It’s common to assume these days that we modern Americans have little in common with the people we hear about in the Bible - whether in the Old Testament or New. And although I often like to take a contrary view, I have to admit that there may be more differences than similarities between the likes of you and me and the people about whom we read in the Scriptures.
Take the people who we hear about in just the first few chapters of Luke’s Gospel. The very first group of people we encounter in Chapter 1 - “the whole assembly,” Luke calls them - are gathered at the Temple, outside, and they are doing something that I seldom see all of you do when you gather outside the church in the fairer weather. No, they are not drinking coffee. Luke tells us that “the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.” Maybe we should try that some time!
The next thing Luke shares with us about “the people” is a timeless experience that people everywhere have always had to endure: they are waiting. Specifically they are waiting for Zechariah (who is in the sanctuary offering incense), and they are wondering “at his delay.” Perhaps they are tapping their feet, asking how much longer till services will be over. So, there’s something they have in common with modern church-goers.
A bit later on, Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist, and we are told that her neighbors “rejoiced with her.” But in no time at all, when Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and his angel-imposed silence was ended, we are told that “fear came over their neighbors.” And in a most un-modern pattern of behavior, in the face of things they do not understand, all who heard about the events of the birth of John the Baptist “pondered” what they had heard, and attributed the occurrences to the hand of the Lord.
The next group of people we are told about in Luke’s Gospel are the shepherds, who are greeted by a band of singing angels that shines with the glory of the Lord. And in the face of this spectacle, how do the shepherds react? They do not grab their iPhones and start recording the angelic song. But rather, Luke tells us that they are “terrified:” a normal and healthy reaction, by biblical standards, to the appearance of angels; but one that very few people these days who claim to have experienced angelic visitations ever seem to share. But in ageless fashion, the recently terrified shepherds do run to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus, and then go around town telling everyone they find of the night’s unusual events. And Luke reports that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”
There’s a twelve year gap in Luke’s narrative between Jesus’ infancy and his childhood. And in the sole episode of the Lord’s wonder years that Luke reports - when the twelve-year-old Jesus teaches in the Temple - he (Luke) includes the same description again of the people who heard him. He tells us that they “were amazed.”
All of this background is preamble for today’s episode in Chapter 3 of Luke’s Gospel which tells of the ministry and proclamation of John the Baptist, who now occupies center stage. Until this point, we have had two angelic announcements (one to Mary, and one to Zechariah); we have had two rather unusual, even miraculous births; we have two unexpected mothers; and two bemused husbands. Admittedly there was only one band of singing angels, but that news came from shepherds, and can shepherds ever really be trusted? And we have people who have witnessed these events who been praying, waiting, joyful, frightened, ponderous, terrified, and twice-amazed. And years have gone by. The events of the past have been either dimmed or embellished over time. Only one childhood story even survived of these two remarkable baby boys.
Now they are young men, and one of them has begun to make a name for himself. Surprisingly (considering the singing angels) it is John whose notoriety has emerged. It is John who has gathered a group of followers around him. It is John who is preaching about the kingdom of God and of a baptism of repentance. John is proclaiming the fulfillment of the old prophecies and issuing dire new ones. John is clearly a man set apart. John is living the life of a man anointed, or appointed - who can say? John is drawing crowds to his riverside revivals. John is baptizing those who come to him in the river. It is John to whom the people flock to ask him, “What should we do?”
In his ministry, John appears to be poised on the cusp of something. And in this electric moment, when politics are haywire, and religion is replete with untrustworthy leaders, St. Luke informs us again about the attitude of the people in a way that reminds me how unlike those sandal-shod biblical folk we modern people are. He doesn’t tell us that they were praying, or waiting, or joyful, or frightened, or ponderous, or terrified, or even amazed. No! This is what Luke says. He says that “the people were filled with expectation.”
Oh Lord, what must that be like?!?! To be filled with expectation?!?!
