Sermon December 9, 2012

“How Can We Say, ‘Here is God!’?”

December 9, 2012

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

Luke 3:1-6

3In 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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”


Didn’t God make it easy, so easy, to find the Messiah?  An angel visits Mary and speaks in dreams to Joseph!  A heavenly choir sings to shepherds; a high-beam star directs the magi to baby Jesus.

What Child is this who, laid to rest

On Mary’s lap, is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?


Our children’s answer is unambiguous in the Nativity story we’ve just seen!

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing!


Isn’t some of the sweetness of the Nativity from this easy certainty that here is God?

And isn’t some of its poignancy from our sense that now, after that first Christmas, we may never have that same certainty again?  We may never have that same clarity that, “Here is God!”

There’s a reticence, a cautiousness, about claiming the presence of God in our lives.  You’ve shared stories of important, life-changing moments: of being broken, then lifted and healed; of serving missions beyond what you ever considered yourself capable; of being given insight – and even foresight – that transcended human intuition; of being blessed with provision at just the very moment you needed it, and had nowhere else to turn.

But we have a cautiousness about linking these events to God; of calling them, as some phrase it, “a God moment.”  You’ve used words, like, “unexplainable,” or “coincidence,” or even that most agnostic word: “weird” – “that was really weird.”  But can we say, “Here is God!”?

Yet, we’re challenged to do just that by this morning’s scripture.  The claim made this morning is that, when God breaks into our lives, to save, redirect and bless us, “All flesh shall see it together!”  So, what keeps us from seeing the presence of God?

Let’s pray about this.

Lord, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts help us to learn to see you.  Amen.

This morning’s scripture sets out two ways of seeing.  One we might call, “Machine-seeing” – where life is seen as a cruel machine that operates beyond our control.  The other is seeing life with Imagination, where God opens doors for His grace to grow.  Luke shows us first what it’s like to see with “the Machine,” and then, he shows us Holy Imagination.  So let’s take them in Luke’s order.

Luke opens our lesson with an image of life as a heavy, oppressive machine, rolling out cynical leaders whose main mission is to maximize their power: the raging Tiberius, the detached Pontius Pilate, the scheming King Herod, along with other Roman minions, Philip, and Lysanias.  Their mission is no more lofty than survival, maintaining the machinery of their power and pleasure.

And the machinery of power extends even to religion.  Luke moves from the names of these secular leaders to the religious leaders, Caiaphas and Annas.  According to the ancient historian Josephus, these high priests were more political than priestly, chosen for their posts, not by faithful Jews, but by the Roman pro-counsels, who politicized the priesthood.[i]

So, Luke says, here is one way to see life: the machinery of power crushes on, where the cynical lead, and only the savvy survive.

We’re not unfamiliar with this way of seeing, are we?  It’s a vision of the world we encounter in our news stories, our movies and television.  It’s the story we tell ourselves, to justify our cheating in school or work, or our finances.  Caught in the grip of heartless forces and powers, we do what it takes to survive.  Seeing life as a Machine of Necessity – beyond our control.

But then, in a startling shift, Luke introduces this lone, wandering figure, John the Baptist, a voice of defiant freedom and faith.  Luke places him in the wilderness; itself is a symbol of free movement and refuge – a holy frontier.  And Luke takes this symbolically-rich image of John-in-the-wilderness and frames this with the words of the Prophet Isaiah.

“The voice of one, calling in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord’”

Make straight the path for him.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

 Every mountain made low.

The crooked, made straight,

the rough places, smooth.

And all flesh shall see it together.’”

Luke is saying, “See life with Imagination, with a Holy Imagination!”  Where some see only valleys of despair and doubt, instead see the heights of God’s design for us.  Where some see only insurmountable mountains, obstacles controlled by tyrants, instead believe God will humble the haughty.  And where others would take the switchbacks of excuses and exceptions, you take the straighter, steeper path.[ii]

So, in these brief verses from Luke 3, we’re shown these two ways of seeing: with holy imagination, or seeing life as a machine of brutal necessity.  Luke called his first century readers to choose, and now he calls us, too.  Will we see where God is lifting the valleys, making straight the crooked?  Or will we see only a machine, looping around the same old losers and winners, and we’re caught inside?

Choose, Luke says to you and me! [iii]

Let me give you a concrete example – literally, a concrete sidewalk example.

Perhaps you heard this news story of two weeks ago about a young police officer, Larry DePrimo.[iv]  Officer DePrimo was walking the cold sidewalks of Times Square, his regular nighttime beat.   He said, “I had two pairs of winter socks on and my combat boots, and my feet were still cold.”   Then he saw a homeless man, sitting barefooted on the freezing pavement.

