It will be 15 years ago this January, but I still remember exactly where I was when I heard that my mother had died. I had just been to see her in Nashville, and I’d said goodbye and thanked her for being a wonderful mom, because I could tell she didn’t have much time. The day after I left, she left too, and I remember standing right at the border where my living room met my dining room, listening to the typically matter-of-fact phone message from my father and then calling him back to hear the whole story.
It will be 21 years ago this spring, but I also remember exactly where I was standing when I heard that I had been officially approved for ordination as a transitional deacon (in the more catholic traditions, those called to the priesthood have to serve as deacons for at least six months first.) It was spring semester in the year that Mark and I spent outside Chicago in Evanston, at Seabury-Western seminary, and I was looking out the row of windows from our small student housing apartment into the courtyard.
I even remember the way the voice mail ended, because our diocese had just hired a new secretary to the Bishop who had no experience of the Episcopal Church at all, and she didn’t quite understand that becoming a deacon was different from, say, getting a job promotion, and that there would be a big ordination liturgy at the Cathedral coming up several months in the future. So she delivered the news that the Standing Committee had voted to approve me, and then hesitantly said, “So, congratulations... you are now... a deacon!” (Very upbeat, I thought, but needs a little more training.)
I’m sure you, also, could name occasions in your life where you can still remember every detail. Whether it was tragic news or joyous news, a world event or something very private, we’ve all known experiences that have a way of rooting us in the moment, in very concrete specifics: exactly where we were standing, what the weather was, who was with us, what song was playing. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic situation; sometimes the situation is very ordinary. But it’s as if when reality truly breaks through to us – when the distractions and abstractions that pull us away from being present lose their power and we come awake – when reality breaks through, our whole beings take notice. Here and now, it’s actually happening.
In this morning’s Gospel, Luke describes something in a similar way. “The Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness,” he says. When? “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.” Here and now, it’s actually happening. This is the exact time and place when the Word of God came, when God took initiative.
You will often hear people make assertions about spirituality that simply assume it doesn’t work that way. In our culture, the default setting is to assume that that spirituality is about ideals, or aspirations, or principles. As if concrete reality were accidental to our spiritual lives, as if spirituality actually just boiled down to inner peace, or being sincere, or something else equally abstract and private. This is how our culture shapes us to think. And anyone, of course, is perfectly free to understand spirituality that way. But that is absolutely not the way Christianity, or for that matter our ancestor faith Judaism, understands it. Christianity keeps resolutely pointing not to the inner self, not to private aspirations or ideals, but to a God who takes concrete actions in human history at specific times and places.
“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.” Specific people, specific places, a specific time. It is a testable, falsifiable claim: God acted with these people, in this location, at this historical moment. Now this is not the way our culture views spirituality. But the whole Bible is full of claims like that – Christmas is one, just as John the Baptist preparing the way is one. The Exodus. The institution of the Eucharist. The Crucifixion. The Resurrection. Pentecost. All these core narratives. Listen to the Nicene Creed, listen to the Eucharistic prayer. The Bible is about God – constantly pointing us to moments when God, locally and specifically, acted; when he addressed, or met, or rescued, or sent someone specific. And teaching us, by doing so, that this is how God behaves. If we want to find him, we pay attention to reality. Pleasant or unpleasant, routine or tragic, we don’t find God by escaping reality but by listening carefully to it.
“In the fifteenth year of Tiberius, when Pilate was governor, the Word of God came to John.” If you were writing a myth, you wouldn’t start it that way. You’d start it “on the night of all nights, when the moon was full,” or “long ago, in the times before.” If you were writing a self-help book, you wouldn’t start it that way either. You’d start it, “Personal happiness is a choice, and you can make that choice.” or “Getting your space under control is the secret to getting your life under control.” But Luke’s writing here sounds nothing like that. And it goes on sounding nothing like that. That opening emphasis on God working in a specific place at a specific time is reinforced again when Luke decides to draw on some supporting material. To help us understand the significance of this time God worked, Luke cites another time God worked. He describes the whole experience of God breaking in on John the Baptist via language from a different historical moment when God broke in on someone else.
Look at that long quotation: “As 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 his paths straight. 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 see the salvation of God.'" These words are a quotation of a message that God gave in the Old Testament prophetic book we call Isaiah, many years earlier – scholars have different ideas about how to date this section of the book, but at any rate hundreds of years before John the Baptist – and addressed specifically and locally to one situation, the situation of the Jews who had been sent into exile in Babylon. In their era, God used a prophetic voice to promise the Jews liberation from captivity, a safe journey on their path back home, and a public vindication of their faith that God could act. It addressed them directly.
But John heard it address him directly too. It didn’t matter that the words had first described how God acted centuries earlier. John heard those words name who he was and how he would respond to God’s action. When they asked him later to identify himself, he didn’t try to be original; he quoted this Isaiah text. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.” Why could he do that? Because first, in Isaiah’s time or John’s time or our time, God is the same. He not only acts, he has ways that he tends to act. And second, we have core narratives that tell us all about those ways and all about him. As we listen to those narratives, as we work with them ourselves and make them our own, we build the kind of vocabulary that John had, the kind of vocabulary that helps us notice when God is acting. Because he hasn’t stopped acting. He is acting here and now, this Advent, as we wait in his presence.
God acts. God is at work – and not primarily as a remote inspiration for some personal set of ideals or for private inner peace, at least not in the Christian tradition. We find him specifically, locally, concretely. In the specific situations of our ordinary lives, in the local relationships we build, in the concrete elements of bread and wine at the altar. God is at work in history, in communities, in your life and in mine, in our parish. On the 6th day of December when Bruce Rauner is governor of Illinois and Deb Feinen is mayor of Champaign, when the State Farm Center has just reopened and people are awaiting the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Word of God is coming to us. Are we learning how to listen?