Holy Homonyms

Luke 3:1-6 – The 2nd Sunday of Advent – for December 9, 2012

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…” (Luke 3:1)

I am “skirting” Bethlehem this year. Click here for why.

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.

Whew, that’s a whole lotta name-dropping in the opening of Luke’s third chapter. You’d need the lungs of Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin to speak the sentence without an extra breath or two.

But today I’m not as concerned with the names or titles, or the length or breath of a verse, as much as with holy homonyms. In this season of Advent, in the time of an impending baby, an expectant hope, a promise born in darkness, I wonder about holy ways and human longing. So let’s re-imagine Luke’s first words in that third chapter:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius . . .

In the fifteenth year of the rain of Emperor Tiberius . . .

In the fifteenth year of the rein of Emperor Tiberius . . .

Reign, Rain, Rein! Homonyms are words that sound alike, and yet mean different things. Like gate and gait. Or there’s Sana Claus, a legal clause and cat’s claws. And take an Olympic breath before you declare . . . air, are*, e’er, ere, err and heir.

There’s reign . . .

Jesus was born in the reign of Emperor Augustus. His ministry will begin during the reign of Tiberius.

One of the ways I embrace the Gospels, with their miracles, stories, encounters with the rich and poor, in talk of treasure and tales of healing, of private prayers and public actions, is as an invitation to each blessed reader and hearer of the word to choose. Who or what reigns over your life? Choose! Will it be God or mammon? Jesus or Tiberius? Faith or fear? I could add an interfaith twist by asking . . . Buddha or capitalism, Islam or commercialism? And there’s this frisky homonym:  will you be awed by other humans or merely see anyone different than you as odd? Choose!

There’s rain . . .

Until last week—this is true—I always concluded Jesus’ weather report in Matthew’s Gospel was only about “bad” things. In Matthew 5:44-45, Jesus preached, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.”

Hey, isn’t rain always bad? When it rains, I can’t ride my bicycle, I have to shrug on a coat before venturing outside and my dog tracks mud into the house. If rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous, doesn’t it means everyone will have bad things happen to ‘em? But it’s not just about the bad.

I may not like rainy days, but obviously rain is good. Without rain, I won’t have water to satisfy my thirst after a long bike ride. Without rain, I won’t have anything to add to those Pete’s French roast coffee beans that bring me pleasure in the morning. More than my own selfish thoughts rain on me:  precipitation is good for farmers who grow crops, Olympic swimmers who want to race in a filled pool and, well, generally every living thing on earth.

Rain = life. And thus, goodness comes to both the righteous and unrighteous. Isn’t that right? Though I wish bad people all lived in a desert drought or on arctic ice, that’s not so. And never will be. I can be all wet and whine about why old Tiberius (or anyone I resent) gets good stuff, or I can stop comparing and complaining and dance in the rain (good and bad) of my parade.

There’s rein . . .

Rein as in “Rein in the horse.” We are leashed by restrictions. Laws rope us in. Legislation is a harness. I resist rules or Rulers telling me what to do. My generation’s youthful mantra was, “Question authority!” (Or does every generation claim that honor?)

On the other hand, if the rein of Tiberius is modernized into the rules of authority according to my state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, I trust the driver of the SUV zooming toward me respects the distinction between a red and green light. Please, fellow driver, don’t question authority! I could make a list longer than a football field about why I’m grateful the government holds the reins on traffic codes, food safety, water quality, child labor, discrimination etc., etc., etc.

And don’t all religious traditions “rein in” their believers? Christianity’s love your neighbor as yourself. Islam’s five pillars. Judaism’s Ten Commandments.

Reign, rain and rein are my holy homonyms for today. I suppose they could be dismissed as a silly word game. But in the season of light overcoming darkness, these holy homonyms voice different ways to understand and witness faith.

* “Are” in this case is 1/100th of a hectare . . . but I’m sure you knew that! (And I found many of the homonyms at this fun site.)

The first graphic is from here. The graphic at end from here.

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  1. Brilliant, once again, brilliant. You have the ability to make people think in such a left field way that it’s inspiring. Borrowing this theme for my sermon if you don’t mind… thanks.

  2. And just as a postscript … the congregation engaged well with the subject and threw out some ideas of their own.

    But I was thrown during the singing of one carol … which had the line
    “Kneel and adore him” … I thought they were shouting out my name!


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