Saturday, December 15, 2012

Disrupting Christmas

Disrupting Christmas
New Hope Lutheran Church, Alvarado, MN
Advent 3C/December 16, 2012
Luke 3:7-18


In the name of Jesus.   Amen.
I rarely start a sermon by commenting on the latest news, but this morning it simply feels wrong to skirt the profound tragedy unfolding in Newtown, CT.

I’m guessing that you’re with me on this. 

Our eyes have been focused on the TV, the newspapers, the Internet these last couple days.   We have needed a Kleenex or two, the tears have simply welled up.   And we imagine the same sort of thing playing itself out in homes all across our world.

Our President has spoken movingly for us all, his own identity as the parent of two young girls showing…as he has reflected with us on the horror of so many young lives disrupted so suddenly, so cruelly, so senselessly.  And isn’t that what grabs at our guts—this horrific realization that violence can erupt anywhere, even in a small, safe, rural community like Newtown, CT?

Violence erupts….and disrupts our lives, all too often….

And it’s all happening at what’s supposed to be “the hap-happiest time of the year.”

The tragedy in Connecticut is disrupting Christmas, and not just this Christmas of 2012, but for the community of Newtown, and particularly for the families and friends of the victims, this tragedy will continue disrupting Christmas for as long as they dwell on this earth.

And what good could ever come out of disrupting Christmas?  

We want Christmas to be the ideal holiday we remember—a time of soft light, candle warmth, family closeness, peace on earth—but somehow, every year, all of that longed-for “Christmas” gets disrupted.    As I think back I recall a host of events and circumstances that have disrupted Christmas, the idealized Christmas I long for…

….and as if that were not bad enough, we in the Christian church actually orchestrate such disruptions, even in how we observe this season of Advent.

Because, for some strange reason, every December we invite disruption into our lives, by coming to church and hearing from that great disrupter of quietude, John the Baptist.

And here we have him once again, this morning in our gospel lesson from Luke 3.   John the Baptist shows up disrupting the peace and joy of this season with his rasping voice and sharp invective, throwing cold water on our burning yule-logs.   

Do we really need this fiery preacher invading our sacred space this morning?   With our own lives feeling disrupted enough by the school shooting out East, do we really need John the Baptist, too—disrupting Christmas for us once again?

Oddly enough, I think the answer is Yes.  

We need John the Baptist’s jarring presence and arresting testimony, perhaps now more than ever….

….because even though John doesn’t do much to get us ready for the idealized Christmas we all long for, he does do a masterful job of preparing us for the Christ who comes at Christmas, the Christ who entered into this world’s story to give us boundless hope, even when we are fixated on 26 coffins in Connecticut. 

John doesn’t really prepare us for Christmas, but he surely does prepare us for Christ….and this morning, we need Christ more than we need Christmas….and, in truth, as we become prepared to receive Christ, we’ll find that Christmas takes care of itself.

So what does John say to get us ready for Christ?

He says, first of all, that Christ always comes to us as a pure gift, born out of sheer grace.    John says this, though, in a most disruptive way, by shaking us loose from imagining that we can make any claims upon God.

John’s fiery talk about “bearing fruits worthy of repentance” unfolds in the context of cutting out from under his hearers any sense of “entitlement” they might have.    For good first-century Jews, being “children of Abraham” entitled you to make a claim upon God.  

Today we have our own ways of expressing such a sense of entitlement:  “I am a faithful Christian, after all.  I am a confirmed Lutheran.   I seek to do God’s will in my life—surely that has to count for something with God!”

But John will have none of that.   John’s first word here is that we have no claim upon God—nothing that we are, nothing we do, makes God “beholding” to us.  

We don’t have a claim upon God—but thank God, God has a claim upon us….and this claiming, naming God chooses to open up in our lives the way of repentance, setting aside all obstacles between us and God, clearing away all the rubble that thwarts our trust in God, our love for our neighbors and our care for the earth.

God makes a claim upon us, and in so doing God bestows on us a new rhythm--the rhythm of repentance—clearing away the old to make room for the New that always meets us in Christ Jesus.

But what will such a way of life look like? The crowds here in Luke 3 want to know…and John the Baptist is only too happy to sketch out for them, in broad contours, what this new life will look like.

