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Salvation for All

Sermon - 12/06/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 3:1-6

The text for our reflection this morning comes from the gospel of Luke, the third chapter, verses 1 through 6, and you're welcome to follow along in your own Bibles or the pew Bibles:

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, 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.”

 

Here's an interesting little gospel tidbit for you this morning:  when Luke introduces to the birth of John the Baptist, he begins by telling us 'In the days of King Herod'.  And then of course in a very familiar passage when he tells the story of the birth of Jesus, he says 'In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus'.

And so now, when he is introducing the ministry of John and Jesus, he names for us not 1 ruler, not 2 rulers, not 3, but 5.  Count them -- Tiberius (the successor to Augustus as the Emperor), Pontius Pilate (very familiar to us), Herod ruler of Galilee in the north (not to be confused with Herod the Great who rule all of Palestine and was Herod's father), and then the other son of Herod, Phillip (the brother of Herod of Galilee, who rules the area in-between), and then this Lysanias that history otherwise has no record of, who is the rule of Abilene (who knew that Texas is part of the holy land :).

So he names these 5 rulers, and then adds to that the 2 high-priests.  It's a little bit confusing, because there's only 1 high-priest at a time.  Annas is the father-in-law of Caiaphas (the current high-priest), and was the high-priest before him, but still a power to be reckoned with.

Well, anyway, we've got all these guys named.  Now, if I were to begin a story by saying 'In the first year of President Obama's administration, when Ted Kulongoski was Governor of Oregon and Kitty Piercy was Mayor of Eugene, and Rob Handy had been elected to the County Commission, and Jim Torrey was elected to the School Board of 4J. . . . . you'd say, stop!  That's enough already!  Get on with the story!

Luke, here, is trying to make a point.  He wants to be sure that we understand that the gospel takes place within a very specific historic and political context.  It's his way of saying to us 'pay attention, this story has real implications for our world and the way that it is run by these guys'.

This is not a list of socialite wanna-be's, you know, the kind of folk that you expect to find at a White House state dinner :).  This is the "who's who" of royal dignitaries in the ancient world, people with real power.  The kind of people that could get you beheaded, or crucified.

And what's striking about this text is that after Luke has named for us anyone and everyone you don't want as your enemy, he quotes this passage from Isaiah in reference to John the Baptist:

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
 

In other words, the way of all the aforementioned folk who think they are powerful (the Emperor and the Governor and all the rest), that's not the way of the Lord.  There's another way.

So once again, just as we saw last Sunday, we are reminded the way we are called to follow is not the same way as that of the world, and the rulers of this world.

This second Sunday of Advent is on the church's calendar, Peace Sunday.  Amidst all that excitement, now that the Civil War is over, and we have peace (right?), or if not peace we have found nirvana in Duck-ville, you may have caught the more sobering news with which the week began.  President Obama announcing his decision to send more troops to hopefully put an end to the war in Afghanistan.

Now, I don't know why he chose this particular time, and why he took so long to contemplate it, and chose right at the beginning of December.  I'm fairly certain it was not because he wanted to circumvent the showing of Charlie Brown's Christmas, which the Mayor of Arlington Mississippi announced on his FaceBook page.  I think if Obama wanted to circumvent any T.V. show it probably would have been Desperate Housewives :).

So the hard question for us in these times, when the news media seems more concerned about what Tiger Wood's wife can do with a 3-iron than they are about what the President of Iran can do with enriched uranium, is to ask ourselves:  what can we do in this world to prepare the way of the Lord?

How can we possibly enable, as the prophet says here, for all flesh to seek the salvation of God?

To understand what this way of the Lord looks like, how it is different than the way of Empire and the rulers of the world, we might begin by asking:  so what does the salvation of God look like?

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who is a popular author and speaker in all things related to Christian spirituality, says every religion essentially agrees, in its own way, that:

"Finally we are called to a transformed consciousness.  A new mind, or being, born again in some way.  Each religion has different words for it, and probably different experiences, but somehow they all point to union with God.  Religion is about union.  Somehow to live in live conscious union with God is what it means to be 'saved'. 

To live in that union is to experience and to enjoy the great connection".

 

To live in that union with God is to experience, to enjoy, living in that great connection with the divine.  To be one with God.

