Wednesday, December 5, 2012

John the Baptist, 1968

In Luke’s gospel account, there are several powerful songs. The most poetic of the gospel writers, Luke preserves for us moments of emotional overflow—when the power of a moment becomes too much for an individual. Last night, I saw that Elf was on television…again. And, as I flipped past the channel, I paused just long enough to see Will Ferrell’s character barge into a meeting room singing, “I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it.” Although there’s virtually nothing holy about that spontaneous song, the point is the same: sometimes we’re too happy to keep quiet.

As I wrote about earlier, Mary’s song and Simeon’s song come later in Luke. Mary sings about God’s promises being fulfilled as the roles of the weak and strong are reversed as exemplified in the incarnation—God taking on human flesh and thus raising up humanity. Simeon sings about God’s promises being fulfilled as he knew he would behold Israel’s savior before he died. This Sunday, we hear Zechariah sing a song about God’s promises being fulfilled as the oath he swore to Abraham is completed through the birth of the forerunner (his son John) and the soon-to-be-born savior (Jesus). All three are songs about promises being fulfilled—ancient, powerful, longed-for promises that God made to his people.

And that takes me to this Sunday’s gospel lesson. We read it in staff meeting yesterday. Each time we do that, we read sentence by sentence, rotating around the table, and, without thinking about it, I asked the person next to me to start off: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea…” The list of names and places is daunting—especially for someone who wasn’t expecting to have to read them out loud. As she made it through the list (without any errors I could hear, by the way), I listened to the list and thought, “Why, Luke?”

And then I remembered the songs. Each of them is about God’s people being raised up. Each of them is about being “set free from the hands of our enemies” and “a light to the nations” and “he has put down the mighty from their thrones.” Luke didn’t waste time or paper or effort recording that long and largely unnecessary list of rulers. He wanted his readers (specifically his patron, Theophilus) to hear the promised salvation of God as revealed through the prophecy of John the Baptist in stark and intentional contrast to the powers (political and religious) of his day. By naming an emperor (worldwide power), a governor (regional power), rulers (local authority), and high priests (temple control), Luke brings to mind the total reversal that the fulfillment of God’s promises has in mind.

In a bible study yesterday, we spent a good bit of time on the canticle, but, when we got to the gospel, Zechariah’s song suddenly found it’s place: UC Berkeley, 1968. At a meeting I went to last week, we kept returning to 1968 as a particular moment in which the counter-cultural revolution was powerfully expressed in American society. Flags and draft cards were burned. Riots took place. The establishment was challenged by the demonstrators. That movement subsided, but Jesus’ did not. As God’s promises are fulfilled, the powers of this world are still turned on their heads.

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