But once again, John does so by delivering a jarring, disrupting word.   He addresses real flesh-and-blood human beings, engaged in work that not everyone considered honorable—those whose work gave them food and clothing to spare, those who collected taxes for the occupation forces of Rome, those who shouldered weapons in the army….what would it look like for them to live in the newness that God was ushering into the world in Christ?

Oddly enough, John the Baptist doesn’t tell these folks to quit what they’re doing and find other employment.   John doesn’t enjoin them to impoverish themselves, to stop colluding with the enemy, to refuse to bear arms.

In short, John doesn’t command his hearers to withdraw from the world as we know it….but rather, he invites them (and us!) to live in this world, but in ways that align with the startling newness of God’s unfolding Kingdom.

·      So if you have the goods of this world, don’t give them all away (reducing yourself to a pauper)…but embrace a life of sharing, discerning the meaning of “enough,” and routinely giving away what you don’t need  (because it’s all gift anyway!)

·      And if you’re thrust into a position of financial power over others, collecting taxes for Rome (for example), do that work but in a new key, following a new Master, refusing to abuse your position of trust to line your own pockets….

·      And if you’re commandeered into military service, conduct yourself in that station as a child of God, resist the urge to over-step your authority, or to use your power for violent, selfish ends…remember that you are called to protect and serve.

All three of these examples open up for us windows on what it means to live our lives in the world as we know it—but now as persons who bear the light of Christ, who know that in Christ everything we have and everything we do are gifts, sheer gifts from God above.

John’s disrupting presence and witness caught the attention of his hearers.   They sat up and took notice, just as we are doing this morning, because John was pointing the way toward the One who was coming after him….the One who would drench us in the Spirit of God’s very presence, burning away all the “chaff” that separates us from God, opening our lives to Him who even now is making all things new.

Yesterday morning, I heard a Catholic priest in Newtown, CT being interviewed on MSNBC.  The interviewer asked the priest how he helps persons deal with such immense grief…and I halfway expected the priest to talk about psychological tools or counseling techniques.

But instead the priest spoke naturally, compellingly about Christ.   

“Most of all, these people need Jesus,” the priest declared. 

And where is that not the case?

In the end the people of Newtown, CT and Alvarado, MN and every other community simply need Jesus.   Jesus will heal us.    Jesus will lead us forward.   Jesus will usher us into the fullness of God’s light and love and light.

Jesus will lead us (by way of the Cross and the Empty Tomb)…Jesus will lead us into the broad, free, open space we call the Kingdom of God…where there will be no more persons whose personal demons break out in violent ways, no more children who are senselessly murdered, no more parents whose grief seems inconsolable, no more disruptions in the abundant life God wills for us all.

What do the people of Newtown, CT, need this morning?   They need Jesus.  

And so do we.  Jesus will bring us home.

And that is enough.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

For the Life of the World

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?
For the Life of the World

"Arisee, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  
Isaiah 60:1-3

“Savior of the nations, come; virgin’s son, make here your home.
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth:  God has chosen such a birth.”
Ambrose of Milan (340-397 A.D.), translated by Martin Luther (1483-1546)   ELW #263

One church year gives way to the next, as the rhythm of our weekly worship invites us to contemplate Big Things—the consummation of the work of Christ the King, following quickly by the Advent of the One who is most assuredly not best described as “my personal Savior.”   No, Christ comes to save all sinners, to reclaim the whole universe, to make all things new.

Herein lies the best antidote to our natural tendency to “cozy up” during Advent and Christmas.   Whether we’re are drawn into gauzy nostalgia about holidays past or cocooned in the intimacy of tightknit circles of family and friends, the witness of the scriptures and the church is that this season—and the entirety of our life in Christ--is always about more.

Christ comes to Bethlehem’s manger, Christ comes to us continually in Word and Sacrament, and Christ will come again in the fullness of time, not just for “me and my kind” but for the life of the world.

So, we ask ourselves one last time in 2012:  Where are you leading us, Lord?   Let our December answer be clear and simple:  Christ leads us into a mission that spans the world, imbuing us with a global consciousness that resists any domestication or privatization of the life of faith.

The Global Horizon of Advent and Christmas

From the very beginning of the Christ-story, the scriptures make clear this global reach of God’s love in the Christ Child.   Indeed, the whole prophetic tradition of the Old Testament (the prequel to the Nativity story) envisions a coming Messiah who will do more than restore the fortunes of Israel.   Isaiah’s witness is pungently prescient:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  (Isaiah 60:1-3)

When the Holy Infant arrives, the angelic announcement is broad and far-reaching:  “‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  (Luke 2:10-11)   Days later, when the Child is presented in the Temple, old Simeon sings of the universal salvation God is ushering in:  “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  a light for revelation to the Gentiles    and for glory to your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:30-32).

