Preached by the Rev. John Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 6, 2009.
Let me introduce you to the cast of characters listed at the beginning of today’s story from Luke’s gospel. We begin, as we must, with the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, who ruled from Rome. He had succeeded his step father, the great Caesar Augustus, 15 years earlier in September of 14 A.D. Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate governor of Judea on the advice of his anti-Semitic counselor, Sejanus, who knew Pilate was cruel enough to keep the Jews in line. The Emperor also installed the Hebrew potentate, Herod Antipas, as the ruler of Galilee. Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, who had built the great Temple in Jerusalem and slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem. He also made Herod Antipas’ half-brother, Phillip, the ruler of what is now Syria. Phillip was the offspring of Herod the Great and the infamous Cleopatra. We don’t know very much about Lysanius, who ruled the Bekka Valley within Syria, but he owed his positions to the Romans, as well. The Romans also controlled Jewish religious life. In 6 A.D the Roman governor appointed Annas to be High Priest and chairman of the Jewish council that ruled Jerusalem. In 15 A.D. the same Roman governor deposed Annas. Eventually his son-in-law, Caiaphus, succeeded him in 18 A.D.
You may wonder why I took so much time to tell you some of the facts about each of the men mentioned by Luke. I want to put some flesh on the bare bones of Luke’s story to confirm the interpretation of a a commentator who wrote, "Luke…seems to be saying that when ‘the Word of God came [to John the Baptizer],’ it really came. It came all the way down to this world; it came into our world, the world of political, economic, and religious power, the world of the Caesars."1 Not only did the Word of God come to that world, it came to speak to that world, because God cares about our political and economic life.
Some folks think that those who speak for God should not speak to the economic and political power structures of our world. To give you an example: two weeks ago our Provost addressed those structures on "Facebook," the internet networking contraption that can become addictive if you’re not careful. He urged Christians to speak out for justice in reforming the way we pay for health care in this country. One respondent replied that church people should stay out of that debate and stick to reforming what they know— their own institution—the church.
But John the Baptizer did not come to speak the Word of God primarily to the faith community of his time. He came to speak it to the principalities and powers of the everyday world we live in. To be sure, those included the power structure of the religious establishment, but the Word was meant mostly for the powers behind the power structure—the Roman officials, the tax collectors, the soldiers, and the like, as we shall see in next week’s gospel.
John’s purpose in speaking the Word of God was to prepare the world—the real, week day world of political oppression and economic exploitation—for God’s even more intense intervention into the life of that world. He pointed to the idols that were leading the people of his time away from a right relationship with God. He knew the people could not appreciate God’s intervention in Jesus of Nazareth if they did not understand how idols were leading them astray.
The most important idol was the Emperor, who, by law, was worshiped as a god. He was declared god because of the peace—the "Pax Romana"—he had brought to such a large part of the world. This peace was obtained by the victories of the Roman legions that allowed them to impose Rome’s will on the territories surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It was maintained by those same legions who supported the rulers the Romans put in charge. In Palestine that included all of those mentioned by Luke at the beginning of this story. They all worshiped the power who gave them their power. Power itself became an idol that made them feel equal to God, and, therefore, made God irrelevant to them. John came to speak God’s Word to that reality of that real world.
If John were speaking the Word of God today, I think he would identify the "Pax Americana," maintained by American soldiers and economic power as our major idol. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989, the United States became the only nation that could impose its will on any of the weaker nations of the world. That led a cabal of scholars and politicians to believe that America should impose its will on irascible countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. While that cabal has lost its influence, the idol still controls the thinking of our political leaders. President Obama’s recently announced policy on Afghanistan assumes that we must maintain "Pax Americana" with military intervention. Our idolatry assumes that the only way to secure peace is to depend on America’s power to wage war. So we continue to worship that idol with the sacrifices of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars.
We need to remember that the Word of God came to John to prepare the way of the one we call "the Prince of Peace." But his peace was not won and maintained by violence. Rather it was won by nonviolent resistance to injustice and maintained by the establishment of justice in which all human beings, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are valued equally and preciously as gifts of God. When economic and political authorities make it their goal to establish peace by first establishing justice through nonviolent means, they are responding to the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The Word of God will have been spoken to power and converted it.
Who will speak the Word of God to power today, pointing out the idols that prevent us from having a right relationship with God? Who will use peaceful means to prepare the way of the Lord, turning us from idol worship to making God’s desires the focus of our political and economic thinking? Are we the ones God is waiting for? If we are, then we will be but a small voice crying in the wilderness against the chorus of media that will not only overwhelm us, but probably condemn us. But if our voice is truly speaking the Word of God to power, God will give it power to be heard.
1 James F. Kay in The Christian Century, (Nov. 19-26, 1997) quoted in Synthesis for December 7, 2003 (Published by The School of Theology of the University of the South) Italics in original.