DePrimo said, “…you could just see the blisters [on his feet]…And…it upset me…so, I went up to him and I said…‘where’s your socks, where’s your shoes?’  He was like, ‘It’s OK, officer, I never had a pair of shoes.’”

DePrimo ran two blocks to a shoe store, and asked for wool socks and the warmest boots in the store.  He paid $120, out of his own pocket – as much as he earns in a day.  He returned to the homeless man, knelt down, and put these socks and boots on his freezing feet.  The man’s face lit up and he smiled.  Unbeknownst to Officer DePrimo, a tourist caught this moment on her camera, and put on the internet.  Within a week DePrimo was besieged by reporters, for an act he performed anonymously, on a dark and cold street.

DePrimo saw with holy imagination.  On that cold night, on that sidewalk, others saw simply the grinding machinery of urban life – another pitiful homeless man, the cause-and-effect of mental illness, another sad casualty of the law of survival, the wasteproduct of the machine.

DePrimo saw differently.  “Make straight the path for the Lord.”  DePrimo ran straight, through the crowded sidewalks, to a store to find warm boots.  “Make the rough places smooth.”  He took the rough places on this man’s feet and smoothed them with soft, wool socks.  “Every valley shall be lifted up.”  He saw a man in the valley, and he lifted him up.

Now, in the weeks since this story, we hear that the homeless man is again shoeless; others claim, they’ve bought him shoes and these too have disappeared.  The message seems to be, “What’s the point?”  “Why throw your money away?”  “The man’s sick.”  “The man’s a hustler.”  But, when we see our brothers and sisters as cause-and-effect outcomes of addiction and poverty and bad parents and “social dislocation,” dominated by powers no one can change – when we see each other – and ourselves – like that, we’re seeing with the Machine.

See with Holy Imagination.  After the Nativity, this is our challenge!  God made it so easy on that Christmas night to see the moment was sacred, to know the baby was God.   But after Christmas we need something more – we need Holy Imagination.  That’s Luke’s message: look for paths that can be straightened, for valleys to lift up, for mountains to bring low, and the crooked made straight.

And then God will have kept His promise, through you:   All Flesh Shall See It Together! Amen.

[i]  Josephus (Antiquitates Judaicae 18. 33-35; 18: 95 – 97) relates that Caiaphas and his father Annas were appointed by Roman leaders, and, in the case of Caiaphas, deposed by Roman leaders.

[ii] I am inspired here by a meditation by Charles Spurgeon:

The voice crying in the wilderness demanded a way for the Lord, a way prepared, and a way prepared in the wilderness. I would be attentive to the Master’s proclamation, and give him a road into my heart, cast up by gracious operations, through the desert of my nature. The four directions in the text must have my serious attention.

Every valley must be exalted. Low and grovelling thoughts of God must be given up; doubting and despairing must be removed; and self-seeking and carnal delights must be forsaken. Across these deep valleys a glorious causeway of grace must be raised.

Every mountain and hill shall be laid low. Proud creature-sufficiency, and boastful self-righteousness, must be levelled, to make a highway for the King of kings. Divine fellowship is never vouchsafed to haughty, highminded sinners. The Lord hath respect unto the lowly, and visits the contrite in heart, but the lofty are an abomination unto him. My soul, beseech the Holy Spirit to set thee right in this respect.

The crooked shall be made straight. The wavering heart must have a straight path of decision for God and holiness marked out for it. Double-minded men are strangers to the God of truth. My soul, take heed that thou be in all things honest and true, as in the sight of the heart-searching God.

The rough places shall be made smooth. Stumbling-blocks of sin must be removed, and thorns and briers of rebellion must be uprooted. So great a visitor must not find miry ways and stony places when he comes to honour his favoured ones with his company. Oh that this evening the Lord may find in my heart a highway made ready by his grace, that he may make a triumphal progress through the utmost bounds of my soul, from the beginning of this year even to the end of it.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening Daily Meditations (1866)

[iii]  Nicholas Berdyaev, a favorite thinker of Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, links our imagination with God and finds transforming power in it.  Berdyaev wrote:   “The creative act . . .(has) transcendence in it.  . . .The creative act always calls up the image of something different. . .something higher, better and more beautiful than this —than the ‘given’. . . . Productive imagination is a metaphysical force which wages war against the. . . determinate world. The creative imagination builds up realities. . .(that are) are active in the world. Imagination is a way out from an unendurable reality.” Nicholas Berdyaev, The Beginning and the End, 173 ff. (1952 YMCA-Press)


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