The birth of Christ may have taken place in the backwater village of Bethlehem—“one of the little clans of Judah” (Micah 5:2)—but this birth has cosmic reach.  Just so, the community of Christ will always, always, always envisions itself caught up in a mission that is globe-spanning.  (Here’s something to try during Advent and Christmas this year:   pay attention in the hymns and carols of these precious seasons for references to the globe-spanning, world-saving work of Christ.)

Global + Local = “Glocal”

One of the most discouraging things I hear, with surprising regularity, goes like this:  “Bishop, we need to remember the mission in our own back yard  first.   It’s nice to care about people who live around the globe, but charity begins at home.”

What I find discouraging about this isn’t so much that it’s not true.   Indeed, the mission field starts right outside the doorway to all our church buildings.   And God’s mission certainly includes redeeming and reclaiming the close-in corner of the world where God has planted us.

But why, oh why, do so many of us consider engagement in local mission and global mission as mutually exclusive possibilities?  Indeed, this is not an “either-or” choice.   It is always a “both-and” opportunity, and unless our concept of God’s mission is both local and global, it will be truncated and incomplete.   For this reason, our own ELCA Global Mission unit has been lifting up a provocative new term—“glocal”—to describe more accurately the whole mission before us!

Some Ways to Widen the Circle

God’s call to us—as we wonder where God is leading our congregations—is to ponder together all the ways we might do justice to the universal scope of Christ’s redemptive work.   How might we so “widen the circle” of our attention and engagement, to enrich our participation in God’s rescue and renewal mission in the world?   For starters, consider these possibilities:

·        Learning about God’s work in other lands, traveling abroad (or assisting those who do so on our behalf) and welcoming visitors from global partners in ministry.   Because of our naturally tendency to turn inward and see little more than what’s right in front of us right now, we need regular opportunities to lift up our heads and behold the world God loves so achingly in Christ.   Fortunately, our synod has been blessed over the last two years with opportunities both to receive representatives of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC) of India (in September 2011) and to send nineteen representatives of our synod to visit the AELC just last month.   Many of our congregations also have an “oar in the water” in terms of international exchanges, mission trips and global ministries that you have “adopted.”

But such global mission awareness needs to be cultivated in all of our congregations.   So, if your congregation doesn’t already have one, draw together a global mission team/committee to spearhead your church’s engagement with God’s work across the world.   Subscribe to the ELCA’s Hand in Hand quarterly newsletter about our shared global mission work at    Invite one of the nineteen travelers to our companion synod in India to speak in your congregation during 2013—send your request to    Invite a global missionary on home leave or a member of a global church to visit your congregation at least once a year.    Cultivate relationships with Christians in other lands via social networking websites like Facebook.  

·        Praying for global mission ventures and international service ministries in the weekly prayer of the church.   Time and time again last month, as we pilgrims from the NW MN Synod met with members of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India, we received this invitation:  “Please pray for us.  Pray for our church, the AELC, as we elect a new bishop next year.  Pray for India.  Pray for peace in our region and across our world.”   The NW MN Synod team plans to facilitate a way (using Northern Lights) to invite specific, weekly prayer concerns for the AELC and its ministries.   You can also download the current Hand in Hand Annual for a listing of ELCA global missionaries and global partner churches—then pray for one of them each week: 
·        Sponsoring global missionaries and supporting global ministries of evangelism, mercy, and healing.   Hundreds of congregations across our ELCA have found how gratifying and enlightening (for them) it is to have a face and a name that matters to them in one of our global companion churches.   The Hand in Hand Annual referred to in the previous paragraph provides information on the all the ways that individuals and congregations can provide financial support to ELCA missionaries.   Pay attention, too, to the many fine opportunities in the ELCA Good Gifts catalog at   As your congregation  approaches its annual meeting get ready to propose a congregational goal for the ELCA Malaria Campaign, as we implement the synod assembly resolution (from last May) committing our synod to raising at least $225,000 toward the whole ELCA’s goal of $15 million by 2015.   For more information go to   Pay attention, as well, to the expanding work of our synod’s re-newed Hunger Table, advised by Pastor Steve Peterson, assistant to the bishop—contact him at to find out how your congregation can get involved.

