Prophets in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

3In 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. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the paths of God. 5Every 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

There were plenty of voices. There usually are. Even before sophisticated broadcast media, there were public figures who commanded widespread attention. Even before social media, there were people accustomed to being followed and heard, people such as the priests Annas and Caiaphas, the rulers Lysanias and Philip and Herod, the governor Pontius Pilate, and above all, Emperor Tiberius. Luke makes it clear for us that there were many voices of authority in that specific location of geography and time. But amid that cacophony of worldly powers, the word of God came to the wilderness, off-center, to a place of quiet vulnerability. It came through an unknown prophet, the son of unknown parents.

There, in the wilderness, a voice cried out: “Prepare the way of the Lord. 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; and all flesh shall the salvation of God.”

This word came from nowhere—outside the spotlight, anyway. John did not possess the training or authority of the priests and prophets of the big city. His methods were suspect, certainly unusual. It doesn’t seem to be good community organizing strategy to call your followers names like, “you brood of vipers.” John had an unusual way of doing things. Maybe the hierarchy of power believed they could just ignore John; he couldn’t do too much damage out there in the wilderness.

But God has a way of making preparations in wilderness places. And what the prophet was calling for would affect all people in the cities and towns and wherever they lived. He was calling out systems that were crooked in God’s eyes, yet had become so common in his world. He was inviting people into a new community of peace, where the proud and haughty could humble themselves and the poor and beaten down could rise up and claim their value as God’s children.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he said. “Don’t delay any longer in being about the business of justice and peace.”

John is not alone in offering this vision of a community of peace, though he must have felt that way. It is the call of the prophets of the past and can be heard in every age. And these prophetic voices often come to us from the margins. The word of God is still heard.

I want to share with you that your staff here at Holy Trinity spent some considerable time this week wondering together about the voices we are called to listen to in our time and place. Specifically, we have been talking about how we as a church congregation might be peacemakers in our city right now in a unique time of questions, frustration, and protest over matters of racial injustice. Within the context of so many speeches and opinions, which is the voice, we asked together, that we ought to listen to. Whose voice might be preparing the way of Christ this Advent?

Some of us visited the 4th Precinct protest in North Minneapolis during the 18 days of assembly there. We brought hot chocolate and food and our prayers because we believe there is a movement for justice that deserves our support. I may not know exactly where it is leading, but I believe there are voices that still need to be heard. Offering support to those voices may be part of how we will observe Advent this year.

As you may know, the protesters were cleared from that site on Plymouth Avenue, but the questions, the frustration, and yes, the protesting continues. I was not at City Hall on Thursday afternoon when the protesters moved to that location, but I watched from home on my computer monitor and heard several compelling voices. I heard a pastor I respect very much, Pastor Brian Herron, call for more accurate descriptions in the public of what went on at that 4th Precinct assembly. He said:

If you’re going to tell the story of this protest, tell the truth. What started out as a protest began to build community…We have to tell our story. People don’t know how many folks were talked out of burning and shooting and were brought into the camp, and they began to find new purpose and new meaning, and then they began to see their community differently than what they ever saw before. Nobody’s talking about all the businesses that brought food…or that people from the community and outside the community began to bring all kinds of gloves and hats and wood and scarves. There wasn’t anything violent about that place; it was a place of peace. And anybody who entered that place began to feel the peace. It was a place where people could express their grief and their anger in a safe way.

The leaders of that protest, the women and men who brought people of many races and religions and backgrounds together in order to be heard are building communities of peace. It’s an active peace. It can be disruptive, too, but there are voices that need to be heard for the sake of the peace of Jesus.

There was one night of tension at that protest, of course, when individuals from outside that community came and brought violence into a place intended for peace—yet another incidence of gun violence in our nation. The next morning was particularly heavy as the news came out that five protesters had been wounded. In that week of speeches by the mayor, the police chief, the Governor, a U.S. Representative, the head of the NAACP, pastors, and other leaders, the voice that seemed to me to most prepare the way of Christ cried out in a north Minneapolis elementary school. Lucy Laney Principal Mauri Melander addressed her students and faculty over the school intercom that morning. She fully acknowledged the violence of the night before, saying, “This morning our hearts are heavy, and we feel deeply burdened for the pain that’s happening in our community.” But then she continued:

We are thankful for you…We are going to spend this day full of thankfulness and overflowing with peace, calm, and love even in the midst of the non-peace, the non-calm, and the non-love that’s happening around us…We will support each other, and we will stand with each other, and we will lift each other up and will be thankful for each other. All. Day. Long.

In an urban elementary school, a principal’s inspiring word happened to catch the attention of the local news because it’s so clear that it, too, is a voice worth listening to. She is building a community of peace.

The Word of God, a word of active peace and persistent hope, is still heard in our world, and it is often heard in places where we might not naturally give our attention. This is the word around which the church is built and continues to exist. A London priest, Samuel Wells, says, “Jesus didn’t found the church on the so-called center—the sorted, the normal, the benevolent, and the condescending. Jesus assumed the church would always need the work of the Holy Spirit—the work or miracle of subversion, of turning the world upside down.” This is the church that we are a part of today. So we know that the Spirit can be at work among us, too.

So let’s be the church this Advent. Let’s listen for the Word of God, alive still today. Don’t wait for it to take shape in the so-called center, “normal” places in the world, or you’ll miss it. Don’t wait until everything is put together all in place in yourself, either. The renewal of Christ’s church comes from the margins, from the wilderness places.

Renewal does come. It will come. Let us pray and keep watch that it may come among us.

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