God’s word comes the one who forsakes privilege, lives simply, works for justice … and listens. (Listen.)
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I lived in Washington, DC. We went to a church which was once Harry Truman’s, then Jimmy Carter’s; and while we were there the Clintons came a couple times. Members included presidential advisors, scientists, and journalists; officers in the military and CIA staff; senior bureaucrats and retired diplomats; professors, stockbrokers, and a governor of the Federal Reserve. A lot of power was concentrated at that church, and there were some incredibly committed and godly people.
So living as I do now in Warrnambool, it’s hard not to escape the teeny-tiny feeling that I have dropped off the face of the earth. It’s not a hamlet; but compared to living in Melbourne, let alone Washington, it feels pretty insignificant. Because at some deep level, I have often assumed—wrongly—that big and powerful human places is where the real stuff happens: the God-stuff.
I’m telling you this because I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Throughout the history of the world, the powerful have claimed that God is with them; even, sometimes, that they are gods themselves. For example, the Egyptian Pharaoh claimed to be the sun god; and during Jesus’ lifetime, the Emperor Augustus had public buildings and coins engraved with his name: Augustus Divi Filius, or Augustus Son of God. In Europe, the concept of the divine right of kings was developed, equating obedience to the monarch with obedience to God. God continues to be co-opted by every American president and every American dollar bill engraved with the words “In God We Trust”; and our own Prime Minister has said that he’s been anointed by God for his role.
It has always been convenient for the powerful to claim a mandate based on divine will, divine favour and divine anointing; and to use these claims not to serve vulnerable people but to squash opposition and silence critique. And like Scott Morrison, who says that the Lord told him he wanted Scotty to be Prime Minister, it has always been convenient for the powerful to say that they have received a direct word from God which cannot be questioned.
While I will never know the full truth of any person’s claim to divine encounter, I will always weigh it up against the biblical witness. And this is what I find.
For the most part, our scriptures were written not by the powerful, but by people on life’s margins. They were written by people who were colonised, displaced and enslaved; victims of war and terror, and subject to a brutal 24/7 economy. Many key witnesses were persecuted and imprisoned for their preaching, for their critique of government policy, and for calling out the private lives of the rich and famous (think: Elijah, Jeremiah, John, Paul …). More, the most perfect witness, Jesus Christ, true Son of God, was crucified for his work. In other words, the scriptures are largely a product of scapegoated suffering people who witnessed to God’s justice and God’s faithfulness in all things: and who often paid for their witness with their freedom and even their lives.
It is one such witness that we encounter in Luke chapter 3. John is preaching a baptism of life-change in response to forgiveness of sin: and that’s important, which is why I’ve preached on it at other times (e.g. here). But what’s important, too, is what and where he is, and what and where he is not.
First, it might help to hear the text in contemporary paraphrase: “In the eighth year of the reign of Pope Francis, during the high priesthood of Rupert Murdoch, when Joe Biden was President of the United States and Scott Morrison Prime Minister of Australia, when Dan Andrews Premier of Victoria, the word of God came to a priest’s son who’d gone bush. When John received the message, he went through the backblocks telling everyone to clean up their act in response to forgiveness from sin …”
So the author begins by listing major seats of power, wealth and influence, that is, the important people in important places who might claim to have divine guidance, and whose words and actions can shape the world. In common thinking, these are the blessed, on whom God has showered favour; these are the anointed, chosen for their positions by God. And perhaps they are.
But then comes the kicker: ‘and the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
It’s helpful to remember a bit of the back-story here. In Luke’s account, John is the longed-for son of the priest Zechariah. Zechariah served at the Temple in Jerusalem, with all its attendant power and prestige, and such a role was hereditary. But John does not take it up. Instead, he heads to the wilderness. And as we know from other texts, he lived simply, forsaking wealth, alcohol, fine food and comfortable clothing; and he was later jailed then executed for his criticism of public figures’ personal lives.
So Luke lists key centres of political, religious and financial power: the Vatican, the White House, Wall Street, Spring Street, in effect: but God’s word doesn’t come to any of them. Instead it comes to John, who turned his back on a hereditary role with power and privilege; John, who walked away from the nexus of politics and wealth that is the lifeblood of every city; John, who forsook luxury to the point of rejecting all material comfort; John, who lived by a muddy creek in the boondocks; John, whose preaching was first heard by the nobodies who lived there, too. This is the one God chose to preach the word and prepare the world for the coming of God’s Son.
For those far from the centres of power today, whether in ghettoes of need in our major cities or in rural/regional boondocks, this should be encouraging: because it tells us that God’s priorities are not the world’s priorities, and God can speak through anyone: even someone living among the nobodies a million miles from power.
But it also contains a challenge. The implication of the passage is that power, wealth and privilege can deafen us to God’s word: and perhaps that’s why John preaches the great levelling. ‘Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low,’ he proclaims, ‘The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (Luke 3:5-6).
As mostly middle class Australians, it’s hard to admit or even see our own privilege. We tend to look upwards; we don’t want to lose our view from the hills; we’d prefer to see from the mountaintop. But perhaps it is only when we are on level ground that we will really see the crookedness and feel the rough places and understand their devastating impact on people; perhaps it is only when we relinquish our privilege that we will truly see God’s salvation.
Because the biblical witness is clear: God’s word is rarely heard at the top: and proclaiming the word almost never results in power, money or so-called success; if anything, it’s likely to make those who value such things very angry indeed. Instead, God’s word is more likely to be heard by those who place no value on these things, nor even on their own lives: who rather forsake privilege, live simply, work for justice … and listen. Ω
Reflect: How does this text encourage or challenge you? What might you need to relinquish to better hear God’s word? Through whom might God be speaking now?
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