In this regard I also want to encourage your deep engagement with Lutheran World Relief (LWR).   The mission of this fine inter-Lutheran organization goes like this:  Affirming God’s love for all people, we work with Lutherans and partners around the world to end poverty, injustice and human suffering.”  Many of our WELCA groups already contribute quilts, health kits and school kits through LWR.   But LWR does so much more across the world, as we learned from LWR Executive Director, the Rev. Dr. John Nunes at last May’s synod assembly.   Find out more at 

  • Advocating for peace, justice, religious freedom across the world and prisoners of conscience wherever they suffer for the sake of Christ.   During Advent and Christmas we thrill again to the globe-spanning witness of Isaiah:  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor,Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”    With good reason, our hearts and prayers will focus on the “state of the world” that God has created and is re-creating in Jesus Christ.   This too, has implications for how our congregations and church members develop a global consciousness for the sake of God’s mission.  

 As newly-elected (or re-elected) leaders assume their duties in our state capitol and in Washington, DC, in January take time to write to them, urging them to make decisions on behalf of the common good—across our state, our nation and our world.   Freedom House is “an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world.”   One of this organization’s programs monitors the state of international religious freedom—find out more at    Pay attention to world events via reputable news sources, e.g. to stay up on what’s happening in our companion synod, go to the website for one India’s national English-language newspapers,  (click on “News,” then click on “States,” and in the drop-down menu choose “Andhra Pradesh” state, where the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church is located).

Thank you, dear friends, for using this Bible study and the others in this 2012 series on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   I encourage you, especially as you do mission planning in your congregation for 2013, to make use of the whole series which is available on the synod website at
My wife Joy and I wish you all a blessed Advent and Christmas.  With you, we wait eagerly for the birth of the Christ Child who is the hope of the whole world:

“Our hope and expectation, O Jesus now appear;
Arise O Sun so longed for, o’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, o Lord to see
The day of earth’s redemption that sets your people free!”
Laurentius Laurenti (1660-1722)  ELW #244

Your brother in Christ,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion: 
1.      Why are we tempted to “domesticate” or “privatize” the saving work of Jesus Christ?
2.      How is your congregation already fostering a global consciousness among its members?
3.      What is one thing, suggested in this Bible study, that you’d like to see your congregation start doing in 2013?
4.      What phrase from an Advent hymn or Christmas carol best helps you remember thatChrist leads us into a mission that spans the world, imbuing us with a global consciousness that resists any domestication or privatization of the life of faith?”

This is the twelfth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   These columns have been designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

God's in the Details

Concordia College Chapel
November 27, 2012
Matthew 18:15-20

Is it just my imagination or does Jesus come off as sort of a micro-manager here in this passage?

We imagine Jesus always addressing “big picture” concerns—the incarnation of God in human flesh, the redemption of the universe, the forgiveness of sins, the gift of eternal life, the new creation….

But here Jesus appears to be laser-focused on the smallest, most intimate details of human relationships.

Jesus whom this past Sunday our churches celebrated as Christ the King of the whole cosmos…appears to be channeling Dr. Phil in Matthew 18, offering three easy steps for resolving your latest spat with your college roommate.

How small, how limited, how lost in the details of human relationships.   Why does Jesus care?

It’s been said that the devil is in the details….which causes me to wonder:  what if God is also “in the details?”

What if the redemption of the universe begins and always is playing itself out in the reconciliation of one person with another, like the proverbial stone tossed into a pond, sending out concentric-circle emanations of divine mercy and grace?

What if the new creation that Christ the King came to usher in….what if the new creation is already playing itself out each and every time one person speaks about a hurt or a disappointment with another, when one person cares enough about the relationship with a sister or brother that he calls in backup, pursues reconciliation, even to the point of being ready to start all over again with the other person—the way Jesus started all over again with Gentiles and tax collectors and other ne’er-do-wells?

I think we may have something here.    What seems like micro-managing is really the outflowing of divine grace, from the bottom up (as it were):   God restoring, God reclaiming, God renewing, God reconciling all things unto himself….one broken relationship, one sorry sinner at a time…

The punch line, the final verse of this passage, bears that out.   Can the God of the atom, can the King of the universe be bothered with you and the rub you’re having with a sister or brother in Christ?  

