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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
December 9, 2018 at 10:15 AM
Central Passage
Luke 3:1-6
Advent 2C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: December 9, 2018 – 2nd Sunday of Advent

Luke 3:1-6


The Word in the Desert


            “In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Eric Holcomb was governor of Indiana, when Joe Donnelly and Todd Young served as U.S. Senators and Joe Hogsett was mayor of Indianapolis, and during the papacy of Francis and the bishoprics of Elizabeth Eaton in Chicago and William Gafjken in Indianapolis, the word of God came to Howard Lowell Sharp, son of John and Helen Sharp, in the region of Roll, Indiana.”


            You might laugh, but this is the level of contrast that Luke gives us in his Gospel. To be sure, unlike the other Gospels, Luke has a birth story about John the Baptist. Luke also tells us that John comes from a priestly family, and that his father prophesied in song once his lips were unsealed. But the contrast remains similar. Luke historically situates John’s ministry and makes a theological comment at the same time. In the time of these big, important men – Caesar, who ruled much of the known world; Herod and Philip, two of the tetrarchs that administered Palestine; Pilate as governor of volatile Judea; and Annas and Caiaphas, the pre-eminent religious leaders of the Jerusalem Temple apparatus – God’s word comes to someone unexpected. Someone not in the big city, but out in the sticks. God’s word bypasses the big, important men in big, important places, and comes to a lay preacher in the desert.


            And what is God’s word to John? Is it about the incoming reign of God, when God will establish a messianic kingdom on earth? Is it about the downfall of these big, important men? Not in an immediate, direct way. While Luke is telling the story of the incarnate Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus, the first concern is about the people themselves. John doesn’t preach political revolution. He preaches repentance. He calls on people to change their hearts and how they relate to God and each other (and John will have some concrete suggestions on how to do that later in chapter 3). In other words, John is preparing the way of the Lord by preparing the human heart.


            And preparation of the human heart is not an easy process! We all know what we’re like when someone calls on us to change our ways or our attitudes. “Not me! What about those people? They’re way worse than I am!” Very few of us immediately acquiesce, even when we know that the change is good for us and for those around us. It’s because without the grace of God moving within us, repentance – change of heart and life – is impossible.


            This is what we mean when we confess that we are “captive to sin and cannot free ourselves”. Our resistance to amend our hearts and lives for our good and the good of our neighbor has little to do with natural hard-headedness or stubbornness. It has much to do with a deeply sinful, radical resistance to God’s work in our lives. We’d rather do it our way, thank you very much. We want God, of course, but we want him on our terms. We want grace, of course, but deep down, we think we deserve it. And so we seek God, or our own fulfillment, in all the wrong places. In the glorious, beautiful things and places of the world, in the grand cathedrals of the religious or secular world (one such “cathedral” is the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota!), in the latest spiritual or secular guru or favorite politician.


            Psalm 121 is famous for the line, “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? My help is in the Lord.” Often, we’ve interpreted that psalm as saying that God is coming down from the hills, from the high places, but that’s not the meaning at all. The psalm is saying, in effect, “Don’t look up there. Look to the Lord, who doesn’t come from the high and mighty places at all.” Throughout Scripture, God calls us to look away from these obviously high and glorious places. He calls us to come out to the desert, out to the place where we think we are least likely to find the Word of God. He calls us out there because it is there, in the desert, where nothing else grows, that God’s Word roots deeply within us and prepares our hearts for the Lord’s arrival.


            So where is the desert? Where does God call us to encounter him? Where is God leading us to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ arrival?


            For the last five or six years, I have felt God lead me to meet people in places that I would be uncomfortable. In the local bars, for instance. I have often resisted that call because of my sinful resistance; because of my desire to do my ministry my way. But God has kept prodding, kept calling. And for now, I am meeting people at the local food pantry on a weekly basis. God hasn’t stopped prodding me on this!


            For you, the desert might be different. Maybe it is being present with an ill friend or loved one, or someone who is going through depression or a great tragedy in their lives. Maybe God is calling you to go somewhere you are uncomfortable going, or to be with someone you otherwise wouldn’t be with. Maybe God is challenging you to see those you relate to, those you love, as God sees them. Maybe God is calling you to come to a place of acceptance – acceptance of physical limitations, acceptance of certain people in your life. Whatever God is calling you to, that is God’s grace at work in your life, calling you to take that step out of the boat, that step into the desert where nothing seems to grow. God’s grace calls you and me out into the desert – into the difficult places of our lives – so that God can prepare our hearts for Jesus. So that our lives can be his manger. So that we can be changed into a new person – a full, complete human being, in the image of our Lord. All of this – all the difficulty and pain – are gifts of God. They are God’s grace at work.


            So when you find yourselves in the desert, and feel like God is utterly absent, remember that the desert is precisely the place in which God’s word dwells. It is where God’s word comes to change your heart and life to make you ready for Christ.


            Let us pray.


            O Lord, you call us deeper into the desert so that you can change our hearts and minds for our good. Help us to surrender to your grace at work in us and follow your prompting and prodding. Remind us that you are most present in the unlikely places of our world. Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given,