Several years ago, I travelled to Northern Island with a group studying conflict resolution. We spent most of the time talking with leaders who worked on understanding the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. We wandered through neighborhoods in Belfast, which were still clearly divided between those historic and bitter rivals.
But the most difficult moment for me came on one of our free days. We were driving along the northern coast of Ireland, stunningly beautiful scenery. We climbed up to the top of a cliff to get one of those views that makes you know that there is a divine creator. There was a huge rock island just yards away from the cliff, and the best view was at the edge of that island. The only thing standing between me and the best picture ever was a rope bridge with wooden slats. I really didn't think much about it until I started across, happened to look down, and by the middle, realized that the bridge had begun to sway with the movement of my fellow travelers.
That's when I grabbed the ropes on the side as if they could save my life when the whole thing broke through and plunged to the rocks below. I silently counted the number of slats between me and the view. There were about 20 of them, which was just enough to keep my conviction of a dramatic death alive.
The problem was that the people behind me were coming. Actually, they were waiting for me. I felt their presence just over my shoulder. Even though I was too afraid to turn around and look, I knew they were there. And there was only one direction to go--forward.
I thought of that experience when I was reading this gospel text from Luke. At first glance, it looks like Luke just loves history. So often, he does this: he begins a story by listing all of the rulers. Maybe he wants to anchor his gospel story in real time, so that we would know that this is not just some mythological event in a fairy tale land, but a real story that happened in concrete history.
But I wonder if it isn't something more than just a recitation of history, as if Luke were one of those history whiz kids. We've heard these lists of characters so often and they lived so long ago that we probably don't realize how it must have sounded when read aloud in the first century. Because these weren't just innocuous historical figures. These were the people that represented all of the might, the tradition, the power, and the threat of the Roman Empire. These were the people who enforced the status quo. Listing their names one by one was like counting the slats on that rope bridge. One by one they stood in the way of liberation and justice and peace and compassion.
Tiberius, the self-proclaimed divine ruler of the empire, was able to send his armies at a moment's notice to squash dissent. In Luke’s time, he was building a grand and beautiful city on the coast, designed primarily to extend Rome’s power even farther. There was no way to get away from his reach.
Pontius Pilate, able to sentence Jesus to death for the sake of expediency and false peace.
The Herod family, conjoined to Roman power, brutal to any opposition, murdering their own family even to keep the throne, and willing to behead the opposition for the entertainment of the court.
Lysanius is a mystery, but his Greek background, his family's connections to Cleopatra, indicate that his family was at the heart of the political and military intrigue that so often brought suffering to the population.
And then there's Annas and Caiaphas, high priests from the ruling classes who had a stake in keeping the peace with the oppressor, and they were willing to sell out any voice that gave hope to those who were at the margins.
Without exception, these rulers stood in the way, their listing each time in Luke, one by one, a kind of drumbeat that makes us understand that the world so often stands against the goodness of the gospel. In fact, when we hear this list, it's a reminder that the political and social and economic powers still often run counter to God's Word.
I live in Minnesota, the north country, far enough away from the equator that the change in day light is dramatic. In summer, the sun crests the horizon by 5 a.m. and is still hanging in the sky when I'm leaving church after a late meeting. But by this time in December, the darkness has claimed more hours than the sun. It's dark when the alarm goes off in the morning, and it's dark before any of those meetings even get started! In December, life is framed by darkness.
Maybe that's why I notice this listing of rulers at the beginning of this reading. Maybe it's the darkness in Advent that makes us take seriously all these barriers that stand in the way of good news flowing to all people. Our cries for the coming of Jesus come from our deep awareness that there is still so much that seems to stand in the way, so many barriers that seem to stretch out before us. Sometimes all we can do is count them, one by one, while we stand stuck in life, unsure how to take the next step forward.
I won't make a list of all the current rulers or leaders that seem to stand in our way today. It would probably get me in trouble. But I bet we could all start counting the things that keep us from getting to the place of peace and healing and forgiveness in our lives.
