Anchored in Christmas

Second Sunday of Advent | Luke 3:1-6

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Anchored in Christmas

The passage from Luke begins by establishing the date, or at least that is what it appears to do. The author grounds what is to follow, anchors it in history, by listing the names and years of rulers—the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, during the rule of Herod Antipas and of Herod Philip and of the otherwise unknown Lysanias of Abilene, during the priesthood of Annas and of Caiaphas.

In that time, according to Gospel of Luke, the word of God came to John the Baptist. Literally, we are told that the word of God “happened” to John, just as the word of the Lord always happens to prophets.

So why start talking about John the Baptist? Why does Luke go to so much trouble to establish the historical setting of John’s ministry? After all, it’s the beginning of the story of Jesus. Why go to such trouble to anchor John in history instead?

It is not merely about establishing a date for the events. A date would be just a fact. The setting — the Gospel claims that these things happened in a real world, to real people, not in any way that different from ourselves — is more than history or biography. It is theology. It tells us something about God.

The story of Jesus is astonishing. The Christian claim that he was God become human is nearly unbelievable, particularly to us closed minded modern folk—first one must accept the reality of God, and then one must also accept that this God could and would become incarnate in human form. Of course, the notion was not new to the ancient world. The Romans, Greeks, Persians, and many other people before them told stories of gods who walked on the earth as human beings. There were plenty of tales of the children of gods. One might even say that those stories prepared the way for people to accept the possibility of a man who was also God.

RiverRocks_DrybrushIf we, as Christians everywhere claim, accept the idea that God was doing something new, something never seen before or since, in the life and ministry of Jesus, we are also tempted to think of the Jesus story as an event outside of time, more akin to a meteor falling from space than to anything growing naturally on the earth.

Luke goes out of the way to make precisely the opposite claim. This is no act of God that comes falling like lightning from the sky. This is grounded. This is God growing the miracle of incarnation in a real world, in a particular moment of human history, surrounded by the joys and troubles of humanity.

In a real time and a real place, God called John. In that time and place, God happened to John. In that real world, John set about preparing a way, making a straight path to the minds and hearts of people who hoped for more of their lives than work and taxes. John got their attention, even as he prepared the way for someone else to eclipse him.

In responding to God, John the Baptist was covered in the dust of the wilderness, surrounded by anxious people, bound by government laws and religious rules.

It was not an ideal situation. It was real.

We can take comfort in the historical grounding of John’s call. If John could engage with the experience of God in such a place and time, then the same can be true for us in ours.

We do not need a perfect world in order to engage with God. We do not need great opportunities, perfect connections. We do not need to be perfect people. Look at John. According to the other gospels, John the Baptist roamed the wilderness, ate locusts, dressed in camel hair—he was not what we might today call well adjusted. He was not normal, not even by first century standards.

We begin great and wonderful things where we are, as we are. That is an important part of the good news, the gospel story.

Advent is about making a way, not about waiting for things to be perfect. The season of Advent is about straightening the paths we have, starting from here and now.

Christmas, like heaven, may seem to have more to do with one day and some day and the promised land, but it is anchored in the present. Our present wilderness.

Advent begins wherever we are.