I was recently asked, “If you weren’t a minister, what do you think you would do?” Truthfully, I had to think long and hard about the answer and then I said, “You know, I think I would be a really good Town Crier.” There is no denying that I have a loud voice- my inside voice is often louder than most outside voices. The person then asked, “Do town criers still exist?” and I had to admit that likely they didn’t or at least it wasn’t a paid profession. I have since discovered that there are 144 towns in Great Britain who have registered Town Criers and that some of them are indeed paid. There is the Ontario and Nova Scotia Guild of Town Criers. As recently as 2016 the town of Burlingame, California added a town crier to their payroll and Provincetown, Massachusetts has had an active Town Crier position since 1840. So, I suppose there is a career for me if this goes belly up. Of course, town criers were much more prevalent when most of the population could not read. They were the greatest means of communication, often proclaiming bylaws, market days and other special announcements. They often began their speeches by ringing a bell and declaring “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” which comes from an old French word blending ouir (ear) and ecouter (listen). But there are records of town criers that date as far back as ancient Rome. You can likely guess where I’m going with this, today we hear about John the Baptist who essentially served as Jesus’ town crier. But I also suspect that someone in Philippi would have served as the “town crier”, disseminating Paul’s letter to the rest of the congregation.
In relation to Luke’s Gospel it kind of feels like we are doing things a little out of order. And quite frankly, it’s true, we are. We are going to hear John’s announcement this week and next week we will hear Zechariah’s Prophecy, or song, about John on the day of his birth. But this is in part to give us some context. Zechariah’s words next week will make more sense because we know who John is and what he becomes. Speaking of context, Luke really sets the stage for us and gives us a very clear context of when all this takes place and who is in charge. At first it might seem like irrelevant details but here is what I think is going on. Luke states that this takes place in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Naming the emperor, who is way off in Rome may seem like unimportant information but it was Tiberius’ stepfather Augustus who was the first emperor, so this form of government was still quite new. Tiberius’ relationship with the senate was very touch and go. I think Luke mentions Tiberius, not only to provide a date but so that we can understand the state of the world. That it is a tumultuous time. Then Luke refers to local politics by stating that Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea and that Herod and Philip were rulers of the region. Luke is anchoring John’s announcement of a coming Lord within a specific political time and place. But then Luke turns to the religious situation and names two High Priests, Annas and Caiaphas. What’s very strange about giving their two names is that it was unheard of to have two high priests serving at the same time. We might not realize it, but original listeners would have picked up on this, there is something strange happening within the temple system, something not quite right, something out of the ordinary. It is within this unstable time politically and religiously that John makes a proclamation! Also, by being so specific to the context Luke is actually demonstrating the universal significance of the story, something we might come to realize when we hear the closing verse that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
To claim that all John is, is a town crier, is also not accurate. We know he wasn’t dressed in white breeches and a tricone hat like most town criers of our folk lore. John certainly goes around the region making this grand announcement, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins but much like the prophets of the days of old, this proclamation comes to him. The word of God came to him in the wilderness. John is not just a town crier but a prophet as found in the old testament. Our call to worship today comes from one of those prophets, Malachi, and in that passage we are told that a messenger is coming, a prophet and preparer. John bridges the days of old in which prophets acted as reminders and town criers to the people and the days about to come in which Jesus will shine a light on God’s will. John is telling the people it is time to get yourselves organized! One paraphrase I read stated that John’s message was, “The King of kings is coming. Mend your minds as well as your roads, your faith as well as your politics, your hearts as well as your structures. Get yourselves ready, so that you are fit for the King to see!”
John’s call is certainly a call to preparation and expectation, which of course makes it well suited for advent. As I think about last week’s passage in which we are told to be alert to the signs of God at work in our world, I wonder how John’s call to preparedness might relate. Luke not only locates John’s arrival within a political and religious context but Luke also states that the word of God came to John in the wilderness. Things have been pretty wild of late. Not just politically or religiously, but literally- with various weather bombs and climate change events. To hear that God’s words can come to one in the wilderness reminds me that even in the most desolate areas of the world are part of creation and are of concern to the creator. No matter how wild things get- God’s words can still break through, get through, be heard and proclaimed! We are not only to keep alert and see the signs of God today but hear those words and proclaim them. Much like last week those signs bring me hope, this week those words bring me peace.
Now, Presbyterians don’t really talk about repentance much, because it’s not something that generally brings us peace. However, what John’s ministry was all about, was a call to an altered life and a symbol of grace, that our sins are forgiven which transforms our existence. This is where Paul’s letter comes in. Paul seemed to really get on with the Philippians. It is a pretty positive and upbeat letter. We heard a few weeks ago that it is called “Paul’s happiest letter.” Today we hear how Paul gives thanks to God every time he thinks of this congregation. It’s actually a multifaceted expression of thanksgiving. There is prayer, joy, the experience of grace, compassion, concern and anticipation which makes this letter quite a proclamation. Paul is confident that God will continue to work among the Philippians. In part because they are shareholders with Paul in God’s grace. In verses 5 and 7 Paul uses the term share. They share in the gospel and they share in God’s grace. Because they share in this way, Paul declares that he is confident that God will bring to completion the work among the Philippians that God had begun earlier.
Today we share in communion, because we too are a part of this greater context. We too hear the words proclaimed by John that even in our own context of political and religious uncertainty, even in our own wilderness, we need to be transformed so that we can cry out- not only making sure our voices are heard but the voices of those who are unable to speak. “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! We need to mend our minds as well as our roads, our faith as well as our politics, our hearts as well as our structures. Get ourselves ready, so that we are fit for the King to see!” Amen