“What Are You Waiting For?”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, January 9, 2022
Reading: Luke 3:15-23a
In one of my favourite Psalms – Psalm 27 – King David recalls the faithfulness of God and finishes the Psalm with the exhortation that has spoken words of comfort and hope to Jews and Christians alike for thousands of years: “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.” King David knows that when circumstances are challenging, the human tendency is to rush ahead to take control or fix things or to somehow find an immediate solution; but he reminds them in Psalm 27 that all things are in God’s hands, and God will always be faithful because God has always been faithful.
It is hard, though, when we’re in challenging or uncomfortable circumstances to sit tight, and pray, and wait to see what God is doing, and then bring our actions in line with God’s. Aren’t we experiencing that challenge ourselves over these past many months? When we take matters into our own hands, and we don’t wait to see how God is going to act, we can be in for a big surprise.
People magazine recently came under fire for prematurely celebrating Betty White’s 100th birthday. On January 1st, the smiling picture and celebratory declaration on their cover kind of felt like a knife twisting into our heavy hearts. Similarly, in a foodie magazine that I love to read, the editorial introduction to the holiday issue celebrated the return to festivities and tradition, in comparison to 2020 when we were “planning to batten down the hatches” in the face of Covid restrictions. As I was reading the article, our country was battening down the hatches and cancelling festivities and traditions.
In all fairness, publications don’t have the luxury of waiting to see how things are going before deciding what to print. They need to take a calculated risk, and I think we all believed that Betty White was going to make it a couple more weeks; and it seemed to most of us that Christmas festivities were going to be a masked version of normal in 2021; heck, here at TEMC we were expecting to stage a pageant until just a few days before Christmas Eve.
Sure, in some things we know we need to make decisions and plans and prepare to pivot if necessary. But in other things, like when trying to resolve a complicated situation while being faithful to God; or when weighed down by the problems of the world and wondering what or who can save the world from all the sin and suffering and death that we see on the news every day, we need to have faith, be patient, and seek clarity from the Lord. “Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.”
In the time when Jesus began his ministry, the people were waiting anxiously for the Lord. They were dealing with the heavy weight of Roman oppression. They were poor, while the Roman rulers lived in luxury; they lived at the mercy of rulers who didn’t care about their lives at all; they were subject to prison or execution at the whim of cruel oppressors like Herod Antipas; and frankly, they were getting tired of waiting for the Lord. They had been waiting and hoping and watching and believing in the promise of God to send them a Saviour for a long time, but they weren’t “living their best lives,” and they were getting impatient. They were impatiently looking at every would-be Messiah to discern if he might be “the one,” rather than trusting that God would make it clear when the person arrived, as had been spoken by the prophets.
Some of Herod’s followers and supporters certainly talked about him in messianic terms, even though everything about him was the opposite of what God had indicated the Messiah would be. Herod Antipas, who we read about in today’s scripture passage, was the son of Herod the Great, who we met last week. Herod Antipas was an apple that hadn’t fallen far from the proverbial tree, and he was known to be almost as self-centred and unprincipled as his father, although significantly less accomplished. In this morning’s passage, we learn that he had thrown John in prison, and we know from other passages in the Bible that it was because John confronted him with the truth and called for him to repent of his adulterous affair with his brother’s wife. The nerve, eh?
Herod had his followers, and he had power – even the power to throw John in prison (or anyone else he chose) but he sure wasn’t going to be anyone’s saviour. How could he be the one to save them from violent rulers and oppression, as they were expecting, when he himself was the violent ruler oppressing them.
Some people, the scripture tells us, thought that John the Baptist himself might be the Messiah because he spoke truth to power, as he did to Herod, and he called the people to turn their hearts to God. That’s a little more believable, but John debunks this idea and tells them that, no, he’s not the Messiah; even he’s not great enough – what the Messiah will do will be much, much greater than anything he is doing.
