The Best First Line

What’s the best first sentence? You know, like “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” First sentences are important – they set the mood, set the tone, draw you in – but they’re also just kind of fun, even famous in their own right. The American Book Review has even created a list of the top 100 best first lines of all time. “Call me Ishmael” is number one, in case you’re curious. What’s your favorite? Okay, I know, you’re in church, so you’re all thinking that maybe you’d better go with  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” since God is listening and all, but let’s just assume that one for now. What about “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Or “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Or “Mrs. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”*

There are, of course, tons of first lines to choose from, but I’ll bet that not one of you would pick “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.” Now, true, this isn’t exactly the first line of Luke’s Gospel, but that line isn’t much better. “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

Oy. That sets the tone for sure, although I’m not sure it really draws you in as much as it makes you imagine yourself in a post-lunch overly-warm lecture hall about to settle in for a long winter’s nap. But you shouldn’t give up on Luke too quickly, because even though he says (twice) that he’s planning on writing an “orderly account,” once he starts writing, he just can’t help himself – he ends up writing a musical. Everyone in his story just keeps breaking into song – Mary and Zechariah and the angel with the multitude of the heavenly host and Simeon…they’re all so full of joy and wonder that they’ve just gotta sing!

But now that Luke has gotten to chapter 3, it’s like he suddenly remembers what kind of story he’s supposed to be writing. Right! Right, an orderly account. Okay. Back to lecture. So, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, etc., etc., etc., But we must be careful here. Because Luke is not just setting the stage for the who, what, where, and when – he is also setting us up. Now most of us have heard this text so many times that we tend to gloss over the first part of it – right, a bunch of historical figures who may or may not appear later on in the story – and we’ve learned to expect the second part, – right, of course the word of God came to John, he is the John, after all, John the Baptizer, the voice in the wilderness, the one who proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Seems self-evident to me. But look again at what Luke sets up here – that in the time of emperors and governors and rulers and princes and principalities and priests and people of immense power, the word of God came not to them but to that guy – that kind of weird guy standing by a stream in the middle of the wilderness.

And the great question is – Why? Why choose that guy? Why would God choose John? Why would God choose John’s unlikely, ancient mother to give birth to him, an unlikely, awkward prophet, just so that God could put his powerful word into John’s unlikely, acerbic mouth. Why John, a nobody, instead of all of those other people who had more money, more power, more prestige, and could certainly have had more impact? We can’t say it’s because they were just inherently unsympathetic to God’s cause or unreceptive to God’s call – you just have to look at the story of the conversion of Paul to know that God is quite happy to find a way of working around that. So why John? Or for that matter, why Abraham? Why an old, old man to be the father of a great nation? Why slippery, shifty Jacob to build the foundation for the twelve tribes of Israel? Why stuttering Moses to be God’s mouthpiece before Pharaoh? Why Ruth? Why David? Why Mary? Why does God always seem to favor the most unlikely people to do his work in the world? If the first line of creation is that in the beginning God lovingly and carefully created heaven and earth, why in the world would he hand over the future of that world to such a bunch of misfits?

Well, first of all, it’s because God, the author of all, loves a good plot twist. God delights in surprises, delights in showing us redemption and grace in the most unexpected places. I imagine that it pleases God to no end to watch his people discover him by stumbling upon him, to see us jump with a start when he pops up in strange places. After all, this is the God of the burning bush, the God of Balaam’s talking donkey, the God who appeared to Elijah as a sound of silence. God loves a good surprise, not only because surprises bring us joy in a very particular way, but also because surprises help us to see how dependent we are on him, help us to find him; surprises help to draw us in. I certainly know this from my own life. How could a God who called me to ordained ministry from Saint Mark’s Church, then sent me to low-church Virginia Theological Seminary, and then called me back to Saint Mark’s be anything other than a God who revels in a good plot twist?

But even more important than God’s love of surprise is God’s love of us. God is an author who desperately wants his characters to know one another. Why choose an unlikely prophet? Because by choosing the unlikely, God shows us that to hear his word, we are going to have to really pay attention to each other, to be alert, to look and listen for his word at all times and in all places, because we never know when we just might hear it. If God only spoke to us through the most likely mouth, we might very well just stop noticing when those mouths were moving. But there can be no cheating here. We cannot assume that we’ll hear God in a particular place or from a particular person. We cannot assume that we’ll hear God speaking to us through the most powerful, the most prominent, or the most predictable. God’s choosing the unlikely reminds us to never, ever rule someone out as a potential messenger for the word of God – the man on the street corner who is shaking for his next fix but who reminds us as we pass by that we are blessed, the child who has just learned his words but who tells us that he likes being blessed at the altar because he can feel the angel wings beating around his head, the self-avowed atheist who unintentionally echoes the great commandment when he tells us that love is a force known best by our actions – even the woman who gazes back at us in the mirror. God is happy to send his word to the most unlikely among us if that means that we will have to pay better attention to one another, to learn to read one another better, to look – hard – for the Christ that lives within each one of us, and to love one another as we love ourselves.  

And this is Advent. To look for God in the most unlikely of places – in the wilderness, in a barren womb, in a manger. This is Advent. To wait and watch with eyes and hearts wide open and expectant, to look for the coming of Christ again and again and again, to stand together upon the height and to look to the east, where God will surely gather all of us misfits into one. This is Advent. To look for God’s holy surprise – his word in our mouths, his grace in our hearts, his strength in our hands, his Son in our story. So here is the best first line of this best first season. In the final year of the first term of Barack Obama, when Tom Corbett was governor of Pennsylvania and Michael Nutter mayor of Philadelphia, when Katherine Jefferts Schori was the presiding bishop and Charles Bennison finishing his tenure as Bishop of Pennsylvania, the word of God came to…who? You? Me? Your partner? Your father? The person sitting next to you in the pew? The person you’re going to stumble across when you step out of this church? May God finish writing that first sentence for you in a most wonderful and most surprising way.

*The first lines listed here are from, in order, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Star Wars by George Lucas, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Christmas Carol by Dickens, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

9 December 2012

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 11, 2012 .