Preaching Luke 3:1-6 Part 2
Something breaks. You need help. You go to the phone. You have a product that is still under warranty. Your garbage is not picked up. Your mail is not delivered. Your computer freezes up. Whatever the problem may be, you phone the company or the government or the agency, and things go like this:
An electronic voice welcomes your call and informs you the organization has recently changed its menu options so listen carefully. You heed every option, waiting for the electronic voice to direct you to the information you need. The voice says press 1 for billing questions, press 2 for setting up or discontinuing service, press 3 for answers to the ten most commonly asked questions, and so it goes, on and on. Finally, the options end with a direction to press 9 to speak with someone directly. You press 9 and the original voice returns: "All of our service people are currently occupied with other customers. Please stay on the line for the next available representative." There follows some mindless muzak, periodically interrupted by advertisements for products or services you have no interest in. The minutes steal by and the line disconnects. The phone buzzes in your ear, and you put it down more violently than is your custom, realizing that in addition to the problem that occasioned your call, you are now late for an appointment.
As you get in the car, your immediate anger disperses and turns to a general despair about the increasing impersonality of our culture. You realize there is nobody to whom you can turn, no way of getting an answer out of a system that is designed to protect the power of its owners rather than respond to human need.
Although the situation is magnified by the labyrinthine convolutions of an overrated technology, the root of the problem is deeper than electrical circuitry and computerized responses. Behind all the inventions of human beings are human beings themselves and the choices they make about how they will treat each other through the inventions and systems they devise.
Long before the computer chip, email, the web and electronic answering services, there were massive social mazes. You get a sense of them in the beginning of today's gospel lesson: "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 Abiline, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas." What do you think might happen if you had a complaint to make to that system? Where would you turn? Who would listen? To what department would they send you? Luke's list includes both governmental and religious bureaucracies, and I am certain that for the average person-the farmer, the craftsman, the nurse, the housekeeper-getting a response to a basic need was as difficult then as it is now.
John the Baptist probably knew the difficulties as well as anyone. Perhaps he had gone to the wilderness to open his heart to those sacred powers that the prevailing human systems blocked and silenced. Whatever the case, it is in the wilderness, in a space set apart from the devisings of the human mind, that the word of God comes to John. It is a word that addresses the depths of the human imagination from which spring our inventions and systems. It is a word that re-orders the imagination, that transforms the landscape of the heart by tearing down mountains, lifting up valleys, and straightening out crooked roads, all for one central purpose: to prepare the way of the Lord.
The word that comes through John the Baptist calls to account the systems of Tiberius and Pontius Pilate, calls to account the systems of Annas and Caiaphas, calls to account the systems that announce "Please make your selection from the following options." The word that John brings is the word of an intimate, personal God, a God who is coming to us through Jesus Christ, and who requires us and the systems we devise to cherish the personal character of every individual. To prepare for the Advent of Christ in a technological society requires questioning the assumptions of such a society. We do not become Luddites and reject technology, but we no longer accept with resignation the ways human beings use technology to distort and hobble human community.
John calls us to "repentance," and the word in Greek is-metanoia-a transformation of consciousness that reconfigures our entire life. We do not hide behind empty excuses such as "computer error," but instead we take responsibility to see that human systems respond to human need with the same compassion and communion of Spirit that are manifest in Christ Jesus.