"The fifteenth year"-Sermon for Advent 2, Luke 3:1-6
“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.” What a curious opening to the 3rd chapter of Luke’s Gospel. And, what I find so interesting about it is the historical specificity that it provides. Now this is the beginning of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism…so he’s all grown up…we have jumped long past the first Christmas and have arrived at the inauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And Luke could have, thus, begun something like…when Jesus was all grown up he traveled to meet his cousin John to be baptized…or when Jesus turned 30 he went to the Jordan to begin his ministry. Or Luke could have just begun with John…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
But, of course, Luke didn’t. Instead, he chose to begin this part of Jesus’ story, the greatest story ever told, by laying out with great specificity the exact year that these events took place…that the word of God came to John, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And further he did so using the rhetorical device that was common to his day. We would say…in the year 2021…the word of God came to John…but in Luke’s day one would note an important occasion on the calendar using a monarch’s reign…“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius”…and for good measure, just in case that doesn’t ring a bell…it was also, “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.”
So why the specificity…why the clarity…why the emphasis on a specific time in human history. Well, here are two possible reasons. And, the first is to grab our attention. To say to those who are reading or hearing his gospel…this story is not just a helpful fable…or an uplifting tale…it’s real…it happened…in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign...so take notice…wake up…perk up your ears and hearts…something you want to pay attention to is about to take place. Jesus, the Savior of the world, is about to take center stage…so prepare yourselves…nothing will ever be the same…love is making its grand entrance on the stage of time and space…Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed one is beginning his ministry among us…the countdown to sin and death’s defeat…to the empty tomb of Easter has begun. Jesus is ready…ready to begin his life-giving work among us…and even before Easter…he has much to teach and tell us about what a life worth living looks like…what love en-fleshed looks like. Jesus is about to teach us, and much more so, show us what the life we are called to live, a life of meaning and purpose…a life that matters and makes a difference…looks like. So ready yourselves and pay attention.
I have read that at Winston Churchill’s funeral two trumpeters where situated opposite each other in the great dome that is lofted high above the altar in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. At some point in the service the first trumpeter played taps…the tune used in the military to mark the end of the day…a musical symbol of night…of darkness…the end of things…the dying of the day if you will. The music powerfully moving with force through the space symbolizing the death-dealing powers that hold sway in our world…the impermanence of human life…the grief and darkness that so often hold sway in the places we live and move and have our being. This calls to mind for me how Matthew in his Gospel describes the world before Jesus’ advent among us, he writes, “[T]he people…sat in darkness…[the people] sat in the region and shadow of death.” Yes, Jesus enters into and celebrates alongside us and, even, makes possible our moments of great joy and triumph. But, maybe even more so, it is into all of the hurt and division and disagreement and disease and death that Jesus enters into at the advent of his ministry…offering redemption and hope…forgiveness and new beginnings. And with that said, just as the first trumpeter concluded taps at Churchill’s funeral…the second began…but this trumpeter blew reveille…the tune the military uses in the morning to raise the soldiers to a new day. It is time to wake up…it is time to wake up…it is time to wake up in the morning.
Perhaps less dramatically than a trumpets’ blast…but I believe this is among Luke’s reasons for beginning the story of Jesus’ encounter with and baptism by his cousin John with such clarity…such specificity. For, at that particular time in the turning of the world, Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated…and nothing will be the same…God is on the move…and we must pay attention…if we are to play our part…learn to become…like Jesus…life givers and love spreaders and light bringers…Jesus’ own hearts and hands in the community in which we have been situated in our own time and space.
And the second reason I believe Luke begins the inauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry in just such a time specific way is to simply say that God in Christ show’s up in time and space. God showed up in the life of Jesus as he began his ministry in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. And, therefore, we can trust that God will show up in 2021. God will show up in our flesh and blood lives…in the times in which we live and breathe…right now…tomorrow and each day that follows…especially when we need love, for God is love, the very most. Well beyond questions of historical accuracy, Luke’s point is that whenever and wherever the life-giving presence of God is needed…in both light and dark times and spaces…God shows up. God shows up in the life of friend that sit beside us in silence as we shed uncontrollable tears after experiencing unimaginable loss. God shows up when a member of St. Julian’s places her health on the line to mentor and teach children at an afterschool program in the midst of a pandemic. God show’s up when that loving word of encouragement or gratitude is offered in the very moment when we feel like we have nothing more to give and our efforts are all in vein. God show’s up when hundreds or even thousands of prayers are offered when one we love is facing the most unwanted of diagnosis. God show’s up in the splendor of creation, as time in the great outdoors heals and restores worn out hearts and bones.
I know it is still early…but, when I think of all the Christmas cards that I have received so far this season, one in particular grasped my attention. I couldn’t stop looking at it…it fired my imagination. It was from our bishops in the Diocese of Texas…and on the front is a surrealistic photo by Ukrainian artist Alexey Kondakov. Here it is on the screens now. It is, of course, a nativity scene on a subway…and though the subway is otherwise empty…I believe the point is to think of all the people…the tens of millions of people who travel on a subway in this world every year…from every sort and condition of humanity…and all the things they might have been experiencing while traveling…all the things they were carrying in their hearts and on the their minds as they traveled…the fullest expression of the rainbow colored people of God…on their way to a party or to celebrate…on their way to a tough day at work or just another day at work…coming home alone from a stay in the hospital with no one to take them in a car…a homeless person with just enough change to get lost on a ride in a warm place…people profoundly addicted…people whose hearts were broken the night before…people just returning to life after losing the one they loved the most…children on their way to school…people returning home late after a night at the bars…people not comfortable being stuffed into an enclosed space during a pandemic but with no other option if they want to keep food on the table…please insert yourself into the picture…carrying with you all of the glory and challenge and sadness you are carrying with you right now. Like in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, God in Christ shows up...and hope and life and love are made possible.
The Season of Advent reminds us that God comes to us…Jesus is God with us…God shows up in our time and in the spaces we occupy. Therefore, we are never alone, and we can never be defeated. So, pay attention and stay awake and take notice. For, I think it is usually an unprepared heart that doesn’t notice God present when we need God most…for I believe with all my heart that God is, indeed, there. Amen.