As I began my visits with her and the details of her tragic life emerged, there was one thing I found absolutely amazing. In the midst of this wreckage of a life, Cathy had a rock solid Christian faith. It absolutely amazed me. She wanted to talk about the Bible, read Scripture (she had many passages memorized), and pray. She wanted to talk at a theological and philosophical level about whether or not she could be cremated and how that would work at the resurrection of the righteous on the last day. She called me her “hippy priest.” When I asked why she replied, “Because you are the only pastor I know who respects me as a human being. You don’t talk down to me and make me feel dumb.” One day, she said this: “I know I’ve done terrible things in my life – things that most people cannot forgive.” She pointed to the crucifix on her wall, “But I know one thing for sure: That man there died for me and he took my sins, all those things I did, with him. He knows I’m sorry and he knows I stopped doing those things. He died for me and I believe it!” Rock … solid … faith. She had a rock solid faith – and it never wavered. She had repented of her sins – she had genuine sorrow and contrition. She had tried to make things right. Some relationships had been repaired – some had not. But she knew she was a forgiven sinner. When Cathy died, the couple who had adopted one of her now adult daughters, offered to have Cathy’s ashes scattered on their family plot – and they planned to put a grave marker there for her. As complicated and messy as her life was, the grace of God’s redemption was present and alive. And through this very ordinary woman, the word of the Lord came … to me.
Today, Luke’s gospel gives us a glimpse of John the Baptist. Now since we are in the year of Luke (Year C), I want to frame this gospel in a way that you may not have considered it before. Luke was either a gentile or, more likely, a Hellenized Jew. What that means is that he was well versed in Greco-Roman culture, even as a Jew – and not unlike his companion Paul who also was a Hellenized Jew. These Jews who lived among the Greeks were really bi-cultural – they could move and operate in both circles. Luke’s narrative style is very, very Greek! Tom Davis, who is a friend and Biblical archaeologist, once said, “Read the Gospel of Luke like a great Greek adventure story.” That’s right … just like you’d read the Iliad and the Odyssey, or Jason and the Argonauts. The Gospel of Luke and its second volume the Book of Acts tell about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus just like a Greco-Roman adventure story. So keep that in mind as we journey through this year.
Luke opens the third chapter with a promise so ordinary you could miss it. “In 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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Like all good Greek historians, Luke sets this narrative in a specific time and place by naming the world leaders who were in power at the time: Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod and his brother Philip the Tetrarch, Lysanias the Tetrarch, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas – you know … all the “A-lister” power brokers of the ancient world. And Luke tells us that amidst these heavy hitters of the political and religious world … comes the word of God to one ordinary guy – John, son of Zechariah. John, an ordinary nobody who is living in the desert and eating locusts and wild honey (yeah, the bugs and honey guy!). To put it into a modern context, it would be like saying, “In the fourth year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when John Roberts was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Boehner was Speaker of the House, and Martin O’Malley was governor, the word of God came to Fred in Feagaville.” You see? It sounds nuts, doesn’t it? What Luke is doing sounds crazy to his first century hearers! He’s telling you this John, son of Zachariah, this nobody ranks among the rich and the powerful … and perhaps even outranks them because the word of God came to this ordinary guy.
But Luke is doing even more … imagine all these rich and powerful leaders: Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, Lysinias, Annas and Caiaphas … lined up against … John, son of Zechariah … who has … the word of God on his side. The word of God and one ordinary, bug eating nobody is set over and against all the powers of this world. Luke is telling us that it isn’t about strength and power as we know it in this world. The word of God comes through the insignificant, the weak, the small, the peculiar, the misfits – those who the world holds to be of no account. The unpopular kids, the little league coaches, the stay at home moms, the firefighters, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted, the ones who you’d least expect to have God speak to. And that’s the point … our God is a sneaky God! Slipping through the backdoor of history in a sneaky way and revealing the promise of salvation to the unlikely, undeserving, misfits – a promise so ordinary, if you’re not careful, you just might miss it.
Now that may feel strange and some of you may be thinking the word of God can’t possibly come to you. Maybe it’s because of things you’ve done or left undone. I think what made me connect with Cathy was she reminded me of myself. Oh yes, there are things I’ve done in my past that by some people’s estimation are unforgivable: in the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” Even clergy have skeletons in our closets. But as Cathy reminded me, we are all standing in need of grace and mercy. We are all forgiven sinners. And in light of that, who are we to declare that the word of God cannot come to us or through us? That man on the cross died for you and for me so that we might receive the word of God with joy.
So as we continue our journey through Advent, keep watch! Keep watch for those ordinary people in ordinary situations where God’s promise of redemption is revealed. Keep watch … don’t miss it … our God is just that sneaky.