Dave Delaney, Salem, VA


Warm-up Questions

  • Many people use landmark events or big experiences as a way of dividing life into chapters or as points of reference to remember when other smaller things happened.  When you are remembering something and trying to fix when it happened, what points of reference to you use?  (“Oh yeah – that was in 9th grade,” or “that was before we moved,” or “that was before Trump was running for president” etc.).  Do you remember that it was before or after some other large experience?  Do you remember what your relationships were at the time or who else was there?  Do you rely on location?   Do you think in terms of big news events or holidays?  Or do you just use the calendar?
  • If you wanted to identify an event or events in our own historical time the way Luke sets the stage for John the Baptist, what things would you mention?   Just the month, day, and year?  Would it be a list of current world leaders?  Would you list the distinctive social conditions that would help your story make sense (like the mood of the nation or the highlights of the campaign season or the tension in the world regarding Syria)?
  • In this age of social media, when all 500 of your online friends can know what you had for breakfast, do you still wish that you could get someone to notice something small that you consider important – a cause or an event or an idea?

Good News in the Wilderness?

The Arts Council of Bakersfield, a city in central California, sponsors an event every month called First Fridays in a section of downtown that has wide sidewalks where local artists obtain permits to set up displays of their work.  The event fits in beautifully with the complexion of that part of the city, which is dotted with small art galleries, theatres, cafes, organic food shops, a doggie day spa and other specialty businesses designed to appeal to people with a bit of disposable income.  The artists reportedly enjoy very respectable sales on these days.


For most of 2015, however, visitors to First Fridays have had an additional experience while browsing at the corner of 19th and Eye Streets in the form of a 23-year old street preacher named Nathaniel Runels.  His preaching consists of standing on top of a small crate painted with the words “Jesus Saves” and preaching against the evils of moral sin.  He tends to center his attacks on traditional forms of sexual immorality and he delivers his messages at the top of his lungs as people pass, so they are forced to hear him whether they want to or not.  He is apparently acting within the confines of the law;  even though people have generally found him to be more annoying than inspiring, the police have not arrested him or even told him he can’t be that publicly disruptive.

Starting in early November, however, large crowds have gathered at the corner and attempted to shout down the self-described “open-air preacher.” Runels reports that he’s been spit on, had his clothes painted, and had water poured on his shoes, all in an attempt to get him to stop.  David Gordon, head of the Arts Council, is beyond frustrated. He’s heard complaints from vendors who say the preaching scares away customers and draws a mob at the corner that impedes traffic on the sidewalk and, at times, the street.  He says he’s tried working with Runels, suggesting the young man arrive to preach at 9 p.m., when First Friday ends, or move to a less busy corner — all to no avail.

Some have suggested that he be required to purchase a permit like other vendors since, even though they dislike his message, his sermons could be considered a kind of “performance art,” and “shouldn’t art challenge the thinking of those who interact with it?”  Others have said, “I guess he didn’t read the Bible where it admonishes people to pray in private, not on the street-corner for people to see.” Still others, including David Gordon, think he’s just doing it for the attention.  Gordon doesn’t want anyone getting hurt, he wants to avoid traffic jams at that corner and for his art vendors and First Friday guests to have a good experience.

Discussion Questions

  • The news stories do not say whether anyone has been inspired to faith or repentance as a result of Runels’ preaching.  Do you think you would be?
  • What is your reaction to this way of preaching?  Do you think it is right that someone should be preaching out in public for everyone to hear whether they like it or not or do you think that preaching should be confined to churches and other spaces where people choose to listen?
  • What if the content of Runels’ preaching were different and he were emphasizing God’s love and forgiveness or reassuring people that God really does have a steady hand on this seemingly chaotic world?  Do you think people would be more receptive to his preaching

Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

Luke is very concerned in this section of the gospel to locate John the Baptist in a very specific historical context.  It is not just a vague “once upon a time” story, but a story that is fully immersed in the events and circumstances of its day, as the gospel should be.  John being out in “the wilderness” does not suggest that he is removed from the great movements of governments and armies that dominate the lives of the people.  Luke  wants to use the large-scale markers of time to draw attention to this seemingly small event.  He will do something similar – but with history rather than the current political landscape – at the end of chapter 3 when he situates Jesus in a long lineage of ancestors that stretches all the way back to Adam.

