I think I am right in saying that today is a historic anniversary for me. I think I am rightin saying that today marks for me the end of my 28th year as incumbent in this parishwhich means that I have now officially spent half my life here!
Yes, I was a young man of 28 when I arrived in Dulwich Hill in 1990. I am now 56, which means I have spent exactly half my life in this position!
]I don’t pretend that this is by any means a record. There are some younger members of the parish here who have spent a much greater percentage of their lives as members of this community, one of whom is Ange, who, while she has been here for slightly less years in total, beats me in the percentage stakes due to her younger age, and another of whom is our youngest, Francesca Trinity Smith, who has spent 100% of her life as a member of this parish!
I think Jan is the only member who beats me both in terms of total years present and life-percentage, but only assuming that we include her years as a member of our once-branch-church, St Aidan’s. Either way, I think I am now fully qualified to speak of this as my ‘life’s work’, and what a life it has been!
I am reminded of the words of my great mentor, Soren Kierkegaard, who, when noticing the number of things being invented around the world to make life easier for people, said that he would dedicate his future to making life more difficult for others by becoming a preacher. What can I say except that I have done my best to follow in his footsteps and make life more difficult for others through my preaching for twenty- eight years now, and from the number of worn and weary faces I see looking back at me, I would say that my life’s work has met with an encouraging degree of success.
And speaking of making life more difficult for others:
“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.” (Luke 3:1-2)
I’ve always seen these early verses from the Gospel of Luke as an example of the Gospel writer’s sense of humor – that in a year when larger-than life people like the Emperor Tiberius and Herod, king of Judea, were doing big things in a grand and headline-grabbing way, God was at work in the backwaters of some remote desert, working through a complete unknown – John, son of Zechariah.
There is that in the passage – an encouraging reminder that the most important things happening in our world may not be the things that are grabbing the headlines. Even so, there is more to Luke’s introduction of John than that too. As well as reminding us that God works through the poor and relatively insignificant people of our world, Luke is reminding us too that God is not oblivious to what is grabbing the headlines. God knows what the Caesars and Herod’s of this world are up to, and God can be relied upon to raise up people who will make life more difficult for them.
“[John] 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.’” (Luke 3:3-6)
What we’re given in today’s Gospel passage is a very broad description of the message of John, devoid of any of the provocative language for which he is rightly famous. I have, accordingly, resisted the temptation to reprint my signature John the Baptist Christmas greeting-cards, which their unique message of Yuletide cheer – “You brood of vipers! Bear fruits that befit repentance! Merry Christmas”. I will, likewise, avoid commenting on the content of John’s sermons as outlined in other passages, but will instead focus on what we have here in today’s passage – the portrayal of John simply as the one who prepares the way.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and … the rough ways made smooth”
This image is not unfamiliar to me, and will not be unfamiliar to anyone who drives regularly on dirt roads. Every time I drive out to our bush retreat, Binacrombi, which is never less than once per month, I cover at least 70 kilometers of dirt road, and as with every dirt road in this country that is under the curatorship of a local Council, there are a team of people whose job it is to prepare these ways – to fill in the holes, to lift the troughs and lower the peaks and make the rough parts smooth.
This road-smoothing process is normally referred to as ‘grading’, and, as a driver, the difference between driving on a freshly graded road, as against an ungraded road, is monumental. Driving on a well-graded dirt road is an almost indistinguishable experience from driving on an asphalt road, whereas driving on an ungraded road can be both painful and dangerous.
John takes this metaphor of the road from the prophet Isaiah, and, taken in context, the road Isaiah was envisaging was one that the exiled people of Israel would use to return to their country. In John’s application of the road image, it is not the exiled people who are going to use that road, but rather God who is going to use the road to come to these same exiled people. Either way, it seems that a lot of smoothing out is going to need to take place before God and God’s people can successfully meet, and John sees himself as God’s appointed spiritual grading machine.
As with dirt roads, John would find, of course, that the smoothing-out process would need to be focused on a small number of crucial hazards. When driving to Binacrombi, I know the dirt road well and, even when it’s been a long time between gradings, most of that road doesn’t present a problem. And yet there are a couple of points where the soil gets particularly boggy, and others where the ridges run particularly deep, and it is here that the grading team need to focus their efforts.
Likewise, with John, he encountered little resistance to his message, except at a handful of crucial hazards. One of those hazards gets an explicit mention in Luke’s introduction – namely, Herod, king of Judea. John would spend a lot of energy trying to smooth out that bump in the road – a bump that ultimately got the better of him.
It is hard to contemplate the Baptist without thinking of others who have followed John in the spiritual road-smoothing business. One person who came immediately to mind for me was Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the German pastor, prophet and teacher who made a similar impact on Hitler’s Germany as did John on Herod’s Judea.