In our time, we are still looking for something or someone to save us from the problems that beleaguer us. We get tired of waiting, as they did in Jesus’ time, and we want the solutions to our problems to be at our fingertips. An article from last year in Forbes magazine talks about our cultural problem of impatience, saying:
“No one can make the world spin faster. Yet there are people who believe they can, despite having to wait, at the end of every single day, for the Earth to complete its 24-hour rotation. Impatience, especially when it becomes a character trait, is not a virtue; it is a flaw that causes chronic stress, ongoing disappointment, and forces people to overwork or cut corners in an attempt to beat the clock.”
When we’re impatient, and rush into the wrong solution to our problems rather than waiting and praying for God’s guidance, it can lead to the same stress, disappointment, even strained relationships. But we still do it. We look for saviours in all the wrong places. Sometimes we look to government, or to celebrity health and wellness experts or relationship gurus. Sometimes we think technology is our saviour. Some people look to ministers or other spiritual leaders, but I can tell you that I have never met even one minister who has it all perfectly figured out. A common humanist philosophy of our time directs us to find our salvation within ourselves. Really? I don’t know about all of you, but I know that I have made too many stupid mistakes in my life to think I could be my own saviour or anyone else’s. In fact, one of my frequent prayers is to thank God for saving me from my own bad ideas!
You know, I think that the more secular the world has become – the more people have turned away from traditional religion in our society – the more “religious” people are becoming in other areas of life. You see it reflected in the messianic language used to describe popular cultural figures. I saw it clearly in the fierce loyalty of Trump supporters and the messianic rhetoric that was used to describe him (by himself almost as much as by his followers).
He has been accused by many of having a messiah complex, and many of his followers see him as the unique saviour of their nation. “I alone can fix things,” he said. “Nobody has done more for Christianity than I have,” he declared to one cheering crowd. He even called himself “the chosen one.” In a tweet by one conservative commentator Trump was called “the King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.” By others he has been compared to biblical prophets, to King David, and to Christ himself.
Now, I do know that people are divided (even in our country) when it comes to whether Trump is a good leader or not. I’m not talking about political policies though, or even personal character. I’m talking about who or what we look toward to save us from the ills and evils that plague our lives. And lest any of us start to become a bit smug, let’s consider some of the rhetoric around Barack Obama when he was running for president.
Oprah Winfrey, while on the campaign trail with the Obamas, recalled a story from "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," a 1974 film based on Ernest Gaines' 1971 novel. In Winfrey's telling, the protagonist – an old woman who had survived slavery and the Civil War – would ask every child, "Are you the one? Are you the one?"
"I do believe” Winfrey declared, “that today we have the answer to Miss Pittman's question – it's a question that the entire nation is asking – is he the one?" Then Winfrey declared: "South Carolina – I do believe he's the one."
One website devoted to political commentary, when speaking of Obama’s political life, referred to the “salvation narrative” projected onto him by zealous supporters who promised that his presidency would deliver transcendent change. It then described the grave disappointment they felt when he fell short of that – when he proved himself to be a mere mortal.
There has been a growing tendency of late to use messianic rhetoric in the political sphere. People use language that describes the political leaders they like as saviours, and the political leaders they dislike as the anti-Christ. Maybe it seems more obvious in the US, but the tendency is here in Canada as well. Aren’t we, as of late, looking expectantly at our government to save us from this pandemic, so that no matter what they do, somebody is up in arms declaring that Trudeau or Ford or Tory is willing to sacrifice lives for their own political gain? They’re either Herod or Christ. Actually, they’re neither. They’re human beings in a challenging situation, and I, for one, would not want their job!
