"Climbing Mountains with One Leg" – Luke 3:1-6
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 Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
I suspect some of you have seen something like this before, but I thought it would be fun – and maybe a little more impactful – to “see” it in a different way, played out with some familiar faces that we know.
Someone took the time to take facts about the world’s population and ration them proportionately down to a hypothetical population of 100 people. With those facts and figures, it was suggested that a room full of 100 people, representative of the world’s population, might look like this:
We’d be pretty equally split by gender – 50 would be men and 50 would be women.
Of the 100, 26 would be kids, aged 0 - 14; 66 would be 15 - 64 years old; only 8 would be 65 years old, or older.
When it comes to where we would live: 60 would be from Asia; 15 would be from Africa; 11 would be from Europe; 9 would be from Latin America and the Caribbean; and only 5 would be from North America.
And, since we’re in church, the religious statistics are worth wondering about. There would be 33 Christians; 22 Muslims; 14 Hindus; 7 Buddhists; 12 people who believe in "other religions;" and 12 people who wouldn't claim connection to any faith, in particular.
In terms of the languages we’d speak – our native tongues, anyway:
12 would speak Chinese
5 would speak Spanish
5 would speak English
3 would speak Arabic
3 would speak Hindi
3 would speak Bengali
3 would speak Portuguese
2 would speak Russian
2 would speak Japanese
62 would speak "other languages" that don’t even make the list, or our radar, probably.
But this is where it gets good and relevant to our Gospel for today and for what God means to be up to in Jesus:
In a village of 100 people, 83 would be able to read and write, 17 would not. Only 7 would have a college degree.
78 of us would have electricity, 22 of us would not.
65 would have “improved sanitation;" 16 would have no toilets; 19 would have "unimproved toilets."
87 of us would have access to clean drinking water. 13 of us would not.
15 of us would be undernourished.
48 of us (half!) would be expected to live on less than $2.00 US, per day
1 of 2 children would live in poverty
I was part of an exercise once where Alan Storey, a Methodist Pastor from South Africa, had a room full of pastors illustrate some of what this looks like in an even more dramatic way. Without bothering with all of the statistics, he had a handful of people in a crowded conference center gathering room come forward and asked them to stand on one foot while he talked. He made a couple of men from the group act as gate-keepers and their job was to bust anyone who put their other foot down, or who used a hand or a chair or another person to catch their balance. If you got caught or couldn’t keep up, you were banished to the back of the room, which served as “the outer darkness.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the group was invited to make themselves comfortable with all the extra space and chairs they now had, thanks to the unlucky, one-legged losers who had to stand up front. The rest of the group could stay seated and stretch out, put their feet up on the extra chairs they now had access to. They could get up and help themselves to food and drinks … donuts and coffee … the bathroom … whatever.
It was fun and funny. There was laughter and then some awkwardness, once people started to figure out what was going on. There were some who played along as best they could and others who opted out, not bothering to be part of it from the get go.
But the point was made – and it’s the same, whether you’re looking at numbers, counting statistics, standing on one leg, or sitting comfortably with your coffee and a donut:
It’s embarrassing and convicting and shameful to admit that there are so many people – more people than not, really – too many people – standing on one leg in this world. And it’s embarrassing and convicting and shameful to admit that you and I are happy as clams – most of us – seated comfortably in our abundance of chairs, drinking clean water, leaving the lights on, flushing our toilets, eating our fill, and pretending that that’s okay; that it’s not our problem; that God has blessed us in some way that justifies – or at least allows for – our abundance in the presence of others’ scarcity and struggle.
But today, we get this unsettling, unsettled, loud-mouthed, John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness and calling B.S. on our way of living and moving and being in the world. And it’s no accident the way Luke’s Gospel introduces John the Baptist. He is introduced after a long line-up of very impressive leaders by the world’s standards: the Emperor Tiberias, the Governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod and his brother Philip, rulers like Lysanius and High Priests like Annas and Caiaphas.
And then there’s John. Just John. The son of Zechariah. And he’s not from Abilene or Galilee or Judea or anywhere worth naming, either. He’s just out there, somewhere, crying in the wilderness, like a street-preaching, carnival barking, nut-job.
All of which points to the notion that John is out there, standing on one leg. Not one of the powerful. Not one of the popular. Not one of the 1%, either. At least that’s not who he’s preaching on behalf of and that’s not who he’s preparing the way for, in Jesus Christ, the coming messiah of God.
With all of his talk about the valleys being filled, the mountains being leveled, and the rough ways being made smooth, John is pointing to God’s plan for the kingdom and he’s inviting whoever will hear him to prepare the way for Jesus. And one way to prepare the way for Jesus, you might say, is to consider what in the world Jesus himself would say to those of us who are comfortable in our places and in our palaces; and what in the world Jesus would do for those of God’s children who are suffering and struggling and still standing on one leg, after all this time.
I think Jesus would remind us, in these Advent days, that the means by which we have come to be so comfortable in our chairs…the abundance we take for granted…the excess that we exploit…is not ours to do with as we please. I think he would remind us how arbitrary it is that some rest easy while others never seem to get a break; how fine a line there really is between having the upper hand and going through life with one arm tied behind your back; between standing, safely on two feet and standing on one leg.
I think Jesus would teach us to take and use only what we need and to share the rest. I think Jesus would show us that there are mountains of discrimination and bigotry people can’t climb above on their own; there are valleys of poverty people can’t get out of by themselves; there are rough ways of racism that trip people up; there are crooked ways of injustice in the world that trick and trap God’s children. The world is not a level playing field like the Kingdom of God is intended to be. And it’s not going to fix itself.
So, I think Jesus showed up as a baby in a manger, hoping with a deep and wide, cosmic kind of everlasting hope, that we would see in his eyes the eyes of anyone and everyone who is standing one leg – or crying out in the wilderness – or dying on a cross – and longing desperately to experience resurrection and new life in this world as much as in the next.
And I think Jesus showed up to keep on forgiving the sins of the seated – you and me – and loving us until we finally, fully receive it…until we are grateful enough and faithful enough to get out of our chairs… until we are courageous and bold enough to hand over our seats – or at least to make room and level the playing field – for someone who’s dying to rest, like we do, in the blessing of God’s amazing, everlasting, earth-shaking, life-changing, grace.