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The Power of Insignificance

San Williams

December 9, 2012
Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

If you wanted to introduce the major players in the historical drama that is unfolding in the 21st century, you might begin something like this:  In the days of the American Empire, when President Barak Obama was beginning his second term in office, and John Boehner was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Harry Reid was Senate Majority Leader, and Mohammed Morsi had been elected President of Egypt, and Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister of Israel while Mahmoud Abbas was President of Palestine, and  Bashar al-Assad was the ruthless ruler of Syria, during the papal reign of Pope Benedict the XVI… These are some of the major players on the world stage in these beginning decades of the 21st century. Their decisions can make for peace or foster war.  The policies they put forth affect the lives of millions for better or for worse. On this second Sunday in Advent, as we bend our ears to hear the word of God, it will come to us, if it comes at all, in the messy political and religious realities of our day.

At least that was the conviction of the writer of the third Gospel.  As Luke begins to tell the salvation story of God’s coming to us, he sets his Gospel in the midst of the political and religious drama of that day. If we were designing the stage set and sound effects for the opening scenes of Luke’s Gospel, we’d have imperial palaces on display. Front and center would be the political and religious VIPs of the day: the emperor, the governor, the various rulers and high priests. For sound effects, we’d hear imperial edicts being  trumpeted from palace balconies.  Offstage, we’d hear the rumble of war horses tramping through cobblestone streets, accompanied by the sound of clanging armor and spears.  Luke takes pains to set the stage for the coming of God’s salvation within the political and religious power structure of his day.

Today’s passage is actually the third time Luke sets the story of God’s coming in the context of world leaders and events.  The first was the birth of John the Baptist, which Luke tells us happened “in the days of King Herod of Judah.”  Next, Luke mentions that the birth of Jesus takes place under the rule of Emperor Augustus and while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And now, in today’s reading, as John the Baptist is about to start his ministry, Luke again places his story amid historical figures.  This time he mentions no fewer than seven political and religious authorities:  Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brother Philip, Lysanias, and the high priests Anna and Caiaphas.   Clearly, Luke wants to locate the story of God’s coming in Jesus smack in the middle of the world-shaking events of that day.

But then Luke makes a jarring, outrageous, and counter-intuitive claim.  After naming the Who’s Who of political, economic and religious power of that day, he continues “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” To whom? From where?  To John, the only son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah, you recall, was a minor priest, perhaps retired, who worked the night shift in the Temple. He and Elizabeth were good folks, faithful and well-respected in their neighborhood. Their son John, though, had sort of disappeared from sight. He lived in the desert, away from towns and civilization.  So to say, as Luke does, that the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness was saying, in effect, that the word of God came to a nobody from nowhere.  Suddenly the top-down political reality Luke has shown us is replaced by a bottom-up scenario.  The way of the Lord is being prepared through one who is unknown, unexpected and insignificant.

Yet isn’t this the way the whole story of God’s coming among us in Jesus unfolds?  Everything about way God comes to the world seems small, weak, and surprising.  As we’ve seen, that certainly applies to John the forerunner of Jesus, but it continues to frame the salvation story of God as revealed in Jesus.  Mary, the pregnant teenager; Joseph, the common laborer from Nazareth; Jesus’ birth in a shelter for animals; Jesus the adult as an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head and as one who refuses the temptation of worldly fame and power—who, in the end, suffers death on a cross.  From John’s crying out in the wilderness to Jesus’ death on a cross, there is something mustard seed-like about God’s salvation. To the world it appears small and insignificant.  Yet it grows and spreads.  Remember those seven powerful people Luke mentioned in today’s reading?  By the time Luke wrote his Gospel all seven were dead, and today these men are mere footnotes to the story of God’s coming to us in Jesus, a coming that was heralded by this nobody named John in that no-place called the wilderness.  Luke’s claim is truly amazing.  God chooses the small and insignificant things to change the world.

And guess what? God’s not done yet. Luke signals to us 21st-century followers of Jesus that if we hope to see the salvation of God, we’d better start looking for it in unlikely places and people—unpopular teens, and out-of-work adults, and corporate executives, and stay-at-home parents, and underpaid secretaries and night-shift workers and volunteer baseball coaches. Perhaps even in a congregation tucked under the tower at the University of Texas, in a church gradually being dwarfed by high-rise buildings.

Debra has been in a Texas prison for 17 years. She’s now released, and is trying to become acquainted with her daughter, with whom she was pregnant when she first went to prison. She has an apartment, but no bed to sleep in or kitchen pots and pans with which to fix a meal.  So this congregation tucked beside a sprawling mega-university is attempting to find some furnishings that will make Debra’s apartment livable.  That sort of mustard seed work will not make headlines or be on the evening news, but it’s part of the subversive, under-the-radar way that God’s word comes, empowering people to help make the crooked places straight and the rough ways smooth.

Friends, the truth is that most of us are not powerful in the way the world defines power. We can’t halt the violence in Syria or solve our nation’s fiscal crisis.  We’re not major players on the world stage.  Given the insurmountable problems and challenges facing us, who doesn’t at times feel overlooked, insignificant, and ineffective?  Remember, though, that scripture continually affirms that God calls those who are weak and lowly to be the bearers of God’s word in the world, until that day when every valley has been filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked places made straight and the rough ways smooth and all flesh sings for joy to our God, Emmanuel, who has come among us to save the whole world.