SERMON FOR DECEMBER 9, 2018
2nd Sunday in Advent
Reading I: Baruch 5:1-9
Reading II: Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
A REDEMPTIVE JUDGMENT
Today’s lesson from Luke’s gospel reads like a playwright’s stage instructions. Call it historical backdrop as we hear the names of headline players on the first century world stage. The Roman emperor Tiberius is in his 15th year of what would ultimately be a 23-year reign. Though a successful general, Pliny the Elder called him “the gloomiest of men.” The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate who will later condemn our Lord to death is holding court over Judea. Herod Antipas is the puppet half-Jewish ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip runs another slice of Palestine. Lysanias, absorbed by the dust of history, rules Abilene. Oh, and don’t forget that Annas and Caiaphas are running the Jerusalem Temple.
All these men who saw themselves as “made” and important, players in a first century drama reaching from Rome to Galilee to Jerusalem, now fade into the scenery as Luke declares, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Politically, Rome and its manipulated puppets, imposed a rigid and oppressive judgment on millions of people. Theirs was a form of government best described as “order by intimidation and fear.” And everyone—from toddling children to tottering old men and women—knew the rules of the game, the powers that controlled their lives, and the oppressive sense of judgment under which they lived.
God now speaks off stage telling us there is another voice, another story about to walk on to this bleak, darkened scene populated by the powerful few controlling the many. “The word of God” comes to John the Baptist, who steps into this gloomy story. His message is brimming with redemptive judgment, freeing good news, and liberating hope.
There in muddy Jordan, John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His was the “voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Unlike the marching Roman armies or edict-issuing rulers, John said God was coming in ways that would fill the valleys, level the mountains, straighten the crooked highways and smooth every rough place.
To be sure, judgment was coming. But unlike the judgment under the Roman eagle or the murderous Pilate and Herod, God’s judgment would transform the world as we know it into a kingdom of righteousness promised long ago to David. This judgment would ultimately change the human story one life at a time through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sounds good. Makes for fascinating theater, but what does all that mean for the likes of you and me this second Sunday in Advent? Is there such a thing as judgment without punishment? What exactly does redemptive judgment look like and what difference will it make in our lives if we believe it?
Let’s start where this lesson from Luke begins. The Good News we heard today announces a redemptive judgment aware of all the false news, in that world long ago and our world today. We of Christian faith have rightly been accused of being so heavenly minded we are of no earthly good. The creeds we believe, the hymns we sing, the table at which we gather, the story we believe often takes on the look and feel of something otherworldly, untethered to the routines of work and school, family and neighbors, politics and economics.
Luke shows us how far we have missed the message. He does not mince his words or hold back in telling us the first century world was anything but romantic and ideal. The Romans kept a firm thumb on all the nations they conquered. Roman soldiers were trained killers. The likes of Pilate and Herod worked for Rome. All the land and sea one could take in belonged to Rome as did every human soul who lived there. Luke tells us God steps into our world at a time when fear and power, terror and death were the norm.
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ speaks truth to power, hope to despair, healing to the broken, and life to the dying. Yes, Tiberius, Pilate, Herod and their like are still with us. But the God who set the stars to dance in the night sky and whose mercy is wider than the east is from the west still comes to us with redemptive judgment. Our is a faith that stares the powerbrokers in the face knowing Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Notice, too, the place where God’s Word breaks in to history. Though these Advent weeks show us the palaces of the powerful, God shows up on the banks of a meandering creek winding through an arid desert. In the one-horse town of Nazareth—a village on no one’s tourist map—Gabriel will visit Mary announcing our Lord’s birth. Jesus will be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem or Rome. Shepherds, not courtiers will be the infant Christ’s first visitors.
The grind and demands of a job, the quiet but vital work of rearing a family, the tender moments that keep a marriage thriving and so much of what is life being life happens away from the spotlight. Social media and our frenzied fascination with celebrity can lure us into asking if our ordinary, daily lives matter much to anyone, much less God.
This story shouts down all those questions. God’s redemptive judgment speaks to all the false gods and ideologies we have put on pedestals. The judgment God brings tears down those idols calling us to repent, to change our minds, and to choose the way of life and love in Jesus our Lord. Your story matters so much to God that he sent His only Son to be your Savior. God knows your labor, your fears, your uncertainties and your tears because in Jesus Christ, God becomes flesh, entering our very ordinary story with his extraordinary good news.
Across the span of 2,000 years, technology has advanced, healthcare has improved, and yes, education and free economies have liberated hundreds of millions on this planet in the last century. But the core longing of the human heart is for meaning and a sense of higher purpose in the living of our days. This year, all of us can name the headliners who want us to believe they run the world. Those who believe them and embrace that story of power and might number in the billions. There is One who is coming whose redemptive judgment tells us the truth, that all the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever. Amen.