and fear. The word of God comes whenever we need repentance or renewal. This Good News is scandalous in its particularity—it always speaks to this time, this moment, this world.
Zechariah sat in silence for nine months while Elizabeth was pregnant with their son John. There may be a sense that our salvation is also dependent on us learning how to listen to what is foreign or unexpected or outside our circle of friends or influence. If God’s word comes in the wilderness, what will it look like for us in the city to hear it, to follow into this way of repentance, this turning that redirects our paths toward the straight and wide ways of peace?
When he finally speaks, John looks to another time of turmoil for hope:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 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;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”[viii]
We should note that only the first two verbs are active: prepare the way, make his paths straight. Then they become passive, like a big rock on a slope that’s just needed a push to gather momentum. As if there are forces bigger than us at work fixing what is broken, healing what is sick, coming to us bearing hope and promise.
Prepare and make. That is our work in this time of Advent. The rest is easy because it is about the coming of the Holy we have known over and over in human history. Prepare and make, and Christ will be re-membered in us.
[i] See: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/h/huberthhu163688.html#m2RdGY6XZDAFw7Qc.99.
[ii] See: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_government.html.
[iii] The Western Schism of in the late 14th century, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Schism.
[iv] Luke 3:2. Emphasis mine.
[v] See: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/thomasjeff135370.html?src=t_government.
[vi] See: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/theodorero147884.html?src=t_government.
[vii] Philippians 1:2.
[viii] Luke 3:4b-6.
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