Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Advent.
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. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
A colleague of mine admitted in a commentary this week that, inspired by this very Bible passage, she made a disastrous parenting error.
“I taught my two-year-old the phrase “not yet,” she wrote
Of course, I did it in the service of proper biblical exegesis. We were learning about the Kin-dom of God as we talked about certain parables of Jesus, and as many wiser biblical scholars than I point out, these images for the Kin-dom of God help us to imagine what can be, but isn’t always a reality yet.
But to a two-year-old, the phrase “not yet” has a somewhat different meaning:
“Time to brush your teeth, buddy!”
“Not yet, mama!”
“Time to go potty!”
“Not yet, mama!”
“Time to get your shoes on, we really need to get going!”
“Not yet, mama!”
YES YET, DARN IT. YES YET!
Perhaps the mistake I really made was to leave out the “already” part of the “already-and-not-yet” of Advent,” she concluded.
“Already and not-yet” was a favorite phrase of my seminary president. He always used it in his lectures and sermons and I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite. I like clarity. But even I can admit that when it comes to Advent, we’re forced to come face to face with the reality: Jesus has already come, but there’s a lot of promises not-yet fulfilled. The ups and downs of life are still dangerous, the crooked paths haven’t been straightened out, and the world is still a pretty rough place to live.
I don’t know about you, but I could use a little bit of John’s overhaul plan for the world this morning. A little more of his hope for a world made new. The problem is, reading the news—God, another shooting, another variant, another war—I just don’t see it happening right now. Not yet, anyways.
But God is funny about timing.
Did you hear how our scripture started this morning? That list of names and places? Did you pay attention, or did you zone out until I got to the good stuff? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I usually do.
But for some reason, this week I wondered—why does Luke list out all that stuff? Why should we care that this story begins in, and I quote:
“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.”
I’ve mentioned before that it was far more common for ancient writers to use a political leader to date a story, rather than the year system we’re familiar with. We still do this, sometimes: you might tell me a story is from the Nixon years, or the Clinton administration, rather than give me a date. But Luke goes deep here; he gives us not one but five politicians and two priests to help us pinpoint with utter accuracy when his story begins.
A modern update might sound like this: “In the second year of the presidency of Joe Biden, when Andy Bashear was governor of Kentucky and Justin Hartfiel was mayor of Crescent Springs and Heather Jansen mayor of Villa Hills, during the pastorate of Rev. Carol Holbrook Prickett, the word came to John in the backwoods of Kentucky.”
Didn’t that hit your ears differently? Closer to home? Maybe some of the names I read made you tense up. When I started translating this Lukan roll call, it made me realize how crazy it sounds. Luke says that God started doing this huge, world-changing thing, this thing that would tear down the mountains and raise up the valleys and smooth out the roads and end with the salvation of every single living being and it started when this Tiberius was emperor, and that Pontius Pilate was governor, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, in the middle of nowhere in a tiny, unimportant province of a giant empire.
Why then? I’ve always wondered. Why there? Of all the years for Jesus to come, to start his ministry, to walk among us in the flesh, why then? Why there? Why not 1000 years earlier, or 50 years later? Why not in Russia or Japan or Manitoba or Peru?
I don’t know. I’ll never know. But God chose that year, that place, that moment for the most amazing set of events in human history to be set in motion. God chose to come to those people, at a moment which would otherwise have been lost to the fog of ancient history, and kick off a revolution that you and I are still caught up in today.
Luke makes a point of listing off all these powerful men, all these powerful men that your average Jewish citizen was supposed to bow down to, to fear, to respect, to obey. And then comes John, dancing his way through the wilderness, where powerful men don’t go if they can help it, crying out that the Lord—the Lord, a political term—the new ruler is coming, and he’s the one we ought to have our eyes on.
Radical, wild, lonely John, out there in the wilderness, a revolution of one, ahead of his time. Some folks must have thought he was crazy. This is no way to plan a rebellion, out here in the open. This isn’t the place. This isn’t the time. Not yet.
But John knew, change has to start somewhere. He had good news to share, and he was going to share it now. Jesus was coming, and he wanted it known. Even if he would never see all his dreams fulfilled, John was singing as loud as if he could see salvation right in front of him.
John’s world—John’s violent, fearful, weary world—was not yet the way he dreamed it could be. But by faith, John was already there.
The song picked out for us today is called “Freedom is Coming,” and that’s half the lyrics right there. It wasn’t one I was familiar with, and to be honest, the first time I heard it I was underwhelmed. The same few lines, over and over and over again. But when I started to read the history, I began to understand.
Like John’s song, “Freedom is Coming” emerged from a very specific place and time; apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid, the legal institutionalization of different treatment for black and white South Africans, began officially in 1948, but its roots ran much, much older than that. Almost immediately, protests arose in response, and as is often the case, protest spawned music.
“Freedom is Coming” was also sung as Justice is Coming, or Jesus is Coming, because for the oppressed people of South Africa, there could be no salvation, no Jesus worth praying to, if he didn’t come with freedom and justice in each hand. It’s a perfect protest song; as you’ll hear later, it consists of just two short verses, easily sung back and forth in a crowd. “Freedom is coming, oh yes, I know.”
It’s a song of extraordinary hope, extraordinary faithfulness. To stand in protest of a world where you are not free, and sing, “Freedom is coming. Oh yes I know.” To sing the world you want into existence. “Jesus is coming,” John sang. “Oh yes, I know.”
Apartheid officially ended in 1991. But by then other groups, in other political situations, in other times and places, had made the words—and the hope—their own.
Liturgical musician and scholar C. Michael Hawn brought the song to Cuba in 1992, where the congregation took up the lyrics, simply translated into Spanish, with such gusto that a crowd gathered outside the church’s open windows.
“I will not hypothesize,” Hawn wrote, “what the message was for these worshipers and others attracted by the congregation’s singing, but singing about freedom in the context of the Cuban political reality in 1992 potentially struck a chord of deep longing, and it may have been viewed as an act of witness and, perhaps, even defiance. A song from one place of oppression found a voice in another, expressing at the same time solidarity across continents and a fundamental hope of humanity.”
More than a decade later, in 2004, Hawn was visiting Taiwan, only to find a Presbyterian youth choir singing “Freedom is Coming” in Mandarin in Taiwan, where the first free elections had been held just eight years prior.
This is living between already and not-yet. Living by faith like the promises have already been fulfilled. Living with hope that makes us sing.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” That’s the promise. A world made new, a world made safe, a world made equal, a world where all of us—not just the politicians or the stockholders, not just the celebrities or the saints, not just the lucky ones whom tragedy hasn’t struck yet—a world where all of us, together, get to walk together on easy roads, and see the salvation of God.
I looked at the news again this morning, and I found it hard to have faith. Hard to believe that God could do something big in my lifetime, here in the USA, in Kentucky, in Crescent Springs, in a town most of the world has never heard of, with a bunch of people who are nobody famous.
But then that’s where God has always been at work. God changes the world when and where we’d least expect it.
God is changing the world even now. Do we have the strength to change with it?
“Not yet, mama!” We might say. But God just smiles and says: