Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Grace for Those Drifting Too Far from the Shore” (Luke 3:1-6)
December 9, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I recently watched Martin Scorsese’s brilliant 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, about the early career of Bob Dylan.  Near the beginning of this film Bob Dylan recollects that when he was a young boy he and his family moved into a house in the obscure small town of Hibbing, Minnesota.  Specifically they moved to 2425 Seventh Avenue East, if you were wondering.  Why would I know that?  Glad you asked!  Several summers ago I was driving from North Dakota, across Minnesota, to Wisconsin and visited Hibbing on the way, where I talked with a longtime bartender who was a childhood friend of Bob Dylan.  He told me exactly where the house was, and that the current owners were really nice.  So I went to the house and rang the doorbell…but alas, there was nobody home.  At least I got to stand on the front step and ring the doorbell.

The previous occupants of this house had left behind several pieces of furniture, including an old mahogany turntable that played 78 rpm records.  In fact, there was a record still on it.  The young Bob Dylan—who at that point still went by his birth name, Robert Zimmerman—played it and heard a song written by a Georgia-born gospel songwriter named Charles Moody (1894-1950), a song called “Drifting Too Far from the Shore” recorded by The New Lost City Ramblers, who sang:

Out on the perilous deep
Where dangers silently creep
And storms so violently sweep
You are drifting too far from the shore
Drifting too far from the shore
You are drifting too far from the shore
Come to Jesus today
Let him show you the way
You are drifting too far from the shore
And that was the moment music grabbed ahold of Bob Dylan.

“Drifting too far from the shore…you are drifting too far from the shore”…all of us, if we are honest, know exactly what that feels like.  But the good news of the gospel is that even if we find ourselves drifting too far from the shore, it is never too far for the grace of God.  In Psalm 139 the psalmist wrote:

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast (Psalm 13:6-9, The Book of Common Prayer 794).

Yet when we are drifting too far from the shore, we can feel very disoriented, very lost.  In the 1990 film Quigley Down Under Tom Selleck plays Matthew Quigley, an American sharp shooter from the Old West.  By the way, my grandmother had a Tom Selleck poster in her house, which made me a little uncomfortable, but that is another sermon for another time.

Matthew Quigley answers an advertisement from a man named Elliot Marston in Australia seeking someone with his skill set, but when he arrives he learns he is wanted in order to eradicate the Aborigines.  He refuses, and is then beaten and left for dead in the Australian outback, along with a woman known as Crazy Cora.  Matthew Quigley and Crazy Cora later have the following conversation:

Crazy Cora begins, “You know, if we’re lost, you can tell me.”  Quigley is blunt, “We’re lost.”  Crazy Cora continues, “I can take bad news, just tell me straight,” and Quigley replies, “I don’t know where the heck we are.”  Crazy Cora presses, “No sense taking time to make it sound better than it is.”  Quigley says, “I reckon we’re going in circles.”  Crazy Cora persists, “Wire things up and I’ll see right through, so just tell me honestly, are we lost?”  Quigley takes a different tack, “Nope, I know exactly where we are.”  Crazy Cora, “That’s good, ‘cause frankly I was getting a little worried.”

In today’s passage we see that when we are lost in the wilderness, when we are drifting too far from the shore, that the grace of God still meets us.  Luke writes about John the Baptist being the “voice in the wilderness” God had sent to call people to repentance.  Luke does not write, “once upon a time,” because the gospel is not a fairy tale.  Rather, Luke anchors this event in history:

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 (Luke 3:1-2).

And the word of God that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness was a word of repentance, a word from God calling people to turn away from their sins and turn back to God—a word of grace to those lost in wilderness, a word of grace for those drifting too far from the shore.  Moreover John the Baptist’s preaching was accompanied by “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Luke emphasizes that this all fulfilled a prophecy given many centuries earlier by the great Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who had foretold that John the Baptist would be “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’” (Luke 3:3-6).

John the Baptist preached the same message the Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, preached, a message that can be distilled to a one word: “repent.”  To repent means as we prayed in the collect for today, we ask God to “give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins” (BCP 159).  To repent means when as the young Bob Dylan heard on that old 78 rpm record, “You are drifting too far from the shore” you “Come to Jesus today.  Let him show you the way.”

