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Distant Noises… Other Voices: The Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 5, 2021:
Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 3:1-6

That’s a short gospel reading we just heard: six tiny verses. Jesus isn’t featured (explicitly). But in those few verses, six places are named. And names — ten of them appear. Eleven if you count “God” as one of them. And this week and next we focus on John, the Baptizer: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

That’s one voice among many in this little section. One name standing against others. Who are these competing voices? Why bother with this list of names, this ‘rogue’s gallery?’

    Tiberius Caesar: Ruler of the world (to them). Stepson of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. When Jesus will say “rend unto Caesar,” he’ll be holding a silver coin with Tiberius’s image.

    Pontius Pilate: we know him. Caesar’s eyes on the ground. We’ll meet him again later.

    Herod Antipas; we know him a bit, too. The son of King Herod, the bad guy in the Christmas story. Junior, here, will cut off John’s head. He’s out to get Jesus, too. Though, Luke writes, he also hopes to catch Jesus performing a miracle.

    And then there’s Philip, his half brother. The historian Josephus wrote that Philip was the best (or maybe we’ll say ‘least worst’) of the Herod family.

    Lysanias: apparently a puppet king. Some confusion about who this is exactly; maybe the ruler that Mark Antony and Cleopatra killed, or a relation.

    And Annas and Caiaphas: along with Pilate, they’ll come up again later, too, at Jesus’s trial.

So, who are these names, these voices? Petty rulers. Cruel tyrants. Scheming kings. Privileged dynasties. What are these voices saying, if you’re one of the ordinary people of the day? Probably something like: know your place; be thankful for the little that you have; go wash my car (or chariot).

And then there’s John, in the woods, by the river. Evoking Isaiah (another name): “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Get things in line, because into this world, this chessboard, God is going to come.

And the words of Isaiah are echoed in Baruch. If it sounds unfamiliar, it’s one of the books of the Apocrypha. Traditionally associated with the Prophet Jeremiah, whom we do know. Maybe written by Jeremiah, or his secretary, maybe written (or at least written concerning) the time in the Israelites’ history when a whole lot of them were defeated and carted off to a distant land: Babylon, and left in the lurch there for years. What are these voices saying? Probably: know your place… be thankful for the little that you have… That’s the voices from above. And if you’re one of the exiles, you’re probably saying things like: “this is hopeless… life used to be great, now it’s terrible… will it always be this bad? How do we live our life and our faith, in this strange land???

But there are some alternative voices, that sometimes break through:
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction…”
“People, look east…”

So who are the voices that you would have listened to, if you’d been among the crowds in John’s day? Who are the voices that you would have listened to, as a prisoner in Babylon, six hundred years before that? Which voices do you give power? Which voices do you let define you and your situation? Which voices do you trust? Which voices end up shaping your voice, inside your head?

And what voices are you listening to today? Who are the Caesars, the Pilates, the Herods? Who are the prophets? Is your voice hope-ful, or hope-less?

Common sense, human logic would tell us that God’s voice comes from the mouths of the victors. God is with the Babylonians. With Caesar, Herod, or the High Priest Caiaphas. But where do our readings direct us? To the wilderness, to the wild, albeit hope-filled one. To the crowds, that gather. And for the people Baruch is writing to, or about: the surprise is that God is with them. They didn’t lose God when they lost Jerusalem. God is with them in their sorrow, and suffering.

It doesn’t mean that the darkness they’re going through isn’t real, or painful, or discouraging. But, like we heard in our opening responsory, the darkness may be necessary for us to see the stars; to understand the light. And the prophets, the prophetic, alternative, subversive voices of hope, are like little glints of light in the night sky. They don’t remove the night for us. But stars are suns themselves. They show us that there is light shining somewhere. And our starlit sky is, in time, going to give way to the day.

Where we are at this particular moment of time in the pandemic is, for many, painful and discouraging. Just as we thought that morning was about to break, many voices on the news forecast a lengthening of the night. So on this Second Sunday of Advent we might do well to recall that there were something like 30 years between Zechariah’s song and the appearance of his son John in the wilderness. 30 years of waiting, and yet he still sang “the dawn from on high will break upon us.”

And there were 70 years that the Israelites spent in exile in Babylon. And they struggled, and they wailed, and we have psalms as proof of this. But they held onto hope, and we have psalms for that, too.

John the Baptist is a model for all of us, as church. He’s not the messiah. He doesn’t need to solve everything. But he’s called to be faithful. To proclaim, to point people toward God, toward the good. And that’s us, too. We don’t need everything perfect and fixed and normal for us to do our thing and live our faith. We’re just called to live our faith, in whatever situation we find ourselves in. Be a little glint of light in a dark sky. The results we would love to see may be 30 years, or 70 years, or even lightyears away. Nevertheless, let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.” Amen.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter