Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

When the Word of God Came

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Luke 3:1-6


If I had it to do over again, I would pay more attention in history class.  I tend to remember random facts and people, and not much that often seems relevant to life today.  One thing I do remember is that every time we studied the war between these United States, the unit would be called “Civil War and Reconstruction”.  Regardless of whether it was middle school or high school or college, that section of the book, that section of lectures bore the title “Civil War and Reconstruction”.    After 4 years, the war officially ended, but then there was another period of time in which things had to be rebuilt and institutions re-imagined, a time of flux before a new normal was established. 


It seems to me that if we could step back and look at the history of our planet, human nature being what it is, there is a cycle of war and reconstruction happening somewhere all the time.  Some nations are at war; some nations are recovering from war (which takes generations if it happens at all); and some places are gearing up to go to war. 


I’m not sure how to categorize Judea at the time of John the Baptist.  There had been some uprisings against Rome in past decades, but Rome had prevailed and right now, the emperor of Rome is the emperor of the known world, including Judea.  I wouldn’t call it “war” because there aren’t active battles, but I wouldn’t call it “reconstruction” because Judea is an occupied country, resentful of the presence of Roman governors and Roman soldiers.  This is just one somewhat quieter point in a long series of rebellions by the Jewish people and suppressions by Rome which will take 100 years to resolve.  It may not be war, but it is definitely not peace.


That is the context into which John comes.  On the day of John’s naming, in Luke 1,  Zechariah proclaimed that God was sending someone who would deliver them from the hands of their enemies, and that his son John would be the Lord’s forerunner, to prepare the way of this deliverer.  His prophecy ended with these words, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


“To guide our feet into the way of peace”  I’m not certain whether Luke intends to say that that is John’s mission or the Messiah’s mission or both.  But the longing for peace, for shalom, for pervasive well-being is evident in his language about those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, and rescue from enemy hands and being set free from fear.


He recalls an ancient time of war, a war with Babylon which did not end with a peace treaty, but with the people being taken into captivity for 40 years.  But then came the opportunity for reconstruction, for return to their homeland or to their parents and grandparent’s homeland.  Only to get back to that homeland from Babylon, the people had to cross a wilderness and mountain ranges.   Luke remembers the words of the prophet Isaiah who told the people about a highway, a smooth and level road which would help them get home. 

Nowadays, we take smooth and level roads for granted.  Except after New York winters.  But even then, we gripe about the potholes and missing asphalt because smooth roads are the norm.  But it was not so in those days.  Imagine the work that Isaiah was describing  -- every ravine filled in, a way made through the mountains, no twists and turns, but a straight path.  This is work that takes a long time even with powerful machines.  Things that are low have to be raised up.  Things that are twisted need to be straightened.  Rough places smoothed.  Some mountains simply have to be moved.    This is the metaphor that Luke uses to describe the work that John is doing out in the wilderness, the work of tearing something down, of reforming it, in order to create something new.


What does John have to tear down exactly?  Well, Luke gives us a really big clue in that first sentence:  One emperor, one governor, three tetrarchs and two high priests.  It’s your basic power play of church and state.  Talk about needing to move mountains. 


I read recently that “The aim of war is not peace, but victory.”[1]    The aim of war is not peace, but victory.   That’s according to Wendell Berry, contemporary prophet and poet and Kentucky farmer.  Perhaps you have heard that before.  It was a new thought for me.  I have tended to contrast war and peace.  I have tended to think that the powers that bring us war also, in better times, bring us peace.  But I see that is an error.  The powers that bring war are invested in victory, usually victory at a very high cost.  Expecting the powers that wage war to also wage peace is foolishness. 


It seems that John understands that.  He is the son of a priest.  He could have followed in his father’s footsteps, taken his turn in serving in the temple in Jerusalem, attempted reform from within the institution.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he is found out in the wilderness, far from the likes of Tiberius and Herod and Pilate, far from Caiaphus and Annas.  He understands that they have fought long and hard to get the power that they have.  Their titles, their positions, their privilege represents victory.  They have no interest in having their feet guided into the way of peace. 


But other people, regular people, are pouring out into the wilderness to learn from John.  John is a controversial figure.  His language is provocative and political.  It has to be.  Because he is doing the work of moving mountains and leveling the playing field.  He is challenging the status quo, chipping away at the power of the privileged in order to rebuild it into something new.


And so I wonder where is John, the prophet, today?  What wilderness is he inhabiting?  Who among us is going out to him?  Who among us is shoring up our power and privilege? 


It is easy to think that John would call for the obscenely wealthy, the so-called 1%,  to change their ways.  It is easy to think that he would once again challenge those in government to abandon corruption and power-plays, particularly the actions that ensure their continued tenure in office while their constituents suffer.  But what would he say to me and to you? 


Maybe he would remind tell us that road-building is a lot of work.  That the things which make for peace require tearing down some stuff inside ourselves.  Some of us have to tear down a reluctance to speak up, to make ourselves heard, to be seen as foolish.  The work of peace means building up the courage to actually talk with our racist friends and our war-mongering relatives or to reach out to those who might otherwise think we are unconcerned about them.


I wonder what he would say about police corruption, about the increasing evidence in many places that those who have been entrusted with keeping the peace are themselves a source of terror for people with brown and black skin.  I wonder what he would say about our love of guns, about our idolatrous worship of them. 


Since he was a kind of a pastor’s kid, I wonder what he would think about the numbers of pastors’  kids who have left the institutional church to do other things  -- things like lead the Black Lives Matter movement or teach in inner city schools or be organic farmers. Not just pastor’s kids, but many members of younger generations have left the church and gone into the wilderness because they see the church as morally bankrupt or no longer anything that helps them experience the love of God.  Maybe John would say to us, “Pursue the things that make for peace.  Stop trying to hold on to the power and prestige that you used to have, and do some honest work and watch as God’s new thing arrives.”


You may have seen the comic strip with Calvin, the six-year-old boy, and Hobbes, his toy tiger.  Hobbes says “How come we play war and not peace?”  Calvin responds, “Too few role models.” 


And then there was Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, who said that “everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself (or herself).”


Dirk Voltz is a German man, who along with his partner, has offered shelter to 24 different refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in their home in Berlin since July.    Writing about that experience, he said that despite the warnings to the contrary from their friends and neighbors, the knives are still in the knife block in the kitchen, that all that was stabbed with them was lots of garlic and onions and meat.  He said, “No Muslim who was there wanted to kill us in our sleep. No one insulted us because we are two men and share one bed. No one, by any means, said they prefer Sharia law over German Law."


He said that it was the reactions of those around him that disappointed him most – text message, death threats on the street, insulting letters at the front door.    He said, “As if one could stop this migration of people. As if we could personally influence which war will break out. As if we all don’t have a responsibility in the world’s happenings.


He said “Maybe I will have to fight for my rights as a homosexual in ten years, more intensely than I have to do it now. . . . Who knows? I mean, who knows what will be someday?  Certainly I know that what happened this past summer and this fall has changed our lives. You can be there for other people. Or you can be scared. And if that happens, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for those who live in fear."[2]


What if children learned to play peace because you and I thought of changing ourselves and becoming role models? 


By the tender mercy of our God,  may the dawn from on high break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  Amen.



[1] https://orionmagazine.org/article/thoughts-in-the-presence-of-fear/

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-german-man-takes-in-24-asylum-seekers-and-describes-his-disappointing-experience-a6722146.html