“The wilderness” in Luke’s gospel where John the Baptist is preaching is not just a miscellaneous spot in the middle of nowhere.   Luke tells us that John was preaching in “all the region around the Jordan.”  This area is filled with symbolic importance.  It is the place where, 13 centuries earlier, the Israelites crossed the Jordan river into the freedom of their promised land, so it represents a kind of starting-over place for people who want to move from bondage and slavery to sin into the freedom of God’s love.

Hence John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Unlike our American “wilderness” that is full of wild vegetation, the biblical “wilderness” is very dry and barren, so it is also thought of as a place of death, but not only death – it is also where life can begin again if it is watered.   It is also the place from where people believed the Messiah – Israel’s savior – would arrive to establish God’s rule once again in the land.  The theme of God’s chosen one entering the land from the east to bring peace and redemption was such a powerful idea that Isaiah envisioned even the land itself getting involved.

An internet search for aerial photos of “the Judean wilderness” reveals how barren and dry it is, but also how steep the climb is from the Jordan river to Jerusalem where the Israelite temple was.  The terrain is also very hilly between the Jordan river and Jerusalem at the top of the ridge.  Imagine all of that being flattened out and turned into a huge ramp for the Messiah to enter.  That is the image that Isaiah projects with the promise that hills will be brought low and the valleys will be lifted up.

That language about the hills and valleys also carries a symbolic meaning.  One of the great themes of Luke is that under the Messiah’s reign the lowly will be raised up and those who are high and lofty will be brought down.  This has already been shown with Mary, Jesus’ mother, in Luke 1.

When Luke says that John was administering a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, we might have trouble visualizing that.  We should probably think of people walking through the Jordan river from its east bank to its west bank (reminiscent of the first Israelite crossing to freedom), stopping in the middle to have John pour water over them as a sign of God’s grace and a pledge that they will seek to live a life of constantly turning to God for all things rather than falling back into greed and despair.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you know about John the Baptist’s background?  If you can’t remember the story of his birth, go back and read Luke chapter 2.
  • One of the important things to remember about biblical prophecy is that it typically does not refer to just one event or point in history, but keeps on being meaningful at other points in history long beyond the original meaning.  How does Isaiah’s prophecy strike you today?  Where in the church, in your life, in your community, in your school, or in the whole world does it need to be proclaimed that people should prepare the way of the Lord by setting out a clear path, evening out the lows and highs in human experience, straightening out things that are crooked, or smoothing things that are rough.   What kind of work would it take for “all flesh [to] see the salvation of God”?

Activity Suggestions

  • If you have math and geometry enthusiasts in your group, you can figure out the angle at which someone has to travel to go roughly 18 miles from the southern Jordan river at 1500 feet below sea level to the top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem at 2700 feet above sea level.
  • If you found yourself suddenly standing on a soapbox in the middle of the monthly art fair in Bakersfield or at the busiest intersection in your town and you were expected to preach, what would you say?  Would you preach that people should repent?  Would you announce that God has big plans for the world?  Would you talk about your own faith in Jesus?   Brainstorm or write down some of those thoughts.
  • Most of our ordinary “preaching” opportunities do not come in the form of public soapbox speeches – they happen when we show love, care, comfort, and understanding to someone in need, or we give someone a meal in Jesus’ name, or we offer to pray with someone who is troubled about something, or we have just a few seconds to answer a question about what the cross around our neck or the slogan on our t-shirt means.  Take some time to put together an “elevator speech.”  This is a summary of what is true and important to you about the Christian faith – something that could be shared with someone in the amount of time it takes to go up 4 or 5 stories in an elevator.
  • Do you have complete information about your own baptism?   When and where were you baptized?  If you don’t know, check with parents or even the congregation where you were baptized to get that information, then be sure to remember and celebrate that date each year!

Closing Prayer

God of salvation, we pray that just as you have revealed yourself in all times and all places, always bringing up the lowly and rescuing the lofty from their futile heights, reveal yourself to us again today in this world.  Bring all people to wilderness places, where they will see you and be claimed by your love in repentance and forgiveness of sins.  In Jesus’ name we pray.