“Is Anyone’s Future Not a Surprise?” Luke 3:1-6 12-09-18
Being a pastor is my third career. I was an English teacher first, and then did PR for a theater company, and just 16 years ago became an ordained pastor. None of this is what I imagined for myself when I was younger. My 5-year-old self would be disappointed to learn I didn’t become a prima ballerina; my 16-year-old self thought I’d be on Broadway by now; and my 30-year-old self would be shocked that I’ve not yet written the great American novel. Sometimes I’m still baffled by how I turned out.
What about you? How many of you ended up with a life that looks like what you pictured for yourself when you were younger? How would your 5 or 15 or 30 year old self feel about what you are up to today? How many of your life stories include plot twists that were beyond your wildest imagination when you were younger? What about your siblings or your children or grandchildren? Are they pursuing the careers or relationships or hobbies you thought they would when they were little? Or are there surprises there too?
If you are having trouble figuring out how you or your kids ended up the way you have, spare a kind thought for an old priest named Zechariah. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was visited by the Angel Gabriel (yes, the same one who delivered the news to Mary that she should expect a baby). Gabriel told Zechariah he’d have a son who would be the fulfillment of the prophet Malachi’s promise that God would send a messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah—a messenger who would purify and refine God’s people, turning them from sin to righteousness.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had longed for a child, but they—like their Biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah—were pretty old to anticipate having children. So it’s understandable that Zechariah was skeptical about this news. Gabriel is so annoyed by Zechariah’s resistance to God’s desire that he pushes the mute button on Zechariah’s mouth until the baby is born.
When Zechariah’s tongue is finally free, the writer of Luke’s Gospel records his first utterance as a beautifully poetic, prophetic song: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them… He has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
If this is the result of 9 months of silence, maybe we should all try it sometime!
Then, looking into the eyes of his beloved newborn, Zechariah declared, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 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.”
That pastor’s kid grew up to be the weirdo in the wilderness that we meet for the first time in today’s Gospel lesson: an itinerant preacher in the desert, eating locusts, wearing animal skins, and shouting at dignitaries that they are a brood of vipers. I can’t help wondering what Zechariah and Elizabeth thought about their adult son John. Was he what they’d imagined when Zechariah announced John would be “a prophet of the most high God,” giving knowledge and light to all who heard him preach?
Or had they pictured perhaps a more conventional church job for him—one that was indoors, for example, and that came with health insurance and a retirement plan? Did they foresee his eventual incarceration and beheading at the hands of powerful people because of his prophetic words? Or were they shocked by how it all turned out for him? Did John himself anticipate his unconventional future when he was playing with his cousins or learning the Torah from his dad?
Whatever John or his parents expected, many people resonated with his preaching. People from cities and towns went out to hear his voice crying in the wilderness for repentance. They heard his insistence that they prepare for God’s arrival in their midst, to remove all obstacles preventing a smooth path for their Savior’s arrival.
Luke makes a point recording specific details of John’s historical context, naming the important leaders of the time, from the political (the emperor and governor) to the traditionally religious (Caiaphas and Annas, the high priests). What is most noteworthy about this list is that not a single one of the bigwigs on it was appointed to prepare the way for the advent of God. Luke makes it clear that this holy task falls to the peculiar outsider, John. In that time, as in this, important jobs were for important people, so what are we supposed to make of this aberration?
In Luke’s Gospel—as we will hear during this year of readings from it—God often works through regular people—people that the world views as insignificant. In the next few weeks we’ll hear more about John the Baptist, and about Mary the unwed teenage mom, and the raggedy shepherds who the heavenly choir commissioned as witnesses of Christ’s arrival. Again and again, Luke depicts God choosing the least-likely people to participate in God’s world-changing, world-saving activity.
Maybe Luke’s point is that if it is possible for God to work through a nobody like John, it’s also possible for God to work through people like us. Maybe it’s not too far-fetched to say that in the eighteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Antonio Guteres was the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Donald Trump was President of the United States, and Jay Inslee was governor of WA, and Jenny Durkan was the mayor of Seattle, and Elizabeth Eaton was presiding bishop of the ELCA, and Kirby Unti was bishop of the Northwest Washington Synod, the world of the Lord came to… University Lutheran Church!
Even if none of us turned out the way we’d dreamed we would or the way that our parents wanted us to, God has called us for marvelous work. The gifts and scars and quirks we bear make us exactly the right messengers to communicate God’s unfailing love to those who need it most in this historical time and in this particular setting. No matter how limited we imagine our sphere of influence might be, why couldn’t God be able to do God’s work with our hands? It is the message, not the messenger, that is miraculous.
Each of us is made in the image of God, which means we are creative, forgiving, bold, and kind people. Together and separately, we are baptized children of God. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak truthfully about how we have come to know and be known by God. We are called to name the sins of homophobia and racism and sexism and all the rest of the evil that we encounter, and to urge repentance for them. If Luke were writing his Gospel during Advent, 2018, he might include us as characters in his story, given the work of sharing God’s dream of a just, beautiful, and compassionate society. It’s time view our relationships, our jobs, our histories, our civic participation, and our passions as exactly the right preparation and equipment needed for us to serve as God’s messengers here and now.
What happens next in our life stories is yet to unfold. Right now we have choices to make about how we will live. We can’t even imagine how our stories end, but we can trust that God is at work in us, around us, through us, with us, and sometimes in spite of us. We move forward knowing that we are called to spread the Good News of God’s embrace of the whole world. We prepare the way for hurting people to encounter God’s deep love for them. As we step out to do this work, we rest in this promise: “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.”
For this we say, thanks be to God!
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 12-9-18” name of the sermon.