“The ax is laid at the root of the tree,” John announces, seeing God at work in the destruction. As we say a welcome goodbye to 2020, we understand the violence of the image. COVID has taken an ax to our routines, jolted our physical, mental and economic health and dispelled our illusions about how far we have traveled toward racial justice. We know exactly the kind of violent upheaval that John describes. For us, our season of disruption is the result of ignorance, injustice and selfishness. For John, the disruption comes because God is on the move.
Our New Year challenge is to find God at work in our own season of upheaval, and to join in that work.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
Luke begins by locating John in history, naming the powerful people around him. “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.” The word of God passes by all of the title, and all of the power, and comes to a wild preacher in the desert.
Struck by John’s message, the people ask John what they should do, and his answers are remarkably practical. For such a fiery preacher, his instructions are concrete. Give to those in need, follow the rules, and resist greed. He manages to connect his advice with their everyday lives.
John’s presence gets people excited about whether he might be the messiah, and he hurries to assure them that, no, he is not, and, by the way, more disruption is coming. The renewal that God brings has a cost to it, as welcome as it is. All of this sets the stage for Jesus to be baptized, and for the Holy Spirit to descend on him. The pericope is called “The Baptism of Jesus,” and yet it’s all about John. John unsettles his listeners and us, and yet Luke labels it good news.
In this time of upheaval, the sermon might name the disruptions in your faith community: deaths, job losses, missed fellowship, and then look toward what God is doing now. We don’t want to go back to what was – we want to move toward a healthier, more attentive, more just future. Where do you see God at work on that? Where are we called to join in God’s work?
The sermon might also talk about time, as people are making plans for this new year. Out there in the desert, John has a lot of time to listen to God. COVID has changed our routines and left some of us with more time. How will we use that time to listen for God, and how will we hold onto it when COVID is over?
Prepare the way of the Lord, John preaches. Good advice, and yet it feels like an impossible preparation. We are never prepared enough for anything big, whether it’s God’s arrival, or a divorce, a layoff or a death. We can never prepare for the kind of shock and grief people are experiencing now. The sermon might explore both impossibility and the necessity of preparation.
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Senior Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where her favorite thing right now is outdoor communion, even in the winter. The image of the dove is from Pexels.
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