Yes, most assuredly.  God insists on being bound up in the vagaries of human connection:  “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” says Jesus, tying a big red ribbon around this whole astounding business.

It was my good fortune to spend two weeks in India recently, with 18 other folks from our NW MN Synod, making a pilgrimage of faith and friendship to the people of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church, the largest of twelve Lutheran church bodies on the Indian sub-continent.

Time and again we witnessed the truth of this text from Matthew 18…the truth that God is in the details of human relationships, bringing the fresh breath of the Spirit to bear on lives of flesh-and-blood sisters and brothers who live half a world away from us.

So…in closing let me share a few images that (I believe) reveal God in the details of the relationships we forged and nurtured in India….and let me ask you to ponder how God is alive and well in the details of the connections you have with one another, as new creatures in Christ.  (Numbers correspond to slides)

1.   Bishop Suneel of the AELC does a masterful job of teaching, from his own experience, what it means to be a Dalit—an untouchable.   Dalits don’t even have a place in the dominant faith story of Hinduism; is it any wonder that 95% of all Christians in India are Dalits—folks who have found a place in the story of Jesus and in relationship with other Christians?

2.   The Bible women are the backdoor evangelists who walk with Hindu women as they consider the story of Jesus and ponder how to respond to God’s call to embrace the way of Christ.   Even in the face of skepticism and resistance (depicted in this skit) Indian women are claiming their identity as children of the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

3.   Drs. Patricia and Samson are new friends we made in the city of Guntur, India.  Their own deep prayer life has led them to pour their lives into a ministry of healing, a clinic which includes not just top-notch medical care, but prayer and faith-filled conversation with all their patients.

4.   Something amazing happens when blonde Minnesotans sit down in the midst of lovely children and beautiful youth in the AELC….barriers come crashing down, memories are made and the love of God becomes very real.

5.   When Indian Christians ask you to pray for them, they don’t mean:  “jot down my name and pray for me in your prayer closet back home.”   They mean:  pray for me and with me, here and now.

6.   We found it was hard to get a photograph of “just” we 19 Americans….because our Indian sisters and brothers always wanted to be part of the shot…and then I realized:  this IS our group—white, brown, white, brown…all one in Christ.

7.   Partnership in global mission reaches maturity when real relationships are forged between Americans and Indians…because you see, when all is said and done, it’s all about relationships:  “For (promises Jesus) where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


Faith Reflections on Caring for the Creation

Faith Reflections
Forum on Clean Energy, Climate and Health
Concordia College—November 26, 2012

On behalf of the NW MN Synod of the ELCA, I add my welcome to you all this evening.   We are pleased to be one of the co-sponsors of this important forum. 

The program calls for me to offer “faith reflections,” so here goes….

God is always up to more than the eye can see.

Whatever we might say about God in relationship to anything….chances are we will say too little…we’ll stop short of thinking and speaking as expansively, as breathtakingly as the Bible invites us to do.

That certainly applies to our relationship with the whole created order, the cosmos, the universe itself.

So let me name briefly some of the basic convictions that arise out of the biblical witness and help us think expansively about the topic of God and the wondrous, fragile environment in which the Creator has wrapped all things.

First, it all belongs to God.  It is God’s doing.   It is the object of God’s lavish attention and gracious sustaining.

Second, the environment is given by God for the benefit of all God’s creatures---of the past, the present and the future.

Third, we human creatures have a special place in the whole scheme of things—a place of both honor and responsibility.  Hence the “thick” language about us being created in the image of God.    This is not so much something that we have or possess as it is something that we are constantly empowered to do, at the behest and in the strength that comes from God.  Just as kings in the ancient world staked out the boundaries of their territory by setting up images of themselves, so God stakes out God’s claim on the created order of things by placing us here—men, women, old, young, people of all races and colors and nations….called to reflect the Creator of all things and to enact the Creator’s good will for the Creation.

Fourth, we therefore need to delve deeply into the oft-misunderstood notion of “having dominion” over the earth.    In the Bible “dominion” is never about doing what we darn-well please with the creation.  “Having dominion” is antithetical to exercising selfish, exploitative power over the planet and its purported resources.  Dominion is instead always about exercising loving care for all that God has made, for the sake of all God’s creatures past, present and future.

