I’d like you to listen again to the beginning of today’s Gospel:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
The Gospel today begins very unusually. Gospels usually begin in a very non-descript, amorphous sort of manner; with “at that time”, or “Jesus said to his disciples”, or some indefinite setting like that. But today we hear of these strange places and foreign sounding titles, of Tiberius Ceasar, tetrachs, of Ituraea and Trachonitis, of people named Lysanias and Caiaphas. It can all seem very distant, and rather unreal, almost like listening to some legend or a fairy tale, another chapter in the Lord of the Rings. I mean, when is the last time you saw a tetrarch, for crying out loud?
But in fact, this was an actual historical time. It was late in the year 27 A.D. All these names were real people, and rather hard-nosed, practical, politicians. They were powerful, and often ruthless, leaders. As one famous biblical commentator, Fr. Carroll Stuhmueller, wrote: “All in all, this list of names draws a gloomy picture.”* These were real people and real places, enmeshed in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day give-and-take of practical politics.
Perhaps we would get a better sense of what the Gospel is telling us if we heard:
In the seventh year of the Presidency of Barrack Obama,
when Greg Abbot was Governor of Texas,
and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz United States Senators,
and Steve Adler Mayor of Austin , Sarah Eckhardt Travis County Judge
during the Pontificate of Pope Francis, when Joe Vasquez and Danny Garcia were Bishops of Austin, the word of God came to John in the desert.
I will leave to your judgment weather this modern list of names, “all in all … draws a gloomy picture.”
You see, St. Luke is taking care to situate this event squarely on the stage of world events, right smack in the middle of earthly wars, rulers, events and the 6 o’clock news. This is not at all “once upon a time”, but rather a very definite and precise place and date.
Now St. Luke has a particular theological reason why he wants the event of John the Baptist painted against the backdrop of world leaders and events, but I believe he is also making the point that the Word of God comes to us in our concrete daily lives.
It is in the real political, social, economic and cultural reality in which we find ourselves that God speaks to us. It is not in the temple, nor in a synagogue that the Word of God comes to John, but out in the world, in the desert: a hard, difficult, uncomfortable place. Not in Austin, but out in some lonely place in West Texas.
And so for us, we find God at work in our lives, not just in church, but also in the supermarket, at the work place, on the bus or while driving, with family and neighbors and friends and co-workers, on the evening news. That is where you will find God.
So, let us look at our concrete historical, political, social, economic, cultural situation. What is it like? What do you see when you look around? What do you see on the news? What do you hear from your boss and co-workers? What do you see on the street? What do your kids and neighbors and friends say?
Maybe you have an excellent job and things are going well for you. Great! But maybe your life is filled with disappointments and difficulties. And for all of us, if you look at the larger issues, of state and nation and world, of the environment and the economy, or terrorism and disregard for life; it’s a mess! The Middle East is falling apart in front of our eyes. There are homeless all over the streets. Every week seems to bring the news of another mass shooting. The wealthier are getting wealthier and the middle class gets squeezed.
And the Church --- well I think Pope Francis is doing a great job, BUT, he is facing quite a bit of opposition in Rome, as the recent leaks there demonstrate.
Anyway, we can feel like we are out in the desert. So it was for John, son of Zechariah. And that is where the Word of God came to him.
In response to this mess, we do something strange. Because instead of moaning and groaning and griping, we rejoice! For example we just sang, in the responsorial psalm: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy, we are filled with joy.” Yeah, right!
Sometimes I sit up here looking out at the congregation as we sing things like this: “we are filled with joy, we are filled with joy.” And what I see sometimes doesn’t quite match what we are singing. In other words, perhaps not everyone here is filled with joy.
In fact, if we did a poll of all of us here right now, I would be willing to bet that not even 50% of us are filled with joy. Some days I wonder if we could get 5% to admit to that. And yet we sing, “we are filled with joy!” Why?
Because we believe the first half of the statement: “The Lord has done great things for us.” Do we believe that? Of course we do! Why else would we be here?
Well, a few of the younger among us may be forced to come by their parents, others have been drug along by their date or spouse, some others come out of force of habit. But most of us are here because we choose to be here: because we do believe that “The Lord has done great things for us.”
Let’s get risky here. How many here actually believe that? If you believe that the Lord has done great things for you, raise your hand.
GOOD! The Lord has done great things for us. We are getting ready to celebrate God’s greatest gift to us, His own Beloved Son Jesus, at Christmas. You can’t do better than that.
God claims us as His own children, shows us the true meaning of life in His Son, and by His Son’s redemptive death and resurrection promises us eternal life, the fullness of life. Not bad. In fact, that is a GREAT deal!
And so in the midst of the mess that is our concrete situation in life, we struggle to believe the truly great things the Lord has done for us, and we try to open those creaky, rusty doors of our hearts to joy. That is why in Advent we sing: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to you Oh Israel.”
Advent is a time to listen for the Word of God in the deserts of our life, in the tough and difficult and ornery places, to truly know that “The Lord has done great things for us;” and so to be “filled with joy”. Happy Advent.
* Carroll Stuhlmueller in JBC