The Second Sunday In Advent
Scripture Reading: Luke 3:1-6
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]
- Luke 3:6 Isaiah 40:3-5
Sermon: “Nations and Nobodies”
Let’s start this morning with a little Christmas quiz. I’ll play brief clips from several Christmas songs. You tell me who recorded each one.
That was “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” by Burl Ives. In the nineteen fifties and early sixties, Ives was one of the biggest stars of the folk music revival.
When he wasn’t singing top of the chart hits, he appeared in Broadway shows and movies. Ives won an Oscar for best supporting actor for the 1958 film The Big Country. Today, he’s known for one mildly obnoxious Christmas song.
Andy Williams was a popular singer and television star during the nineteen sixties and seventies. Today, the only Andy Williams song you’re likely to hear on the radio is this one, “Happy Holiday.”
Brenda Lee was a female vocalist of the nineteen sixties. The only people who had more hits on the charts than she did in those days were Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Ray Charles. If you remember Brenda at all, though, it’s for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
That was “Jingle Bell Rock,” recorded by Bobby Helms in 1957. Helms’ next two best-selling songs were “Fräulein,” and, “My Special Angel.” My guess is that you haven’t heard either one of them lately.
Fame is fleeting. Artists who once ruled the Billboard charts are now one hit Christmas wonders. We could say the same for the rulers Luke mentioned.
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 son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Rome was in chaos. Turmoil at the top sent ripples to the farthest corners of the Empire, opening the door for all sorts of political shenanigans and power grabs. That was the world, Luke says, into which a fresh word of God came. And it came, not to the priests in Jerusalem, not to Rome’s lackey on the throne, not to the Roman governor nor even to the Roman emperor.
That fresh word of God came to a nobody from nowhere named John. Luke makes the outrageous claim that God works to change the world, not through the powerful, but through the weak, the small, and the ordinary.
God still does. Today, though, who wants to be “ordinary?”
“Go out into the world and do great things,” graduation speeches urge us. When we’re young, we dream of how grand and extraordinary our future will be.
Those expectations fall, little by little, to life’s wayside. Most of us begin our lives, live our lives, and end of our lives as ordinary people. Scripture tells us that, in God’s eyes, being ordinary isn’t just okay—it’s the way of life that God uses to change the world. Paul put it this way in First Corinthians:
God chose what’s foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what’s weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what’s low and despised in the world, things that aren’t, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
Let me tell you about a day when the weak shamed the strong.
This is Jackie Mitchell, whose belated obituary recently appeared in The New York Times. Jackie was born in 1913 in Chattanooga. Her dad, Joe, taught her to play baseball in a park near their home.
One of their neighbors was a future Hall of Famer named Dazzy Vance. He taught Jackie how to pitch what he called a “drop ball.” Today, we call it a sinker.
On April 2, 1931, Mitchell, then seventeen years old, was a pitcher for the otherwise all male minor league Chattanooga Lookouts. The Yankees were in town for an exhibition game, and the Lookouts’ little stadium was full.
Mitchell came to the mound in the first. The first two hitters she faced were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I’m sure that neither Ruth nor Gehrig took Jackie seriously. That was their mistake. Jackie had a couple of advantages. She was a lefty, for starters, and a lefty that Ruth and Gehrig had never faced. She also had a pitch in her arsenal they weren’t expecting to see.
Here’s how William E. Brandt, a reporter for The New York Times, told the story. The crowd of about 4,000 cheered the local girl athlete heartily as she faced the Sultan of Swat. The Babe…swung hard at two pitches, then demanded that Umpire Owens inspect the ball, just as
batters do when utterly baffled by a pitcher’s delivery. Then the 17-year-old left-hander shot a third strike over the plate. The Babe didn’t swing, but when Umpire Owens called him out, he flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench…. Gehrig took three hefty swings as his contribution to the occasion.
Some say it was all a publicity stunt by Joe Engel, the Lookouts’ owner. Mitchell always denied it. In an interview shortly before her death in 1987, Jackie said, “Why, heck, they were trying—darn right,” she said. “Heck, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they have been any different?”
John the Baptist faced the heavy hitters of his own day with faith in the God who’d called him to a prophetic wilderness ministry.
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.'” (Luke
John didn’t expect anyone to level mountains. God would take care of that. John did expect people to live out their faith in practical, everyday ways. Here’s a snippet of sermon from later in chapter 3.
[John said,] “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:11-14)
Faith, John said, should be reflected in our relationships, jobs, family, and civic life.
In the eighteenth year of the twenty-first century, Donald Trump was president of United States, Bruce Rauner governor of Illinois, and Shana Johnson conference Minister of the Illinois South Conference of the United Church of Christ. In those days, the word of the Lord came to St. John United Church of Christ in New Athens, along the Kaskaskia.
You and I can be prophetic voices in life’s wilderness places, too. We can proclaim, as John did, that in Jesus Christ the mountain-leveling, valley-filling way of God opens before us, not in the powerful, but in the ordinary and the everyday.
Like Jackie Mitchell, we can face life’s most daunting challenges knowing that, as Isaiah promised, John proclaimed, and Jesus proved, those challenges are going down.