The Rev. Sarah Buteux
Luke 3: 1-6 Advent 2, Year C
Some people are peacemakers and some people are homemakers. There are taste makers, king makers, rain makers, and matchmakers. But I, my friends, am a list maker, and proud of it.
Anyone else here a list maker? How many of you have a list on you right now?
Lists are the primary tool that enables me to function in this world. If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t get done, so much so that if I do something that wasn’t on the list, I add it to the list after the fact just to be sure. That doesn’t make sense does it? Not even grammatically. But that’s what I do.
I typically have multiple lists running on my phone at any given time: laundry lists, grocery lists, short lists, bucket lists, to-do lists, packing lists. You name it, I can list it. There are the lists of people who have rsvp’d and the lists of people I still need to call. I keep lists of shows I’m currently watching so I don’t forget from season to season which shows I am currently watching and, even more importantly, which seasons of the show I have already watched. I’m serious. Anyone else need to do that? The struggle is real.
There are lists of books I’ve read so I can keep track of where I am in a series. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be halfway through the first chapter of a book and begin to experience the nagging suspicion that you’ve read this book before. Almost as frustrating as the knowledge that you have most certainly read it before and you still have no idea what is about to happen.
Which brings me to the real reason I need lists as much as I do. It used to be that I kept lists primarily as a source of motivation. There’s nothing like crossing items off a list to keep you moving forward.
But nowadays, the list is as much a memory aid as it is a productive one. I’ve now reached the age where I sometimes erase things from my list just as I’m about to do them, and then forget what it was I was about to do. My dad refers to this as “Short Attention Span Theater,” which is funny until you get home with everything to make a roast chicken dinner except the chicken.
This was becoming such a problem that Andrew actually showed me how to make a bubble list so I can check items off on my phone, rather than erase them. A bubble list. Yes, Andrew did that for me…and that’s love.
I would be lost without my lists, and no time of year brings that truth into stark relief more than the season of Advent. There is a lot to do at this time of year and without copious lists my whole world would fall apart. I take great care in composing these lists, so much so that I save them from year to year. Thanks to my lists, I know who played who in last year’s pageant so I can ensure that other kids step into those roles. I know how much soup people ate at Common Ground last December, so I can adjust this year’s proportions accordingly. I know which hymns we sang when, so we can sing them all again.
I know who had who for the gift exchange last year on both sides of my family. I think carefully about what everyone in my family wants and needs for Christmas and then distribute these lists, with no duplications, to various extended family members. And I ask my extended family to do the same, not because I’m compulsive – which I am – but because if people are going to go to all the effort and expense of buying gifts, my hope is that those gifts would be appreciated and used.
I take the holidays very seriously and my lists reflect that. I love Christmas, but more importantly, I want others to feel loved at Christmas, so I make list after list to ensure that nothing gets left out, no one gets forgotten, everything gets done, and nothing – not time or energy, money or eggnog – gets wasted.
So frankly, if I had been put in charge of Christmas 2000 years ago, things probably would have gone a whole lot differently. If I’d known that God was serious about coming to earth to proclaim salvation for all humanity, I would have wanted to roll out the incarnation for maximum effect.
With papyrus and pen in hand, I would have made a list. I would have booked the Coliseum for mass baptisms (check) and had Annas and Caiaphas washing away sins from dawn till dusk.
I would have reserved the Acropolis for Jesus’ birth (check) so that everyone from Tiberius Caesar on down could come and pay homage. I would have arranged for the heavenly host to sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” from the heights of the temple in Jerusalem – think the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City, but with a little less leg – and comped tickets for rulers like Herod, Philip, and Lysanias to drive up sales. (Check, check, check).
Replicas of the star over Bethlehem would have been the hottest selling gift for the Holidays – while supplies last. (check) And I don’t know who the Oprah was of 1 B.C. , but I can tell you that she would have had an exclusive interview with Mary and Joseph for a very special holiday edition of Super Soul Sunday. (Check).
Which is to say that I would have made a list, checked it twice, and done everything in my power to ensure that everyone in power would know that the greatest power of all was in the house. I would have worked hard to get the word out; pulled strings, called in favors. I would have thought things through down to the last detail and ensured that the whole thing came off without a hitch.
But according to Luke, God didn’t do any of that. According to Luke – who, apparently, was also a list maker:
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.
“…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Which is to say that the word of God came to a nobody out in the middle of nowhere.
Now that’s just weird when you think about it.