Fifth, God holds us accountable.   To whom much is given, much is required.   God is not amused, God does not overlook our nonchalance, our geo-political squabbles, our rhetorical game-playing when it comes to fulfilling our callings to be loving caretakers of all that God has made.   If we wonder what makes God’s sad, at the top of our list of responses is surely our degradation of the creation, our inability and unwillingness to take those steps that would leave this world as good if not better than we have found it.

Sixth, it is in the context of these convictions that we will arrive at a fuller, richer understanding of the saving work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus did not come among us, live, suffer, die and rise again to make a deal with individual sinners regarding their eternal salvations.    That whole “take” on the Jesus-story is truncated and grossly insufficient.  We will be wise, rather to draw deeply from the wellsprings of books like the Epistle to the Colossians that speak of a cosmic Christ and a cosmic salvation, a global healing of all that God has fashioned, a re-making, a renewal, a piecing back together of all the parts and facets of the Creation that have been torn asunder by human greed, short-sightedness and apathy.   Even in John 3:16, the gospel-in-a-nutshell, the word for “world” (“God so loved the world”) is cosmos, the “whole enchilada,” all that is, “seen and unseen.”

So we gather this evening, mindful of God’s ownership of the whole creation, stirred by the awesome responsibility God has handed over to us, mindful of all the ways we fall short, but hopeful that the God who even now is refashioning all things into the New Creation in Jesus Christ—hopeful that God has further use for us, in giving birth to and lovingly tending that New Creation, even now.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Luke 3:1-6
Advent 2/Year C/December 9, 2012
Cormorant Lutheran Church, Lake Park, MN
          In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
          The first verses of this gospel lesson sound like something straight out of Who’s Who in the Ancient World. 
          Luke the gospel-writer really drops the names here, ticking off an impressive list of movers-and-shakers: Tiberius Caesar the Roman Emperor....Pontius Pilate the Governor of Judea....Herod and Philip and Lysanias–territorial rulers all...along with the Jewish high priests Annas and Caiaphas to boot!  
          Luke just runs right down the chain of command, from the top dog in far-off Rome to the local powers-that-be!
          He does this, I think, for two vital reasons.
          First, Luke wants us to see God’s saving Word at work in the midst of concrete human history.
          God’s Word, you see, doesn’t come to some hazy, timeless, never-never land.
          Rather, God’s Word invades this particular planet, the Third Rock from the Sun! 
          God’s Word enters a specific slice of human history.   God’s Word finds a home in a locale, in an era populated with personalities we can read about in history books who lived at particular GPS coordinates.
          It’s vital to say that because we’re forever tempted to imagine that faith and spirituality are about somehow escaping from the real world.   We try to round off and smooth over all of the embarrassing particularities about the God we come to know in Jesus Christ.
          And Luke the gospel-writer will have none of that. 
          Real faith, true spirituality, the Holy Spirit-uality of Luke’s gospel nails us down and nails God down to a chunk of real estate and a moment in time. 
God in Christ scandalously stooped to show the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.
          This same God is always stooping down and getting specific with you and me, too.

           This same God stoops down to you and me TODAY--December 9, a frosty morning in the “lake country” of northern Minnesota, the 343rd day of the year of our Lord 2012.

          But there’s a second vital reason why Luke does all this name-dropping here in chapter three of his gospel.

          Luke speaks of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas....because they are all being surpassed....they and all that they represent are on the way out.   

This “Who’s Who” list of first-century celebrities represents for Luke an old world order that is passing away.

          It’s as if Luke is imaging the Word of God as a jumbo-jet coming in for a landing, but this jumbo-jet “overshoots the runway,” so to speak. 

          God’s Word passes over the imperial palace of Tiberius; over the governor’s mansion of Pilate, over the castles of Herod and Philip and Lysanias; over even the sacred temple precincts of Annas and Caiaphas.  God’s Word “over-shoots”all those hallowed halls....“landing” instead in the Judean wilderness where a nobody named John the Baptist is starting his work. 

          God’s Word does not land where you might think it would!  

          So also, God’s Word doesn’t come to us just when everything is hunky-dory, when we’re sitting on top of the world, when all is swell.  

          No–God’s Word finds us, God’s Word makes its home in our hearts most often when we’re barren, bereft, barely able to hold our heads above water.   When doubt sways us, when sickness lays us low, when grief o’ertakes us–then God has a chance to get a Word in edgewise with us.