Indeed, I thought it might be useful to go through some of Bonhoeffer’s writings to see what influence the Baptist might have had on him, and so I got hold of two collections of Bonhoeffer’s works in preparation for this sermon. The first was a collection of short devotional reflections by Bonhoeffer on the lectionary readings for Advent. The second book was a larger collection of Bonhoeffer’s Christmas sermons that included homilies given in the Advent and Christmas periods over the many years of his preaching career, both in Germany and around the world.
I was rather surprised and disappointed to find that in none of the advent devotionals nor in any of his sermons did John the Baptist get a mention! This could, of course, be because Bonhoeffer’s John-the-Baptist sermons were all confiscated and burned by the Nazis before they could be published, or it could just be that Bonhoeffer didn’t feel any great need to refer to the Baptist, even when channeling his message.
Either way, both men lived in similarly oppressive times, and while the list of atrocities committed under Herod in no way parallels those attributable to Hitler, I don’t doubt that the two tyrants themselves were equally power-hungry and ruthless.
Both Bonhoeffer and the Baptist showed zero tolerance to corruption in high places. On the day the Nazis came to power, Bonhoeffer hit the radio waves, warning his fellow Germans of the dangers that lay ahead of them – a message that was never broadcast in full, as the radio station prudently decided to switch Bonhoeffer’s microphone off before he had finished.
Like John, the German prophet didn’t tolerate religious hypocrisy any better than he did political corruption. When the church ruled that it would no longer ordain as priests persons who were of Jewish descent, Bonhoeffer recognised this as the thin end of the wedge and declared “the church that does not ordain Jews is not the church of Jesus Christ”, and so he started the ‘Confessing Church’ as a breakaway movement from his state-compliant mother-church.
Like John, of course, brother Dietrich also met his fate in prison – hanged in Flossenbürg Concentration camp in 1944, just a few weeks before the end of the war. Bonhoeffer succeeded in making life more difficult for the Fuhrer and for the Nazi elite, just as John had succeeded in being a bur in the saddle to the rich and powerful of his day. Both men paid the familiar price for their prophetic vocations.
You’ll have to forgive me if you feel I’m downgrading the spiritual pedigree of this homily by mentioning Julian Assange at this point, but I can’t think of these issues, and of the price paid by those who speak truth to power, without thinking of him too.
I’ve spent a bit of time with Julian’s dad lately, who I still consider a member of our church, and I’ve been in daily contact with Ciaron OReilly, who preached here once, and who is currently living and sleeping outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, All the indications are that it will be days, not weeks, before Julian is forcibly taken into custody.
Yes, I appreciate that Julian is hardly a spokesperson for religious orthodoxy, but neither was John the Baptist when you come down to it.
However we assess Julian’s work, the parallels with both the Baptist and with Bonhoeffer are not hard to see. Julian has been fearless in speaking truth to power. He has uncovered corruption in high places. He has made life more difficult for a lot of wealthy and influential people, and now, like the prophets who went before him, he is under the threat of paying the familiar price for his vocation.
I believe we need to pray for Julian. We might not all agree with his politics any more than we do with his theology. Even so, as followers of Jesus and as the spiritual descendants of John the Baptist, it is surely our role to support those who shine the light of truth into the dark crevices of political power and corruption, not simply because we have a commitment to light and truth in some abstract sense, but because, as Julian himself said, “if wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.”
And what about us? Might we as individuals, and as a community, have a God-given role to play in making life more difficult for others? I appreciate that, as Christians, it’s far more straightforward to feel called to comfort the afflicted than to afflict the comfortable, but we know too, ultimately, that these really are the two sides of the same coin.
I head back to Papua New Guinea next week. Why am I doing that?
- To get beaten up again?
- To add another win to my boxing record (hopefully)?
- To support a friend?
- To tell a story? Of course, it’s all of the above, but, primarily, my hope is to be another bur in thesaddle of the Australian government – making life a little more difficult for those areresponsible for the indefinite detention and the ongoing suffering of the men ofManus Island and of the men, women and children of Nauru. Will you support me in this work of spreading discomfort? I trust you will. Pray for methat I might have a safe trip and return in one piece, and so be spared reaping thewages of a prophet. Pray even more so though that together we might play our partin afflicting the comfortable in the hope that the afflicted might ultimately find comfort. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate wasgovernor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of theregion of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the highpriesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariahin the wilderness.” and in the year of our Lord two thousand and eighteen, here inDulwich Hill, Sydney, Australia, this Word comes to us still – a word that continues tochallenge the systems of our world and that threatens to bring down the mighty fromtheir thrones and lift up the lowly. Open your ears and you will hear it! Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and thecrooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shallsee the salvation of our God.’” (Luke 3:5-6)
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 9th December, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org