Now, I could be wrong, but I believe that I hardly know a one of us here and now who is filled with expectation. Oh, we are jittery about the stock markets, and our knickers are in a twist about the political gyrations of the moment...
... but who here is filled with expectation? About God!?! And about what God is going to do!?! Who here is even waiting anymore for justice to roll down like a river; or righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?!?! Who is heeding the ancient and expectant call to prepare ye the way of the Lord!?!?!?
But these people... these people we hear about in the olden days, they are “filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” You see, this was not an academic, dispassionate question that was somehow disconnected from the rest of their lives. This was not a question they wanted to hear Anderson Cooper comment on, or Chris Wallace, or even Oprah. No! They were full of expectation, and they were questioning in their hearts, in the depths of their being, and with the sincerity of their prayers, whether John might be the Messiah - the One who had come to make them great again! And they were full of expectation.
But John was not promising to make them great again. He did not not even promise that the one who was coming would make them great again. He only told them that the one who was coming was more powerful than he was, and that he (John) was not worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of the One who would be revealed.
And then… …with all the people standing there, when all had been baptized, and Jesus had been baptized too... …and he (Jesus) was standing there, praying… then… “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” And then, no one was confused anymore about which of those two boys had been chosen. Then no one was left uncertain about who was the One! Certainly John knew, and said that he must decrease so that Jesus could increase. No one was in doubt!
They would be disappointed that he would not make them great again. Since his commandment to love one another, and since the salvation he wrought by his own appalling sacrifice bestows a greatness of an unexpected kind, not much sought after those days... and maybe not in these days, either.
But you and I have had time to get used to the idea of this savior. We have been asked whether or not we believe that he came down from heaven for us and for our salvation. We have been told that we will have to lose our lives if we want to save them. We have heard him call us to take up our cross and follow him. We have listened to the testimony of two millennia of faith that attest in a thousand thousand ways that he rose from death and ascended into heaven, and that from thence he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead. We have been shown that he is the king of glory, and we have been promised that he shall come to be our judge! (Yes it’s as much a promise as a threat!)
And yet, somehow we manage to live our lives, go to church, and call ourselves Christians without ever learning to expect very much. Indeed, very few of us are full of expectation when it comes to God. And we have to ask ourselves, I think, what we are expecting so little from God? Or maybe we have to ask ourselves if we are expecting anything at all?
One of the best reasons to come to church is because you are full of expectation - aware that God has something in store for you, someplace for you to go, something for you to do. And the next best reason is because you have discovered that you aren’t expecting anything at all, except perhaps the next package from Amazon Prime. You see, the folks at Amazon would prefer that your life revolve around your expectations of them, rather than your expectations of God. God doesn’t require you to buy as many things.
But today.. … today God has called you here to fill you up with some expectation - whether your tank is nearly full or almost completely empty. You did not know that the Jordan River flows down Locust Street, but it does! Maybe you were questioning something in your hearts, and maybe you weren’t, but that’s OK. For God has called you here to fill you up with expectation that he will bless you and that he will bless the whole world.
God called you here today to remind you that he came down from heaven for us and for our salvation.
God called you to help you remember that if you want to save your life you are going to have to lose it for his sake. God called you so you would remember that you will eventually have to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
God called you so that you may encounter again the living testimony that Jesus rose from death and ascended into heaven, and that from thence he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.
God called you to show you that he is the king of glory, and that he shall come to be our judge!
God called you here to remind you that there is a river of grace flowing past this place, and on the banks of that river stands one still calling out to prepare ye the way of the Lord.
And in the midst of that river, still dripping with water, still praying, stands One upon whom the Holy Spirit is descending like a dove… and there is a voice still resounding in the heavens that calls out to the One who stands in the midst of the river that flows by us: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
And all this time we have just been sitting here, praying, and waiting, sometimes joyful, often frightened, seldom ponderous, now and then terrified, and very, very rarely amazed… but we weren’t expecting much at all… and now, this very moment, on a snowy day early in 2019, now it’s time for that to change!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 January 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia