In the Fifteenth Year
Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, December 10, 2006
“In the fifteenth year of the 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.” It’s quite a mouthful. It makes us smile as the lector struggles to pronounce the long forgotten names and provinces. We’re easily fooled into racing by the details, as if they are mere window dressing. But Luke is very careful to locate this event. He takes great pains to name who is in power. I wonder what the reports of the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius name as the highlights of that year of his reign? It is just another year in the occupation of Israel by Rome. But Luke claims that the crucial event of the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius’ government is not recorded in the official reports. Luke says that the most important event occurs far from the spotlight. In the midst of a year of crass politics and corrupted religious bureaucracies God is up to something surprising. It reminds us that the crucial events of our days may not be what we take to be the obvious candidates. For it is in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius that “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness”. The arrival of the word of God. Now that is news that is crucial to us. And the word of God is received by John. If Jesus is the offspring of the “Immaculate Conception”, then John is the progeny of the “Impossible Conception”. He is the son of Zechariah who disbelieved the angel. John is the child of Elizabeth whose barren future is opened wide by his birth. And now this impossible baby is the recipient of the most wondrous of gifts: the word of God. He is, in the Latin title engraved for centuries on the tombstones of priests and pastors, a ‘VDM’. “Verbe Dei Minister”. John is a “Servant of the Word of God”. The text says that this is the biggest news on earth in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius. In this year John receives the word of God. The text does not say how it happens. It does not tell us how John knows that it is truly God’s word. Luke just says that John is the recipient of the living word of God. And Luke says that John receives this holy message “in the wilderness”. It is a significant detail. The wilderness is not a romantic retreat in the Bible. It is not the pristine environment far from the polluted and violent cities, as it is portrayed in our age. The wilderness is what it says it is - the location of wild-ness. It is the wild place where the structures of civilization are not in place for protection and security. To be in the wilderness is to be deep in the woods. That is where John is when he receives the word of God. He is in a terrifying location. He is not safe. He is in the place where the people of Israel first hear the voice of God - in the wilderness. He is also in the place where Israel has always traveled when it goes home. God brings the people out of their false home in Egypt, through forty years in the wilderness to their true home in the promised land. Israel is exiled far from home in the urban wilderness of Babylon where it hears Isaiah announce a miraculous homecoming. Now John’s wilderness habitat is the site of the long expected news that God will come and be at home with the people. The biblical witness is clear. The way to our true home leads through the wilderness. This is frightening news when we are settled, complacently assuming that we are already at home. We have made peace with this pretense of home. We have learned to put up with home, as it is. We would rather than not hear that this is not really home after all. It is the reason that John the Baptist has been quietly edited out of our cultural celebration of the nativity. Notice how his birth has been excised from the Christmas pageants. John’s central location in Advent (John is the focal point on two of the four Sundays) is not known beyond the church. In fact, it is barely remembered in much of the church. But so long as the baptismal font is here it is certain that a child or a seeker will ask us what the font is and why it is standing here. And we can not answer that question without telling them about John - John the Baptist. Because it is the starting place. It is the beginning of the story. It is where we first hear that God is up to something new. It is where we say that we want to participate in this new thing that God is doing. It all begins with John who hears the word of the Lord in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius. The font is located on the edge of the wilderness. The Jordan river is on that boundary. To meet John here is to leave the place we have called home on a pilgrimage to our real home. It is to enter the wild, dangerous wilderness far from home where God speaks. John travels through all of the region around the Jordan “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. He hears God say that now is the time to change the way we are living. He is a powerful preacher of repentance. It means that when he preaches people actually turn their lives around. When John speaks from the heart people find the courage to make the life changing decision they have been putting off and denying and ignoring for too, too long. The Jordan river font is the place of the life changing decision to live for God, to trust the future to God, to stop running away from God. The font is the place where the prodigal son gives up fleeing and decides to turn around and go home and face the music. But it is more than that place of decision. The font of Jordan is also a baptismal river of forgiveness. The prodigal son expects harshness and judgment and a severe penalty. Instead he discovers the unbelievable blessing of a welcome home. His home welcomes him. When he finally turns his life around and goes home he discovers that love has been waiting for him all along. Can you see? Our home is to be found in a stable where the embracing arms of God are found in the child called Emmanuel - ‘God with us’. But to go home you first have to stop running away. It’s quite possible to run away from the babe in the manger by spending all your Advent preparing for Christmas. In fact, preparing for Christmas may be precisely our way of avoiding the one way we can honestly prepare to meet God in Christ. Because the one needful thing is the hard and necessary decision to turn around and to seek God and to never turn back again. It is the reason that we can not greet the arrival of Jesus Christ without John, without the font, without the decision to repent. How does John do it? Trust me. Preaching a good sermon is one thing. Actually evoking decisions that change lives, actually causing people to get up out of their chairs and to come forward and give their lives to God in Christ, actually moving from talking about repentance to choosing to repent ... well, it’s actually something that we have almost given up on in our branch of Christianity. We have almost given up on preaching as holy speech, inspired by the Holy Spirit - which means inspired by God’s own energy and wisdom and life. We have almost given up on expecting that God’s word might actually call forth the changed lives which are the sign of a repentant people. But today this is precisely what is happening here and now. The Holy Spirit is in this place, breathing courage to turn around and begin the journey home. The Holy Spirit is calling forth a people who are preparing to meet and serve and love the Lord. The Holy Spirit is adopting orphaned souls who long to be known as members of Jesus’ own household and to know that they are home at last with him. I know it is true. I know it like I have never known it before. I know that some of you know it, too. I know that you can feel the Spirit drawing you home, turning you around, bringing you back, welcoming your orphaned soul, making room here, making room now for you to prepare to meet and to serve and to love Jesus Christ with your life. It is exactly what John says as he gathers the crowds at the river. He sings Isaiah’s ancient poem of hope from the exile: “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”. It is an unbelievable song of repentance sung by a desperate people stranded far from home. They are separated from home by an impassable wilderness. They are sure that they can never go home again. They are resigned to their fate. They are closing down. They are not living anymore. They are just surviving until death mercifully takes them. But Isaiah hears the word of the Lord. He is a “Verbe Dei Minister”. He preaches the astounding news that God is drawing near and making a way home. It is a road straight through the wilderness. Do you understand? The very journey that you most fear, the one into the depths of the wilderness, is the place where God is preparing to meet you and to take you home. The deep gorges that terrify you will be filled. A passage will be made through the impassable mountains. The winding trail that goes nowhere will be made straight and direct. The rough patches will be paved. Most astounding of all - the wilderness will not be a God-forsaken place. In fact, on that wilderness road all flesh will see the glory of God. For it is the path on which Jesus Christ bears our suffering and leads his family home. The path home begins with John who calls for a decision to turn around and to begin the journey. John is an altar call preacher. His sermons always end this way. He says something like this: “If today you long to turn around ... if the Holy Spirit has surprised you when you thought there could not be hope for you, if the Holy Spirit is calling you back to God, if the Holy Spirit has welled up with tears from somewhere deep inside with longing and hope and a desire to prepare your heart for the homecoming that is at hand ... then I invite you to join me here at the font of invitation and at the welcome table of God’s own home.” Yes. That’s right. It’s an altar call. Really. Hear John’s invitation. In the silence reflect upon your life, your direction, your future. Then, if you are ready, come forward during the singing of the hymn and join me here as a sign of repentance, as an act of turning towards Jesus Christ and receive the blessing that you are a welcome child at home. Prepare the way of the Lord. Here. Now.