Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Changing Minds” Luke 3:1-6
Christmas is a beautiful and magical time of year in Saranac Lake. On Friday evening, I was working in my home study when the windows began to vibrate with the thump and boom of over-amplified bass guitar. The night sky pulsed with the bright flash of holiday lights. Big wheels rolled up Park Avenue. It was Santa, paying neighborhood children a visit pandemic-style, riding through the village streets in a convoy of fire engines.
After a forced hiatus, Sparkle Village returned to the Town Hall this year. Our favorite crafters, like Martha, shared their one-of-a-kind hand-made wares with neighbors in search of that perfect holiday gift. There were birch baskets and handknit sweaters, wooden toys and sweet jams, fragrant soaps and hand-poured candles. This year, to mitigate the risk of sharing COVID along with our holiday cheer, immunization records were checked, masks were worn, and entrance was staggered.
Fortunately, some of our Christmas traditions seem naturally suited to pandemic life. We can still admire the village Christmas tree on Berkeley Green while sipping a peppermint latte and grooving to Santa’s jukebox. We can go for an evening stroll and check out our neighborhood Christmas lights. We can take the kids to drop a donation in the red kettle while a masked bellringer wishes us, “Merry Christmas!” Despite COVID-19, we are finding ways to enter the spirit of this special season.
For the majority of our neighbors, this is what preparing for Christmas is all about. It’s Santa and shopping. It’s seasonal music and decorations. It’s gift making and gift giving. I, for one, will freely admit that those are some of my favorite pursuits of the season. After all, it is Saranac Lake, there’s a fresh snowfall, and it’s just so beautiful. But John the Baptist always pays us a disruptive visit on the second Sunday of Advent to see if he can change our minds about what this time leading up to Christmas is all about.
Advent is a prophetic, preparatory season, so after Jesus’ apocalyptic message last week, it is only fitting that this week John the Baptist strides across the wild country surrounding the Jordan River, looking and sounding a lot like a Hebrew prophet. John had heard a message from God Almighty, a word so significant and relevant that he felt compelled to preach it. Drawn by his powerful preaching, crowds came from the cities and villages. They flocked to the banks of the Jordan to hear John speak.
Luke calls our attention to the political and religious landscape of the day by naming seven of the most powerful and affluent men in John’s world. Tiberius rose to the rank of emperor after military conquests in Pannonia, Dalmatia, and Germania and the mysterious deaths of those who were closer to the throne. Annas and Caiphas were part of a priestly dynasty that would control the Temple until its destruction in the year 70. Herod and Philip had followed in the footsteps of their father Herod the Great, living lavishly amid the poverty of the people they ruled. Pilate, a military man like Tiberias, would govern Judea for ten years with a brute force that would eventually lead to his recall to Rome. These men called the shots in the life of the Hebrew people with an earthly dominion that was brutal, costly, and oppressive. That’s one heck-of-a context in which John shared the prophetic word of God.
We no longer contend with emperors and high priests or client kings and procurators, but we have our own less than desirable political, religious, and social realities that we contend with this Advent. Don’t get us started on the gridlock, corruption, acrimony, and big money of partisan politics. Don’t remind us about multi-million-dollar mega churches, high-flying televangelists, and miracle working faith-healers. Don’t remind us about the rise of the “nones,” those neighbors, friends, and sometimes family members who say there is no God and scoff at our Christmas joy while putting up a Christmas tree, hanging stockings for Santa, exchanging gifts, and perhaps even coming to church on Christmas Eve. How weary are we of twenty months of pandemic with shots and boosters, masks and hand sanitizer, social distance and unending variants? Our world is not the same as John’s world, but we need God’s word to come to us, every bit as much as John’s listeners did.
And what a word it was. John called his listeners to trust that God was still at work in a world dominated by petty despots. God’s plan for the salvation of all people was unfolding in their midst. A Messiah had come to usher in a holy and eternal Kingdom that would have no end. Tiberias, Caiaphas, Herod, Philip, Pilate, all would one day be footnotes in the greatest story ever told, the story of a holy child, born in lowly circumstance, God Almighty, who would enter all those hard political, religious, and social realities to reveal to us an eternal love strong enough to break the powers of sin and death. John called his listeners to be a part of that story, to join their purpose to God’s purpose with repentance that would prepare the way for that coming King.
Repentance—metanoia—means to change your mind, to turn around, to be reoriented. John called his listeners to change their minds about what power and authority looked like. John summoned the crowds to turn away from the powers, principalities, and preoccupations of their world and to turn instead to God. John longed for his neighbors to be reoriented, to prepare for the coming Messiah, who alone would be worthy of their ultimate allegiance and devotion.
Alan Culpepper, who served as dean of the McAfee School of Theology for more than twenty years, teaches that John the Baptist continues to remind us that God is at work to bring salvation to all people. We can trust that John’s prophetic word is true, regardless of our challenging political climate, our daunting religious landscape, the economics of inequality, and the limited social circumstances forced upon us by COVID-19. Each Christmas, we remember that God continues to enter our world and work in ways that bring healing, redemption, new beginnings, and a love that is stronger than death.
That promise of God’s salvation calls for our repentance. Amid the beauty and magic of these weeks, the music and decorations, Santa and shopping, gift-making and gift-giving, we return to God. We change our minds about what is really important in this busy and overscheduled season. We turn our lives around. We make straight the behaviors that have gone crooked. We smooth out the rough places where we have been captivated by political powers or we have been preoccupied with consumption, or we have lost sight of religious truth. As John the Baptist preachers, we reevaluate our priorities and grant God the authority and reverence that God so richly deserves.
As the crowds sat on the banks of the Jordan and listened to John preach, their perspective shifted. They worried less about the trifling despots of their world. They remembered God’s long history of raising up heroes, toppling empires, and delivering faithful people. They began to trust that God was still at work for their salvation and the redemption of all people. Repentance came in the changing of minds, hearts, and priorities. They returned to God. Then, as an outward sign of that inward shift, they were baptized. Afterward, as the people returned to their villages, their political and religious realities hadn’t changed one bit. Tiberias remained the emperor, Caiaphas still held sway in the Temple, and Herod would continue to collect their taxes. But John’s listeners felt freer, lighter, more hopeful. God was at work. The Messiah was coming.
As John’s prophetic word finds us this morning amid the beauty and magic of a Saranac Lake Christmas, may we, too, find that our perspective has shifted. In the first year of the Biden presidency and the second year of the pandemic. When Kathy Hochul was the first woman governor of New York, Clyde was marking his final year as mayor, and the Atlanta Braves shut out the Astros to win the World Series, the word of God comes to us. God is still at work, my friends. The Messiah comes with the promise of salvation for all people. It’s a promise powerful enough to change our minds, turn us around, and reorient us in God. May it be so. Amen.
R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 6, 2009. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
Audrey West. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 5, 2021. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
Kathy Beach-Verhey. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Veli-Matti Karkkainen. “Theological Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
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.’”