The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Zack’s Boy

Preparing the Way

by Nanette Sawyer

Gospel Reading: Luke 3:1-6

For Sunday, December 2, 2012:  Year C—Advent 2

Recently we celebrated Christ the King Sunday, or The Reign of Christ, and I got into asking questions about what kind of power God has. Barbara Lundblad shared a wonderful story from Delores Williams about the Black church of her childhood singing that Christ was both King of kings and poor little Mary’s boy.

This got me thinking about how God works on a grand and majestic scale sometimes (the majesty of the Creation, the uncountable stars and grains of sand…) and sometimes works on a more intimate level, coming near to us, whispering to our hearts with love and compassion.

Preaching a Dipping

In today’s gospel story, we have the cousin of poor little Mary’s boy, Zack’s boy, John the Baptist, another miracle baby. “…[T]he word of God came to Zack’s boy, John, down on the farm. And he went all around the rural areas preaching a dipping in water—a symbol of a changed way of life as the basis for getting things straightened out.” (Luke 3:3, The Cotton Patch Gospel, Luke and Acts.)

I love the Cotton Patch Gospel for the way it roots the gospel story in a setting that I understand more intimately than the ancient near east. The story-teller who translated or rendered these gospel stories, Clarence Jordan, once said that many excellent translations “still have left us stranded in some faraway land in the long-distant past….We want to be participants in the faith, not merely spectators.” So he retells the stories as though they were taking place in the Southern U. S. in the mid-20th century.

What will this child grow up to be?

“The little fellow grew up and matured in spirit. And he stayed on the farm until he began his public ministry in the South.” (Luke 1:80, The Cotton Patch Gospel) And when John began, he sure came on strong, telling people they had to change their lives, turn things around. The Common English Bible puts it this way, saying that John was “calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” (Luke 3:3, CEB).

Luke says that John was fulfilling the Isaiah prophecy in 40:1-8. It was a message of comfort sent to the Babylonian exiles saying that God would lead the people back to their homes through the wilderness and out of exile. So is John calling us out of exile? Preparing for Jesus to lead us out of exile?

Turn it around

Isaiah calls the people toward a loyal, trusting relationship with God, but points out that, unfortunately, our loyalty is not a perfect loyalty. It’s fickle, actually. It dries up like grass and withers like flowers (Isaiah 40:6-8). We despair. We doubt. We forget that God loves us and loves all humanity. Isaiah says, why do you declare, “My way is hidden from the LORD, my God ignores my predicament”? (40:27)

If you read a little further along, you see that Isaiah insists that “those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.” (40:30-31) How can we turn our lives around and trust?

The Hardest Question

The NRSV describes John’s baptism as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Common English Bible says that this baptism showed that people’s hearts and lives were changed and they wanted God to forgive their sins. I think “wanting God to forgive” is a great interpretation of repentance.

Perhaps the hardest question today is this: Can God forgive us if we don’t want God to forgive us? Do our closed hearts prevent forgiveness from touching us?

How do you read?

Nanette Sawyer is the founding pastor of Grace Commons (formerly known as Wicker Park Grace), an emerging faith community that gathers in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she has blogged at The Christian Century’s lectionary blog, the Emergent Village Blog at Patheos, and at She has a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Studies, where she has also taught as adjunct faculty. She is the author of Hospitality: The Sacred Art.

How do you read?