Don Follis | During Advent, God's word calls for changes

Don Follis | During Advent, God's word calls for changes

My imagination was greatly expanded one Advent season when I heard a recorded sermon from the late 1950s given by the Rev. Gardner Calvin Taylor (1918-2015), a noted African-American Baptist preacher and civil-rights activist.

The Rev. Taylor's sermon centered on Luke 3:1-6, the same biblical passage many of the faithful will hear read today, this second Sunday of Advent, and the text from which many preachers will speak. Luke chapter 3 places the arrival of John the Baptist into a precise historical context: "In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene — during the high priesthood of Anna and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert."

Calling his sermon "The Strange Ways of God," the Rev. Taylor began by rephrasing the first part of Luke 3, declaring "that Dwight D. Eisenhower being president of the United States and John Patterson the governor of Alabama, J. Edgar Hoover the omnipotent autocrat of the FBI, Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale, the high priests of middle America, the word of God came to Martin Luther King in the wilderness of America."

In fact, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had just left his pastoral post at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to begin crusading full time for greater civil rights for African-Americans. Using names everyone would have recognized, the Rev. Taylor drove his point home, which, of course, is precisely Luke's point. Luke leaves no doubt that the word of God both bypassed the power of the state and the influence of established religion.

God's word trekked out into the wilderness, seizing a strangely-clad man dressed in clothes made of camel's hair, known for his diet of locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist stepped on the scene with words that cut through the political and ecclesiastical power of the day.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near," cried the wilderness preacher. "This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: 'A voice of one calling in the desert — prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"

Writing in the December 9 "Christian Century" magazine, Pastor William Lamar IV of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington D.C., says we desperately need for the John the Baptists in our midst to speak up this Advent. "Will God's word bypass you this Second Sunday of Advent?" Lamar asks. "Will it really come to relatively comfortable, theologically trained people like you and me?"

The message for this Advent Sunday is a message of repentance, Lamar says. Calls to repentance are the labor pains preceding the inauguration of God's reign. "John is calling for the world to change — spiritually, economically, politically and socially — in anticipation of the advent of the Human One," writes Lamar. "John the Baptist is a direct threat to imperial theology and power. Enlightened spiritual gurus who transform spirits and leave the social order uninterrupted don't get beheaded by the state."

We can start our sermons today by putting the words of Luke 3 into our own context: "In December 2018 nearing the end of the second year of Donald John Trump's presidency of the United Sates, with the recently departed Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as attorney general, Rudolph Giuliani the ubiquitous and loquacious defender of the present order, Franklin Graham, Paula White and Joel Osteen the prophets of American civil religion, the word of God came to preachers and parishioners alike as they called for repentance on this Second Sunday of Advent."

Our Advent proclamations must include these questions: "Will the word of God bypass the power of the state and the influence of established religion?" "Are there more John the Baptists in the wilderness called to speak up, those for whom the Word of God burns in their hearts?" "Is God seeking a spokesperson living on the underside of the empire and on the wrong side of the guardians of precise theological language?" "Can well-heeled folk engage in God-talk or God-work without the benefit of the words of John the Baptist, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" "Will faithfulness to God's word cause those living on the wrong side of power to speak to those who do?"

Let Isaiah's poetry soar from our churches on this second Sunday of Advent. "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."

We can only hope that these "strange ways of God," as the Rev. Taylor called them 60 years ago, will usher in a season of repentance as we once again celebrate the coming of the Messiah.

Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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