Politics in Church!
What the children are doing: tomorrow is the feast day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a real person who loved Jesus and served Jesus by caring for people, especially children! St. Nicholas lived in the part of the world that we now call the country of Turkey. Some coloring pages are in the back with more information about St. Nicholas.
Okay, friends, today is one of those days when politics shows up in church. It wasn’t my idea. I read it in the Bible. You may have noticed the Bible is full of politics. Today’s Gospel reading from the book of Luke starts with a long list of political leaders who were active in the world at the time Jesus was a young man.
So who were all these people? When God chose to bring Jesus into human life, was that the time when the world was wonderful and all political leaders were just and benevolent? Were these terrific examples of leadership? Was the world at peace? Let’s take a closer look at these names, shall we?
When Tiberius was emperor, he expelled the Jews from the city of Rome, though later he allowed them to return. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea—the one who will allow Jesus to die, but later Christians didn’t want to blame Pilate for this, and some Ethiopic and Coptic Christians name Pilate among their saints. Herod was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee; this is the same Herod who is later going to order the execution of John the Baptist. And Herod’s brother Philip was also there, and Lysanius, another dude, were somehow in charge of people or land in the region—scholars debate who these people actually were.
And not only are the political rulers mentioned, but also the religious rulers: Annas and Caiaphas, high priests, though not actually at the same time—Caiaphas succeeded Annas as high priest, but Annas and his influence still hung around, and Annas was pretty cozy with Rome. Of course this same Caiaphas is going to be the high priest who judges Jesus guilty of blasphemy, which leads to Jesus’s execution.
So, with all of this going on, in all the centers of power, both political and religious—what is the Word of God up to? Is the Word of God cozy with the power of Rome? No. Is the Word of God locked away in a temple, attended only by priests? No. Is there anything wrong with these types of power? No. God can totally work within these places, because where is God not allowed to go?
God can show up anywhere God wants to show up, and in this case, it’s way out in the wilderness, away from the centers of power, away from stable and sturdy buildings, away from reliable patterns of activity, away from peace at the cost of human life—isn’t that what Pax Romana, the peace of the Roman empire, was about?
God showed up in the presence of John, son of Zechariah, who served God as a priest, and Elizabeth, cousin to Mary, mother of Jesus—Zechariah and Elizabeth were of course much too old to be having a baby, yet they did, and that baby grew up to become John the Baptist, who went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
God could have showed up anywhere, but God showed up here: in the wilderness, in John the Baptist, living on the wild side. This young John learned the Scriptures and studied the work of God, but he was called to proclaim and to baptize outside the buildings, beyond the religious structure, to meet people where they are.
What if, during this Advent, God is calling us to a wild life? Willie Dwayne Francois III, pastor in New Jersey, writes that Advent endorses a tolerance for waiting, but not at the expense of adventure. How can we experience God right here in the world we’re living in right now, to live the adventure God calls us to?
Luke’s Gospel names what is going on in the world at the time John the Baptist appears on the scene—God didn’t wait for humans to get peacetime figured out, until humans could be so benevolent and caring that they magically didn’t need political leaders anymore. In all of history, that has never happened. God showed up in the middle of the mess. And God still shows up.
Is this the news we need to hear, in a time of political unrest, uncertainty about the future, economic worries—isn’t this good news for us, too? God meets us in the middle of all of this. In some ways, the world is not all that different from the world where Jesus and John the Baptist show up—John the Baptist’s words still ring true: we still need baptism, we still need to be washed clean of our sin, we still need to repent and we still need to be forgiven.
But if religion is about pretending we don’t need these things, or that we’ve ascended to some level of righteousness or knowledge and repentance is no longer necessary, then we’ve got it wrong. If religion is about denying pain and ignoring human needs, we’re doing it all wrong.
Pastor Francois points out a disconnect between the religious doctrines and sectarian debates that can keep believers content and feeling righteous—but then we miss out on what he calls “creative encounters, divine embodiment, and spiritual effervescence.” He writes this: “We occupy pews and pulpits as empty shells dressed to the nines. We stagger into new days with old patterns—tamed by patriarchy, domesticated by Whiteness, programmed by capitalism, disciplined by heterosexism. To be wild is to be free, unbought and unbossed by the structures of power.”
What would that be like, to live “unbought and unbossed” by power, by structures of fear? What would it be like to be that free? Pastor Francois quotes James Baldwin: “Say yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found. It is found in some terrible places.”
There’s no getting out of this world, escaping the pain and ignoring our neighbors. God doesn’t call us out of the world, but God calls us deeper into this world. Even the ones who went out to the wilderness with John the Baptist, maybe even the ones who were baptized there, they all went back home at some point—but they were changed. They had an encounter with God.
Where do we go to encounter God, that place that affirms us as we are and calls us to be who God created us to be? Pastor Francois notes that enslaved Africans in antebellum America created these safe spaces in “brush harbors—clearings in the woods dedicated to worship, storytelling, and divine experience beyond the reach and gaze of plantation Christianity. [Such places] required ingenuity and industriousness to ground these disinherited humans with a tenacious sense of being somebody.”
Being somebody. Unbought and unbossed. What would it be like to live such a life? To be free from fear? To be free from worrying what someone else thinks? To be free to love your neighbor? Right here in the messy middle of everything going on in the world—what if you didn’t have to get everything in order first? What if you didn’t have to wait until the pandemic is over? What if you didn’t have to wait to get older or wiser or get a job or receive a sign of God’s providence—what if everything you need to live in this freedom is already here?
The voice of one unbought and unbossed, crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord. The Holy Spirit is making a way: the way is Jesus Christ, and it goes through you. God is making a space for the kingdom, and that space is in you. Right now, ready or not.
In the first year of the presidency of Joseph Biden, when Mike Parson was governor of Missouri and Tishaura Jones mayor of St. Louis, during the service of ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Central States Synod Bishop Susan Candea, the Word of God came to Gethsemane Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri: they went into all the region around the Mississippi River, proclaiming the nearness of the reign of God, working for justice, repairing relationships between God and God’s people, and seeking God’s righteousness.
 Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Volume VI, Tiberius, Scott T. Carroll, page 550.  Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Volume V, Pontius Pilate, Daniel R. Schwartz, page 400.  Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Volume III, Herod Antipas, David C. Braund, page 160.  Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Volume I, Annas, Bruce Chilton, page 258.  Willie Dwayne Francois III, Reflections on the lectionary, The Christian Century, November 17, 2021, page 21.  Ibid.