In the fifteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was President of the United States, and Matt Mead was the governor of Wyoming, and Don Hillman was the mayor of Powell; when Elizabeth Eaton was the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and Jessica Crist the bishop of the Montana Synod, the word of God came to Hope Lutheran Church in Powell. And the people of this congregation went into all the region around the Shoshone River, proclaiming . . . what? What is the word of God that has come to us here at Hope Lutheran Church of Powell, Wyoming? And are we going out into our community and proclaiming that word? Or do we think that the word of God comes only to figures like John the Baptist, and that God doesn’t speak to us anymore? Or, perhaps, some of you might be thinking that the word of God only comes to the pastor of this congregation, and therefore it’s the pastor’s job alone to go out and proclaim the word.
There are a couple of reasons that Luke starts out his story of John the Baptist by mentioning who the men in power were at that time. First, Luke is grounding this story in world history: he is showing us that this is not some kind of fairy tale, but that our salvation history took place in the context of real world figures. Secondly, and more importantly, Luke is being political. He is saying that the word of God did not come to people in power. God did not speak to the Roman emperor, who ruled all of the known world. God did not speak to any of the lower, more local officials like Pontius Pilate and Herod, who would both play a role in Jesus’ crucifixion. God did not speak even to the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, the religious authorities who presided over the Temple in Jerusalem. No, God spoke to an obscure man living in the wilderness of the backwater part of the Roman Empire known as Judea. John was descended from the priestly family, yes, but he was not taking part in the rites at the Temple when God called him. So, in other words, Luke tells us that God was subverting all human expectations when he called John: he did not speak to the wealthy and the powerful, but he spoke to the poor, the lowly, and the obscure. And this is how our salvation story plays out: with apologies to Star Wars: Subversion Awakens.
Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah when he tells us that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This in itself is subversive enough. As human beings, we often still have the mindset that good things happen to good people, those people who do the right things, who make lots of money, who have lots of power. Those would be the people that we would expect God to favor with his salvation. But no, Luke tells us that all flesh will see God’s salvation: and all means all. It means not only us good churchgoing folks, but it also means the homeless man who sits and begs on the streets in Billings. It means not only the 99% who struggle to make ends meet, but it does also include that 1% who seem to have everything they need in life. It means not only Americans but also Syrian refugees and illegal immigrants from Central and South America. All flesh will see God’s salvation.
So, I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: what does God’s salvation look like? How do we see salvation and where do we see it? And once we have seen it, how do we go about proclaiming it? Well, let’s start with what salvation looks like. As I was reading through Luke’s account of John the Baptist, I discovered that, unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not tell us about John’s appearance. I was surprised, because I was all ready to talk about John wearing clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey. And I was going to compare him to the street preachers that we see sometimes, wearing sandwich boards, looking dirty and unkempt, and how we cross the street and walk on the other side so we don’t have to talk to them. But, folks, Luke doesn’t give us this description of John! So I’m not sure that I can quite go there, although perhaps there may be an opening for that line of thought when we hear the rest of John’s story next week.
On the other hand, though, this gives me more leeway in speaking about where and how we see God’s salvation. When Luke speaks of the word “salvation,” he does not mean only the idea of God forgiving us our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die. No, in Luke’s gospel, salvation happens right now. It is in Luke that we hear, for instance, Jesus telling people that “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Salvation has come and is here now, on this earth, in our lives right now. Salvation in Luke is also not just an individual salvation, but it is about bringing wholeness to the community in which it is proclaimed.
So I ask again, what does salvation look like? For John the Baptist, the word of God that showed salvation was a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. For John, repentance was a vitally important first step: it not only brought forgiveness of sins, but it prepared the hearts and minds of the people for the one who was coming after him: Jesus, the Messiah. And true repentance was not just saying the words, “I’m sorry,” it also involved a complete reorientation of one’s life. Later this year we’ll hear the story of Zacchaeus, that wee little man who climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. When he repented of what he had done, that change in his life did not just mean for him to say, “I’m sorry,” and invite Jesus to come and live in his heart. Rather, it involved some major restitution to people that he had cheated, thus restoring peace not only to himself, but also to the community around him. Repentance means not only saying that we’re sorry, but it also means that our encounter with God’s salvation changes something inside of us, and that inside change motivates us to turn our entire life around 180 degrees from where it was before.
In this Advent season, when we’re all running around buying gifts for family and friends and attending parties, do we ever stop to reflect on what sins we have to repent of? Taking some time to reflect on both our individual sins and those sins of our society and repent of them would be an even better way to prepare for the arrival of Jesus than all of those things that we busy ourselves with in this month. I trust that we all are aware of the things that we do wrong in our individual lives, and so I’m not going to speak of those here today. I encourage all of you, in your devotional time with God, to reflect on what your individual sins are, to repent of them, and to find ways to restore right relationships with your friends and families.
What I’m going to speak of now is a sin in our society, and that sin is gun violence. I approach this topic with fear and trepidation. I’ve been with you all for over three years now, and I understand that for most of you who own guns, guns are necessary tools for hunting. I know that you are responsible gun owners and that you do what is necessary to keep safe, for example, taking hunter safety courses frequently. But, folks, we have a major epidemic of gun violence in this country, and this week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino is just the latest. Our country is turning into a society where mass shootings are now expected, and that is not the way that God wants us to live. When we see these mass shootings taking place, we need to start calling them what they are: they are acts of terrorism, whether or not the persons who commit them are white or Arab, Christian or Muslim, it doesn’t matter. And the truth is that we live in a society where those who govern us are afraid to pass sensible regulations about who can buy guns, what type of guns they can buy, and how many they can buy in a certain amount of time. This is something that we as a society need to stand up and repent of; something that we need to have a 180 degree shift in our thinking about. Whole living, where we live at peace with one another in our society, means to not live in fear of going to an office Christmas party because someone might have had enough and start to shoot everyone in sight.
Salvation is for all people, and all means all. Salvation is that wholeness, that peace, of living in harmony with one another. Salvation means that when the hard work of repentance, of 180 degree change in our lives, is done, there is forgiveness of sins. Salvation looks like this: some people of First Evangelical Lutheran Church-Redlands, in the area where the shooters of San Bernardino lived, taking flowers to the local mosque to let them know they are praying for them as well as the entire community. This group of God’s people has chosen to not live in fear, but to live in hope: hope that, despite what a couple of people have done, Christians and Muslims can live in peace with one another. In the fifteenth year of the 21st century, the word of God came to the people of Hope Lutheran in Powell. Will we now go out into all the region and proclaim that all flesh—all flesh—shall see the salvation of God, no matter what that looks like and how it will come? May God give us the courage and the strength to do so. Amen.