Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Our Rural God

Some people are city folks, and some people are born for the country. I grew up in a built-up community within a rural county, and I encountered on the high school football field some of the tension and conflict between those who worked in buildings and those who worked in the open. We did not have a weekly livestock auction in my hometown, but you only needed to drive fifteen minutes away to the "downtown" of one of our rivals to find one. As the world shrinks and more small and mid-sized farms are either industrialized or developed as subdivisions, rural life is fading. I'm glad to live in a place where cattle and sheep are only ten minutes away, but those farms, which have existed much longer than the urban sprawl that threatens them, now feel out of place.

Perhaps that loss of rural identity helps us understand what God is doing in Luke 3:1-6, which we will hear this Sunday: "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 distinction could not be clearer. Luke names for us emperors, governors, and tetrarchs. He identifies the high priests. And then he tells us that the word of God found John out in the wilderness. The contrast between the powers of this world, which seem concentrated in the cities of Rome and Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem, and the power of God, which came to John way out in the undeveloped, virtually uninhabited wilderness, is striking. And it is striking for many of the same reasons that the conflict between rural and urban identity still exists today.

The city is a place of power and strength. People are presumed to be wealthier and better educated. They control the flow of money through the community. Their social graces are refined. Their libraries are centers of learning. Their hospitals offer advanced techniques. And their religion is highly polished, too. The finest preachers and musicians are called to the big urban congregations. They are the model for how worship might look if every community of faith was well-resourced.

The country is a place of diffused resources. Individual landowners may have great resources, but those who live and work among them likely do not. In fact, many of the owners prefer to reside in the comforts of the city while the work is done out on the farm. Independence is valued so much that social graces are sometimes frowned upon as unnecessary capitulation to someone else's expectations. The books in the libraries have been read and loved until the pages are worn. In the community health clinic, everyone knows you by name, but they'll quickly send you to town if anything serious is wrong. Religion in the country is real and powerful but not at all polished. The piano has been out of tune longer than anyone can remember, but it still plays the old favorites. Everyone recalls when the preacher was really in his prime, but his sermons now have the season appropriate for someone of his experience. You can't find a congregation more loving or committed anywhere else, but newcomers aren't seen often.

And where does God show up? To whom does God reveal God's word? Where will the real, Spirit-filled prophet be found? Who can call God's people to repentance in preparation for the coming Day of the Lord?

God shows up outside the presumed power-structure of the day. The baptism of repentance that John proclaimed was not merely a change in moral behavior but a change in resource, in power, in priority. It is a turning-around from human-produced reliance and an embrace of the lean and hard life of depending only on God. That means a change in our understanding what and who is important, and the rich city preacher like me has a hard time proclaiming that message with any integrity.

This Sunday, as I sit in what has become the well-resourced city church, I'll notice the plain yet beautiful wooden walls that remind me of the rural heritage of our congregation. I'll listen for the message of the gospel transmitted to us from its country roots. And I'll ask God to help me see what has become difficult to see: God's work beginning in the wilderness so that the earthly powers might be transformed.

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