Certainly in this past year, we might name the power of institutionalized racism. The shootings in Charleston and the seemingly every day reports of racial violence have stolen away our conviction, at least in the white church, that we are moving forward. The truth is we're stuck, and we've realized just how our black sisters and brothers are holding on for dear life.
Or there is the Middle East. ISIS is so brutal that we can hardly describe them to our children, their rampage so bloody that even the stories scar us.
Or there's our changing climate. We watch lakes dry up in some places and torrential rains fall in others.
Or maybe we should just list all the people running for president, already driving us crazy with attacks and counter-attacks, spin and counter-spin. The months leading up to a presidential election feel like the slats on that rope bride. How many more do we have to go?
And I suppose, we could all list our own barriers, too, the things that stir within us that cheat us out of abundant and full lives: our bodies, refusing to do what we need them to do; our minds, tricking us into paranoia or deep darkness; our families that test us, or simply our daily work that drains us of energy.
Before too long, this all gets so depressing and dark, our days getting shorter and shorter, the night coming closer and sooner.
Clearly, Luke understands this darkness. Yet his desire was not to lead his listeners into despair, to remind them that they are clinging to the bridge for dear life, ready to crash to the rocks below, but to announce to them that not one of those barriers could keep the Word of God from coming.
"The Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness." In a tiny, faithful family, on the edge of the empire, in the wilderness, there is nothing less than the Word of God, the breath of life, presence of the Creator. I'm not sure if Luke means this to sound like a creation story or a return-from-exile story or our own story, but I suspect he wants us to know that God's power is stirring. It is just over our shoulder, pressing us forward into a new future. The powers of darkness, evil, injustice, disease, and death cannot keep the light of God from shining on our path.
When I was in elementary school, our family went on a vacation through southern Kentucky. We stopped at Mammoth Cave and went on a guided tour. At one point, the guide turned off the lights to show us what cave darkness looks like. He told us about explorers who got trapped in the cave, who literally could not see to take one step forward. There was literally no light to shine on those cones in the back of our eyes. So it was impossible even for our eyes to adjust. The guide left us in darkness, just long enough for us to start to get nervous. Then he lit a match. One small match.
And it was stunning how that tiny light changed everything. Sure, there were still passages going off into the darkness, and there were shadows. But the rock formations, the stalactites and stalagmites--I still don't know which is which--were stunningly beautiful in that warm and tiny light. But what's more, the faces around us came into view again. My mom and my dad were right there next to me where they had been all along. There were the other people on the tour. There was a community that had both experienced the depth of darkness but had now seen a bit of the light.
On this day in December, I don't know if we're clinging to the bridge or standing in the darkness of a cave, but I do know that we have struck a match to light one more candle on the Advent wreath, and the power of that light is changing everything. Even our shadows take on a new beauty when caught by the light. It is making a way in the wilderness, making the crooked straight, and the rough places smooth, and turning the road toward Bethlehem.
To most in the world, it might not seem like much; but to us, we see in this tiny flicker of light the glory of the rising sun, the Word of God, the presence of the Spirit, coming to us in real time, in our historical time. We see the view of a future set before us that is filled with forgiveness and peace and reconciliation and love. Frankly, we see the best picture we'll ever take.
And more so, just over our shoulders are our fellow pilgrims on this journey, pressing us into this new future. There is a community of love, each of whom who has seen this light and heard this voice speaking in the wilderness, a community that is walking with us, counting the steps into eternity.
And it turns out, we don't have to hold on for dear life, because the life of the coming one is already holding on to us. I know it's two weeks before Christmas. I know there is so much that stands between this day and that night. There will be shopping and decorating, stress and family, wrapping and baking, joy and sadness. There will even be shorter days than today. There will be Caesar Augustus and Quirinius; there will be a long and crooked road from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
But nothing can stop this birth. The child is coming, and we will be carried to the other side--to Bethlehem, to Easter, and to that moment when all flesh shall see the salvation of God.