          Luke stresses that the Word of God comes to John “in the wilderness,” in that desolate desert where God has been meeting his people for centuries, teaching them “in the wilderness” how to walk by faith.

          It is critical that Tiberius and Pilate and Herod and Caiaphas and all the rest are named here in the first couple of verses of  Luke chapter 3.....because they and their kind are on the way out.

          The power of all these bigshots was a “let’s make a deal” sort of power.  Their power declared to all those living under it:  put up, pay up and shut up.  Their power-grabbing ways, according to Luke chapter 3, are coming to an end.

          Their old age is passing away, being supplanted by the New World Order that God is establishing in the most unlikely of places, in the barrenness of the Judean outback where John the Baptist is proclaiming something startlingly new: a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

          And what might that look like, this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?”

          Luke unpacks this pregnant phrase for us by quoting from the thrilling 40th chapter of the prophet Isaiah.   Luke conjures up Isaiah’s ancient image of a divine excavating, earth-moving, road construction project....a super-highway for God being laid down in the wilderness.

          And why does Luke use that strange sort of image to speak of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?”

          It’s because of what actually happens every time a highway is built.

          Road construction always involves two basic steps.

          First the roadbed has to be prepared. 

          Workers in hardhats need to remove all obstacles, lower the high spots, fill in the low spots, sweep away all the old rocks and debris that clutter the roadbed.  

          Only then can the second step follow.  Only then can a brand new highway be laid down.

          The rhythm of road construction is like the rhythm of repentance and forgiveness:  repentance, the clearing away of the old–and forgiveness, the advent of the new.

          Here’s another way of picturing it. 

          Let me describe a transformation that took place at over the Thanksgiving holiday.  Our house underwent an extreme makeover. 

          That’s because Advent was coming:  this delicious season of watching and waiting for the Christ Child.

          And one of the persons who lives at our house is an interior decorator.  She knows how to work wonders this time of the year.

          It’s a two-step process, though. 

          The conversion our home underwent after Thanksgiving began first with a massive taking down, sweeping aside, and putting away of all the boring, ho-hum, regular stuff we normally have sitting around.   All of that had to go (and where exactly it went, I’m not quite sure).  But it’s all gone for now!

          And in its place, where all the old stuff usually sits....there are now angels and evergreens and sparkling white lights and manger scene figures and holly and ivy and ornaments galore. 

Our house has become an Advent- Christmas wonderland!

          Repentance and forgiveness are something like that.

          Repentance is the miracle God works in our lives when God frees us to put away all the old, boring, humdrum stuff–the stuff that needs to go for Christ to have his way with us.   Repentance is the clearing away, the setting aside, the smoothing out of all the obstacles between us and God and us and our neighbors.

          And forgiveness–forgiveness is the good stuff that follows–like dazzling lights and Christmas finery–forgiveness is the wonderful gift that fills us with newness and freshness and boundless hope.

          But here’s the deal:  there isn’t enough room in our house for all our old, boring, every-day stuff AND the beautiful seasonal Christmas stuff.    We always have to put away the old to make room for the new.

          So also, there simply isn’t room in our lives for all the old, boring, death-dealing stuff AND the new, life-giving, hope-restoring stuff in Jesus Christ.    The old has to go to make room for the new!

          So, for example, if you’ve got some torn, frazzled relationships that you’re aware of, if there are persons you just can’t abide–folks you avoid like the plague--all of that old enmity and grudge-holding needs to go.   And God’s gift of repentance means that all of it will go so that we have room for the reconciled, restored relationships that Jesus brings.

          Or if, for some reason, you find yourself fresh out of hope…running on fumes…your “gas tank” empty—all of that has to go, too.  God means to sweep that out of your lives, to make room once again for the only Good News that never disappoints! 

Or, if your possessions are possessing you rather than you possessing them, your money always being spent only on yourself....all of that needs to go as well.  And God’s gift of repentance means that all of it will go so that we’ll have room for the gracious generosity that the Christ Child always ushers into our lives.

          You get the picture?

          Whatever it may be–whatever it may be:  some grief, some guilt, some obsession, some wonderful possession, some shame that gnaws at you, robbing you of joy....all of that needs to go!  

And God’s gift of repentance means that all of it will go so that we have room once again for the faith and the freedom and the forgiveness that God in the Christ Child is always bestowing upon us.

          In the name of Jesus.  Amen.