A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Year C, Baruch 5:1-9, Psalm 126, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Preached at St. Mark’s Protestant Chapel, 14 Wing, Greenwood

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Lk 3:1-2)

Certain passages in the lectionary, the church’s three year cycle of liturgical scripture readings, are thick with hard to pronounce place names and proper names. In seminary we used to refer to these as “Jerusalem phone book” passages. These passages are often daunting for lay people charged with the important office of reading scripture during the service, an office that reminds us that scripture is shared by all people, ordained and lay alike, as a common resource. (Hence the playful acronym of B.I.B.L.E. – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth).

I suspect however our layreaders are secretly relieved that it’s my job to read aloud today’s gospel reading, with all those hard to pronounce names and places: Lysanias, Caiaphas, Ituraea and Trachonitis. These are hard enough for experienced churchgoers, but imagine some visitor to our service who knows nothing of the Christian story. He or she might think they had stumbled into an ancient history listen. Who are these people? Where are these places? Why should I care? Good questions. Why should we care?

The first reason to care is that this is real. Throughout his telling of the story of Christ, Luke takes pains to remind us that this story actually happened. Abilene, Ituraea and Trachonitis (all parts of modern Lebanon) were real places, as real as the Annapolis Valley. Herod and Tiberius and Pilate were real rulers, with real power, and we know they had power because later Herod will have Herod killed and Pilate will have Jesus killed. In this world lived real people, people as real as us. They paid harsh taxes, struggled to feed their families, lived in fear of armies and robbers, enjoyed little or now medicine and could scarcely imagine the lifestyles of the rich who ruled over them. And like us, these people were hungry for good news.

We too are real people. We have more comforts, more medicine, and more money than the people of Luke’s age, though as I’m sure you know, there are people in our communities who are hungry and poor and hopeless. Our lives are safer and we don’t need to fear our rulers, but I don’t think many of us have much love or faith for those in authority over us. We don’t worship idols or multiple deities like the people in Luke’s time did, unless you count all the brand names and designer labels we seek in the temples of our big box stores. Yes, Luke’s world was more primitive than ours, and far away in time, but its physical and spiritual hungers still persist, and the need for good news remains.

John is the first one who announces this good news. He has no agenda of his own. He is not political, he seeks no gain. He makes no distinction between rich and poor, and his message is for all people. “All flesh”, he says, all people, “shall see the salvation of God”. God is coming as his prophet Isaiah said he would, to level and remove the barriers (“mountains”, “rough ways”) that keep people from God and from one another. John calls on all people to prepare themselves for the coming of God, and the way to prepare is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3).

As I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded that most people don’t need to be reminded of things they feel bad and guilty for. Most people, I find, know their flaws and their faults all too well. What keeps most people from God or from a rich spiritual life is that we carry the burdens and shames of our lives in secret, convinced that God will never really love or forgive us. As someone said to me this week, “I go to church thinking that I have to act good to be like everyone else, but inside I wonder if I really am a good person because I think and do things I know are bad”. John the Baptist is the person who comes and calls all to give our secret burdens and shames to God, knowing that we will be lovingly accepted and even changed.

All through our readings this morning, we heard that message offered in various ways. The prophet Baruch told the people that God would take away their garments of sorrow and dress them like kings and queens, so they could hold their heads high knowing that they are God’s children. The psalmist promises that instead of tears and weeping, God will fill our mouths with laughter and our eyes with joy. St. Paul tells the Philippians that the prison holding him means nothing compared to the love and friendship that God is spreading amongst them. Running through our readings like a golden thread is the promise that God offers us love and forgiveness and glorious change both in this life and in the life to come, if we are ready to ask for these things.

God’s good news comes to real people and real places, as it did in the times of Pilate and Herod and as it has in every time between then and now. We are called to make ourselves ready for the coming of the Christ. If we have tears and sorrows, if we carry burdens we dare not admit to ourselves or to those around us, we are called to confess them to God and to seem forgiveness. If this is true of you, perhaps now is the time to speak to a minister, to speak to one you have wronged, or just to give these things over to Jesus. He’ll be there for you. If you are bothered by the tears and hunger of those around you, then what will you do about it? Our chapel community has identified needs we wish to address, such as helping a foster child. What more can we do?

Now is the time of Advent. The good news comes to us in our time. It is real salvation for real people. John the Baptist calls to say that God is ready to receive us. Will we be ready to receive him?