The Rector’s sermon for December 9, 2018    


Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6


Our gospel reading for this morning starts off like a history lesson. We’re told the names of a couple of ancient Jewish high priests, some local princes, a regional governor and a Roman emperor.  Why?  It seems to be a rather boring, unimportant beginning for the grand message that John the Baptist is supposed to proclaim.


But there is a point to the history lesson.  The Christian faith is centered on something that happened at a particular point in time thousands of years ago.  In one sense, of course, God’s plan for creation started to be worked out with the creation of the universe itself.  But the main act, if you will, begins with “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,” as the Romans put it…“during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas”, as the Jews put it, and we would refer to that event in history as parts of the years A.D. 28 and 29.


That abbreviation “A.D.” stands for the Latin anno domini, meaning “the year of our Lord.” We can see the significance of the things the gospel tells us because time has been calculated (approximately) from the birth of the One Christians believe to be the Lord—Jesus—, the one whose coming is being prepared for in our reading from Luke 3.  In our world of many faiths today, the abbreviation “CE,” for “Common Era,” is often used instead of “A.D.,” but even so, the fact that the Common Era begins with the birth of Jesus is terribly important.  In a world that more often than not dismisses or outright denies the birth of the Messiah, the events of the gospel have made an indelible mark on our history and our culture.


Something happened at a particular time in history—at the right time.  Paul would later call it the fullness of time: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,” he writes in Galatians.  It was a time when promises were fulfilled and hopes realized.  In our preparation for the birth of Jesus, on Sundays like today, we contemplate the appearance of Jesus thirty years later to begin his intended mission.  But the words of the prophet Isaiah, expressed in the time of John the Baptist who was baptizing thousands of people in preparation for the coming of Jesus at the age of thirty, the message, the promises, the hopes are exactly the same as we look toward His birth:  “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled; every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  The road is going to be cleared.  Hills and mountains will be leveled.  Crooked places will be made straight.  Everything that stands in the way… will be removed.  We cannot even imagine what the fulfillment of such prophecies could mean to the people in ancient times.  And while they mean the same for us, there is a deeper, more important hope involved here.


There were hundreds of years of prophets in those days for the people to cling to.  They had been exiled, under foreign oppression, followed by the restoration of the kingdom of David and a renewing of the covenant that God had made with them so long ago. But the promises of the prophets speak to a much deeper hope of all nations.  There will be freedom and justice, and all people will have the necessities of life.  Most important of all, the separation of people from God will be bridged!  Sin will be forgiven and guilt, removed; death will no longer be something to fear, and humanity will become what it is meant to be in God’s sight.  The prophet Isaiah had said that about the coming of a Messiah, and John the Baptist quotes him yet again…as Jesus begins his earthly ministry as an adult: “And all flesh” — all flesh, everybody — “shall see the salvation of God.” 


Of course with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, much of what had been prophesied was fulfilled, but that which is the final hope—that all would be fulfilled—is still to come in the final days of the world as we know it...and it began again with John the Baptist.


At the time of Jesus’ birth, however, there hadn’t been any prophets for over four hundred years!  Is it any wonder then that when Jesus was born, and even as a man of thirty he wasn’t truly accepted or recognized as the Messiah!  So much hope had dwindled and promises seemed to be only dreams.  And that was the reason for the history lesson!   The very fact that reference had to be made to the reign of a Roman emperor was a signpost to all those in future generations who would read this:  the time has come; something revolutionary is happening!  And the gospel reads:  “In the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”  A signpost that all would recognize… along with an unlikely person to deliver the message!


Another interesting point of today’s Gospel:  Phrases like “The word of God came to ...” are often found in the Hebrew Scriptures, followed by the name of one of the prophets.  It’s how stories of the call of prophets and their messages begin, with the burning, irresistible weight of God’s communication grabbing hold of people like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Isaiah and so many others.  So when, in the time of Jesus, the word of God came to John, it meant that prophecy had once again returned!  After four hundred years, prophecy had returned!  The people of God were not abandoned!  God was still connected to His people. And John prophesied.  He was not the fulfillment himself, but he was the one chosen to prepare the way for the coming of the Word of God into our lost and fallen world, the eternal Word who was with God in the beginning.  


Jesus came in the fullness of time, as the fulfillment of time.  How ironic that when all was fulfilled, not only was he barely recognized as a grown man, but it was only shepherds and foreign kings who welcomed Him into the world at his birth.  He was much more than the Hebrew prophets expected…and he was less than they had envisioned.  His manner of appearance was on no one’s radar screen, yet He was beyond what the philosophers and seers of the nations may have caught hints of.  God comes in the flesh—our flesh—to take our sin and be our righteousness, to die our death, to defeat our death and to be our life.  In the fullness of time…at the right time…God came to save us.


But that begs the question: whose right time?  Einstein showed us that time is not absolute but relative, affected by speed and place.  There are different times for each observer, for each frame of reference. Whose time was it that was fulfilled when John came to prepare the way in that fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar?


The common time of the world was measured by the reigns of kings and years of priests.  It’s the same time we keep with our calendars.  The time Jesus would appear was right.  Perhaps it was because the scriptures of Israel had been translated into the Greek language that many people around the Mediterranean understood, so the scriptures were available to Gentiles. Perhaps it was because of the peace the Romans imposed.  As oppressive as the empire could be to some of its peoples, it did bring order and extended a network of roads from the borders of Arabia to the north of Britain, and that enabled the word of Christ’s coming to be spread rapidly. Perhaps those were reasons for the rightness of the time. But for whatever reasons there may have been in the wisdom of God, it was indeed the right time for the world.


That right time was 2,000 years ago.  But God comes at the right time for you and me as well…today and every day.  It’s kind of like the way it is when you sit in the airport and hear boarding calls for different flights. Most of those announcements don’t matter to you. But when the call comes for your flight, you know that it’s time for you to get on board.  When the time is fulfilled for you—at your proper time—the Word of God is living and active for you. That time may have happened long ago when you were baptized, or perhaps later when the awareness of what that meant burst upon you. Perhaps it was a particular sermon you heard, a certain Bible text you read, or a time when, kneeling at the communion rail, you realized what “The body of Christ, the blood of Christ” really means.


By the grace of God, it is the right time as often as Jesus comes in the power of the Spirit through Word and sacrament and your mind and heart are opened to him.  Then all that needs to be said is “Yes, Lord.  My heart is open and waiting.  Your time… is the right time!”