I mean, what is Luke doing with his list, besides striking fear into the hearts of lay readers everywhere? And even more importantly, what is God doing?
I mean if God thought things through half as much as I do, there’s no way she would have chosen John. It just doesn’t make sense?
If you want to get the word out, send it to someone people will listen to. If you want all people to see your salvation then send it to a place where people are most likely to be. Don’t send it to some camel hair wearing misanthrope out in the desert. I mean let’s be honest, if a guy in a fur tankini eating crickets told you it was time to grow up and get your act together, would you listen or would you cross to the other side of the road?
And that’s just the roll out of John and his message.
Think about all those angels singing sweetly or’e the plain. That must have been so incredibly beautiful. An event like that could have won the hearts and minds of thousands at the Apollo. It would have been bigger than “Hamilton.” But God sent them to sing over a hillside in Galilee. There were more sheep present for that concert than shepherds. That’s ridiculous.
And don’t even get me started on Jesus and how, frankly, irresponsible it was for him to be, well, born at all, let alone be born to an unwed mother of an oppressed people in a stable in a little town called Bethlehem after said mother had ridden for days on the back of a donkey. Has no one in heaven ever heard the words, “risk assessment”?
Jesus’ birth was just banana pants.
And yet, that’s the story. God’s story. The Christmas Story.
(And yes, I realize I just called the gospel banana pants, but it’s true.)
God’s ways are so not our ways.
As much as it pains me to admit it, God doesn’t put the same premium on order, efficiency, safety or success that we do.
God is not as impressed with power or the people at the top as we are.
God’s ways are not our ways, perhaps because God knows that if you start at the top with the hope that the good news will trickle down, chances are it will most likely trickle out before it gets to those who need it most.
Reaching the most people as efficiently as possible is not the same as reaching all people when all is said and done. And this salvation John preaches, this salvation Jesus brings, this salvation is for all flesh, not just the wealthy or the worthy.
So God starts at the bottom, to make sure that no one gets left out. God comes at us sideways, the better to catch us all by surprise. Christ is born on the margins amongst the unloved, the unwanted, and the uninvited in our world: the refugees at our borders, the family member we wrote off years ago, the neighbor we would rather cross the street to avoid, the prisoner, the poor, the crippled and captive.
Just as Christ is born into the unloved, uninvited, unwanted parts of ourselves: the addiction we can’t shake, the illness we can’t beat, the plans that have failed and the promises we have yet to keep. Those places in our souls where we are imprisoned, impoverished, crippled and captive.
Christ is born into those parts of your life you’d rather not admit to…
Christ is born into the trials and tribulations you never would have asked for…
Christ is born amongst those people you’d rather not deal with…
born into those places where there is no room, where he truly is uninvited, because in our shame and despair, our weakness and vulnerability, our fear and our failure, that’s the last place we would ever want him.
And yet, hope, peace, love, joy – the four candles of advent we light in the midst of the darkness – when you think about it, your deepest experiences of hope, peace, love, and joy – your deepest experiences of God – probably didn’t occur when everything was going according to plan in your life, but in those uninvited, unscripted, unwanted moments when everything went completely wrong.
I’m not saying God made any of that happen just so God could get to you. I’m just saying that when it all went south, Christ was there, because for reasons I have yet to understand, that’s where Christ persists in being born.
There is a reckless abandon to God’s love and way of being, a playfulness and patience, a persistence and generosity of spirit I think many of us have trouble connecting to at this time of year precisely because we are trying so hard to hold it all together, get it all done, and get it all right.
But if Luke’s list is any indication, the good news of Christmas won’t be found in those places of perfection – in perfectly decked halls or halls full of power. Nor is the peace we seek waiting for us at the bottom of a list, no matter how many times we check it, how many items we cross off, or how much we get done. God’s gift of grace can never be achieved or earned. It can only ever be received. And this gift, this grace, this salvation John preaches, this salvation Jesus brings, is for all flesh precisely because no matter how prepared or competent or accomplished we are, we all need it. No matter how put together we might seem on the outside, we all have broken places that need to be healed, mountains we need to level, valleys we have yet to fill.
So hear the good news. Hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness. There’s no need to hide those unloved, uninvited, unwanted parts of yourself from you or God or anyone else this advent. In fact now is the perfect time to bring them out into the light, let it all hang out, allow your cracks to show, and see if that isn’t precisely where Christ slips in this Christmas to bring you hope; see if that isn’t precisely where Christ slips in this Christmas to bring you healing; see if that isn’t precisely where Christ slips in this Christmas to be born. Amen.