If you want an irreverent, funny, occasionally course take on the story of Jesus (and John the Baptist) – this book’s for you.
Anybody wanna try this tongue twister?
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonotis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Ananias and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John.”
Ah, John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, if you want to use the clearest terminology (since “Baptist” these days means something pretty specific to us). Our old, weird buddy John is introduced to us in this way in Luke’s Gospel, placing him in a particular historical context that would’ve been pretty familiar to his early readers.
I think Luke’s doing a little more than that by introducing him this way, though. You see, you’ve got all of these names that people would immediately recognize. If they didn’t recognize the names, they’d recognize the places and institutions. And then, after that long list, you’ve got this incredibly common name.
It’s as if you said of someone who lived fifty years ago: in the fifth year of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, when John Volpe was the governor of Massachusetts, when Pope Paul IV was the pope and Nathan Marsh Pusey was the president of Harvard, the word of the Lord came to Bill.
Immediately, we’d be irritatedly asking, “Who is Bill?!”
Luke breaks the chain of familiarity by talking about this common guy. Not a priest, though his dad was — not even a scribe, just a guy, and guy who might be a little off his rocker, at that.
In Christopher Moore’s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, tells the story of Jesus. Biff calls Jesus “Joshua,” saying that’s what they actually called him. Biff is a goof, and the book is irreverent and hilarious as Biff tells the stories of the young Messiah. Biff claims that the other Gospel writers got things all wrong, trying to make his best buddy Joshua sound all pious and stuff, and that they leave out the struggle and the funny and crazy things — including Jesus’ entire childhood and teenagerdom. So, long story short, Biff fills in the gaps.
When it comes to John the Baptist, Biff describes young John as a 13 year old. Sure that he, John, is himself the Messiah (John the Baptizing Kid yells at young Jesus, “My birth was announced by an angel too, you know!”), John nearly drowns some of the other children trying to wash away their sins. Though he would indeed grow up to preach baptism and point the way to Jesus as Messiah, in this book, at 13, John is an obnoxious, pious little punk.
Of John, Biff says, “If there was anything I learned from John the Baptist, it was that the sooner you confess a mistake, the quicker you can get on to making new and better mistakes.”
Wisdom, I guess.
One evening when the boys are all 13, Biff, John, and Jesus (or Joshua, as Biff calls him), have dinner, along with Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Joshua’s and John’s parents, who are cousins).
Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s proud elderly mother, goes on and on about the encounter with the angel, talking about it as if it had happened yesterday, beaming with motherly pride.
Biff tells the story: “When [Elizabeth] paused to take a breath, [Mary] started in about the divine announcement of her own son’s birth….
After supper, Joshua and I built our own fire, away from the others… and John joined us.
‘You are not the [Messiah],’ John said to Joshua. ‘Gabriel came to my father. Your angel didn’t even have a name.’
‘We shouldn’t be talking about these things.’ Joshua said.
‘The angel told my father that his son would prepare the way for the Lord. [That means I’m the Messiah.]’
‘Fine. I want nothing more than for you to be the Messiah, John,’ [Joshua said].
‘Really? John asked. But your mother seems so, so…’”
Just then, Biff, the good thirteen year old best buddy, interrupts John to brag about the miracles that Joshua had performing, including raising the dead. John grabs Biff by the tunic, calling him a liar, but eventually, Joshua admits that indeed he has performed a miracle or two. Biff continues telling the story:
“John released me, let out a long sigh, then sat back in the dirt. The firelight caught tears sparkling in his eyes as he stared at nothing.
‘I am so relieved.,’ [he said.] I didn’t know what I would do. I don’t know how to be the Messiah.’
‘Neither do I,’ said Jesus.
‘Well, I hope you really can raise the dead,’ John said, ‘because this will kill my mother.’” (1)
John the Baptist, you see, isn’t a prestigious figure. He’s described in the Gospels as the kind of guy you’d probably try to avoid if you saw him on the street. He’s the kind of guy that you’d definitely think was a little off. He would likely smell a little funny, wouldn’t be dressed right, and you’d probably wonder if he was drunk or otherwise intoxicated by the way that he was talking. John isn’t just ordinary. He’s less than ordinary. He’s the kind of person you dismiss using words that we use to dismiss people: “He’s weird. Crazy. Kinda scary.”
And the Word of the Lord came to that guy.
Do you ever think that God just has the oddest personnel or nominating committee? I mean, really.
Yet, John becomes a prophet, a truth-teller. Luke pulls a poem from the prophet Isaiah to help him describe John:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
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.”
This is in Isaiah 40, in the same poem where God says, “Comfort, comfort, my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
Mind you, this was in the age where travel was a difficult thing. You had to go on the back of an animal or on foot. It often involved camping, if there was no town or city in sight when night fell. There were no cars, no interstate highways. Trips of more than several miles could easily take days, not minutes or hours like they do for us today, and you had to climb all the hills yourself.
Lots of people died while traveling, either from the elements or from robbers along the way. So when Isaiah says that every mountain and hill in God’s way shall be made low, and every valley lifted up, and every crooked way be made straight, Isaiah is saying nothing less than all the barriers between us and God are about to be removed, which would’ve seemed like even more of a miracle to Isaiah’s original hearers.
How fitting that a weirdo like John would carry that message.
How fitting that Luke would use this song from Isaiah to talk about John, the kinda scary, kinda crazy person of very little fame who will point the way to God, who comes in flesh as the son of a poor carpenter.
The barriers are gone. Nothing is going to stop God from getting to you. Not anxiety or depression, not grief or shame, not your sexuality, not your broken relationships, not your disappointments in yourself and other people, not your political views, not your addiction, not even your theology. Not even death itself.
Perhaps the most powerful message of Advent is that nothing is powerful enough to keep God away. You’d have better luck convincing the sun not to rise in the morning.
Advent reminds us that hope is always on the way. Always. And it never fails to reach its destination — even if it’s eventually.
The word of God came to John, and everything changed.
It changed because this message of hope isn’t best conveyed by the powerful. Comfortable people don’t do well in spreading messages of hope, because the natural response is, “Easy for you to say.”
No. Hope speaks most clearly to and through the broken, the grieving, the sick, the lost, the outcast, the mentally ill, the forgotten, the anxious, the depressed, the addicted, the people who are just trying to make it to the next paycheck and the people who couldn’t find work if they tried. People who have seen the lowest lows — which is most, if not all of us, at some point — know exactly how badly human beings need hope in our lives. Only by having been through pain can you possibly assure someone in pain that everything will be alright. Otherwise, we’re back at “easy for you to say.”
And so, in 2018, in the second year of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, when Charlie Baker was the governor of Massachusetts, when Michael J. Sullivan was the town administrator of South Hadley, when Elizabeth Eaton was the presiding bishop of the ELCA and James Hazelwood was the bishop of the Lutherans in New England, the Word of the Lord came to Our Savior’s.
It does. Every year, without fail. The arrival of Christmas never has a last-minute letdown. It is the word of love, of newfound hope, of trust, of God. It is love found in bread and wine and water and words. It is the love found in this building and in all the relationships that have formed here over the years. In you.
Never underestimate your own power, for nothing can stop God from getting to you.
The word of God, the word of hope, has come, is coming, will come, to you. Sho’’nuff. Amen.
1. Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Harper Collins, 2004, p. 88-89.