So, salvation then is simply union with God, or to be, as the Apostle Paul puts it, "in Christ".  And if salvation is union with God, then we have to ask:  what hinders that union?  What prevents us from being in that kind of union?

And the traditional answer, of course, is sin, which is often defined as separation from God.  But sin is hardly adequate to describe all that which separates people from enjoying the fullness and the richness of a life in harmony with the Lord.  A way that has been made smooth and straight (as suggested by this metaphor of a royal highway in this text).  The point is, this way of the Lord, this life with God, is to be a road unlike any other.  A super-highway of no hazards or obstacles.

Anyone experience life like that?

Instead, we find life is full of all kinds of diversions and detours and difficulties and bumps.  Some of them are of our own doing, yeah, and we might call that sin.  Some are things that are done to us and that might be the sin of others.  But to be saved from our own sin, versus the sin of someone else is an entirely different thing, isn't it?

Marcus Borg gives an illustration that we are studying on Tuesday nights, he says:  If Moses went to the Hebrew people in Egypt and said to them "Good news!  Your sins have been forgiven!".  You can imagine they would reply "Well, that's nice Moses, but you see our problem is slavery".  It's a different problem.

When we make salvation solely about forgiveness from sin, in fact we may actually (unintentionally) add to, contribute to that sin.  I'll give you an example.  If someone confides in you that they are a victim of rape, do you say to them "Well, what you need to do is ask God for forgiveness"?  You wouldn't, would you?  I sure hope not, that's the opposite of what that person needs.  Salvation for the rape victim means finding a new sense of personal safety and overcoming that great violation, of restoring dignity and self-worth, of seeking justice under the law.

Salvation, therefore, can take many forms depending on the condition from which we need to be saved.  And sin is just one of the many conditions we find in the Biblical story in which God works to save troubled people.

Noah and his family -- would forgiveness done them any good?  No, they needed a boat, a big boat.

The slaves in Egypt -- needed liberation.

Young David -- salvation came in the form of a sling-shot, in defeating Goliath.

For the people in exile -- salvation meant coming back home again.

For the blind -- salvation is restoration of sight.

For the lame -- salvation is the ability to get up and walk again.

For outcasts -- to be accepted and included in the community once again.

For that lost sheep separated from the 99 -- it's the good savior who will not give up until that sheep is found and restored to the flock.

Another example Borg gives -- a sermon he gave on moving from a closed heart to an open heart.  Afterwards, the pastor, is his pastoral prayer, trying to connect to the sermon, asked God to forgive us of our closed hearts.  Thereby undermining, undoing the whole point of the sermon -- when you have a closed heart, you don't need to ask God for forgiveness, you need to ask God to open your heart.  You see, that's a different prayer.

Preparing the way of the Lord is thus not only about straightening out our own lives (turning away from sin), it's also about straightening out the world.  Which is why John the Baptist, remember, not only offers his baptism of forgiveness, he offers some pretty sharp words for the political and religious leaders of his day about the corruption of that system.  And in the very next verse of this text, he says to them:  "You brood of vipers".  And of course that's what gets him into trouble and ultimately beheaded.

The way of the Lord is the way of cleaning up the world.  It's the way of personal responsibility and social justice.  It's the way of repentance and liberation.  It's the new way of seeing, and walking.  It's a new way of living in this world.  It's the way of love.  It's very personal in the way we interact with one another.  And, it's the way of peace that's global -- how we interact with nations.

If all flesh is to seek this salvation of God, then all the conditions which separate us from union with God, from the way of the Lord, must be included in that salvation.

So the way of the Lord is providing shelter to the homeless as we have been doing this week on these very cold nights.

The way of the Lord is feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

The way of the Lord is helping people to overcome their addictions whatever their drug of choice may be.  It might be money, it might be greed, it might be status and power and fame.  It might be drugs or alcohol.

The way of the Lord is opening up our hearts, opening our eyes and our minds.

The way of the Lord is seeking forgiveness, and giving forgiveness when asked of us.  And sometimes when not.

The way of the Lord is loving our enemies and ending all war.

Is there a way that we can in fact bring peace to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to the Middle East?  To the world on earth as it is in heaven?

Yes, there is.  Prepare the way of the Lord.

 


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