So what happens if we ignore God’s call to repentance?  What happens if we persist in drifting too far from the shore, or wandering in circles in the wilderness?  Well, the consequences can be dire not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

One of the current leading Shakespearean scholars in America is Stephen Greenblatt, a professor at Harvard who written many books.  In his most recent book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, he examines the lives of several of Shakespeare’s most notorious tyrants, including Richard III, Lear, Macbeth, and Coriolanus.  All of these tyrants persisted in drifting too far from the shore, with the resulting consequences indeed being dire for themselves and others.  Listen to how Stephen Greenblatt describes Richard III:

He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant.  He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses.  He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out.  He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude.  The feelings of others mean nothing to him.  He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.

And Stephen Greenblatt is not done; he continues:

He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it.  He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt.  He divides the world into winners and losers.  The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn (53-54).

Stephen Greenblatt minces no words in describing the tyrant Richard III.  And unfortunately tyrants like Richard III are not only reserved for Shakespearean plays.  Yes there can be tyrants at work, but there are also tyrants at school, tyrants at home, tyrants at the neighborhood association meetings, and yes, even tyrants in church.  But lest we begin pointing fingers at the Richard III’s in our lives, it would be wiser to look in the mirror.  How often are we narcissistic and arrogant, entitled and incapable of gratitude?  How often do we divide the world into winners and losers, using the winners for our advantage and scorning the losers?

Ultimately each of the tyrants in Shakespeare’s plays comes to a brutal and tragic end.  Macbeth, for example, after murdering everyone who stood in his way of the throne, ultimately bemoans his tyrannous efforts as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (V.v.26-28).  Later Macbeth is confronted by Macduff, whose wife and sons were among those killed by order of Macbeth.  Macduff tells Macbeth what he plans on doing after killing him:

We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole and underwrit,
“Here may you see the tyrant” (V.vii.55-57).

Even Macbeth would not repent.  Rather, he becomes even more entrenched and cries out, “I will not yield” (V.vii.58).    Macduff then kills Macbeth.

Back to Quigley Down Under…late in the film Elliot Marston, who had wanted Matthew Quigley to help him eliminate the Aborigines, like Macbeth, refused to repent, refused to yield.  Thinking Quigley is only skilled with rifles and not revolvers he decides he is going to teach Quigley about “quick draw” shooting in a duel.  To Marston’s mortal surprise, Quigley draws first and shoots him and two of his cronies.  As Marston lays dying, Quigley walks over, and tells him that when it came to revolvers, “I said I never had much use for one.  I never said I didn’t know how to use it.”  Quigley spins his revolver and returns it to his belt, while Marston breathes his final breath.  I guess on one level the message here is “Don’t mess with Tom Selleck.”

But on a deeper level, the message is that even in the wilderness, even when drifting too far from the shore, God meets us with his grace and calls us to repent, to do the exact opposite of Elliot Marston and Macbeth and heed God’s call to turn from what is wrong and turn back to God—to “come to Jesus today, let him show you the way”—or as we state in the baptism service in The Book of Common Prayer,  “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior” and “put your whole trust in his grace and love” (302).

Jesus was not a tyrant.  Instead, Jesus became a servant, who as scripture tells us “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).  Jesus spent his earthly life and ministry seeking and saving the lost, seeking and saving those drifting too far from the shore.  Jesus himself said, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).

Jesus did not come to judge the world, but to save the world by taking that judgment upon himself.  Jesus was crucified by tyrants, and “painted upon a pole”—the cross—with a message overwrit that instead of saying, “Here may you see the tyrant,” said “The King of the Jews.”  Jesus died for tyrants.  Jesus died for all those drifting too far from the shore, for all those wandering in circles in the wilderness.  On the cross as Isaiah foretold, all flesh saw the salvation of God.

And even now, if you ring the doorbell, you will find that there is indeed Someone home, Someone who always offers grace for those drifting too far from the shore.