But it’s not just politicians. Traditional religious concepts and language are regularly applied nowadays to socio-political influencers or movements. All kinds of experts or celebrities are promoting programs or products that they claim will solve all your problems. Just this week I had an email come to my inbox with the subject line, “$97 that changed my life.” Wow, that’s not too much money for a changed life! The email described the program they were offering to help you stop eating sugar, and promising that all your problems would disappear if you signed up for their program. I can tell you how to stop eating sugar for free: Stop eating sugar. Unfortunately, you will still have problems in life. Any time a person or a product or a program promises to “change your life,” this should send up warning flares for any follower of Jesus Christ.
Only Jesus can be our Saviour. Only the one who laid down his life for us can offer us eternal life. Oh, some of the people we meet or programs we follow or products we buy can be very helpful to us – a “Godsend” even – but only Jesus can change our lives, because our lives are changed from the inside out; our lives are changed by redirecting our focus from being self-centred to being God-centred.
In this passage from Luke, which speaks of Jesus’ baptism, God makes it very clear that Jesus is the one Israel had been waiting for with great expectation, and the one that we are looking for in our lives as well.
Many Christians have asked (since the beginning of the Christian church, really): if Jesus was sinless, why did he need to be baptized by John, who preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? What did Jesus need to repent? Jesus’ baptism wasn’t to accomplish the forgiveness of any sins, but to send a clear message to the people of God. The Greek word, “metanoia”, which we translate as “repentance” means to turn, to change directions; not just turning away from sin, but more importantly, turning toward God. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, so in a sense it was at this point in his life that Jesus publicly proclaimed that he would choose the path that had been laid before him; that he would take the way of obedience to God over the ways of the world. He would resist the temptations offered to him by Satan in the wilderness, the event that traditionally follows his baptism.
The church has long understood the baptism of Jesus as an Epiphany text, that is, a proclamation of God’s Christ to the world. The Gospel of Luke, which we read here, actually makes very little of the baptism itself, saying simply, “when all the people were baptized, and Jesus himself had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the holy spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove. And a voice came from Heaven, ‘You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism is lumped in with the baptism of “all the people,” whoever they are. And Luke doesn’t even say that it was John who baptized him, although the other gospels do make that distinction. He focuses instead on what happens after the baptism: first, “the heavens opened,” which recalls the prophet Isaiah’s prayer for heaven to open and for God to come to the people again. Second, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him,” which Luke’s Greek audience would recognize from Hellenistic literature that often depicted birds as harbingers of divine choice. Third, a voice came from Heaven declaring, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” For Luke’s audience, these words would recall Psalm 2, which refers to the coronation of Israel’s king as Son of God, and a passage from the book of Isaiah that depicts the servant of God.
In these words, then, we are shown clearly that God’s Messiah, the Saviour of the world, is not Herod or John, or any human leader or politician or celebrity or technology that makes our lives easier. The Saviour of the world is both Sovereign and Servant, both Lord and Shepherd, both Almighty and merciful; and that is what we will be seeing in Jesus as we continue to read the gospel of Luke, right up to his crucifixion and his resurrection.
What Jesus has done puts him so high above what any other human being has done or can do to save us from the power of evil in the world. The hope that we have because of Jesus’ death and resurrection dwarfs any hope we might find in ourselves, or other people, or anything else in creation. That is why John says that he is not even worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. None of us would be either.
If you are waiting for salvation – whether it be salvation from a trial that is weighing you down in your own life, or whether it is the salvation of the earth from the weight of sin and death that we see around us every day, trust that God’s grace and compassion is given to us, and that we have access to it now, by our faith in Jesus Christ. Wait on the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage.
James Smith, in a sermon from 1861, says it this way:
“As God has promised it — faith believes it;
and as faith believes it — hope expects it;
hope expecting it — we patiently wait for it;
and while patiently waiting for it —
we often enjoy the foretastes of it.
“Faith, the faith which saves us, comes from Christ, receives from Christ, trusts in Christ, has fellowship with Christ, nor will it allow the soul to rest until it realizes that we are one with Christ. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ — and you shall be saved!"” As the Apostle Paul says, we are saved by grace — but it is through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Thanks be to God. Amen.