Prepare! 12/09/18 (Advent 2C)

PREPARE!
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
TEXTS: LUKE CHAPTERS 1 & 3, EXCERPTS
DECEMBER 9, 2018
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT (YEAR C)

SCENE I:  GABRIEL VISITS ZECHARIAH  (LUKE 1:5-23)

 

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

The story of Jesus begins with the story of John. Elizabeth and Zechariah had never had any children, and Elizabeth was beyond the usual child-bearing years. And yet, as happened with Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah the mother of Samuel – and as would soon happen to her cousin Mary – Elizabeth would miraculously conceive a child who would change the course of history. He would be known as John, and he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. His call was to turn the hearts of parents to their children, to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of righteousness, and to make the people prepared for God.

John’s job was just this: to utter an urgent cry for reconciliation – reconciliation which would come when people began to re-prioritize their relationships with one another and with God. That re-prioritization would mean that those relationships could be restored.

I think it’s understandable that Zechariah was skeptical. Even we who belong to the priestly order or the ordained ministry don’t always accept things on blind faith – which generally, actually, I think is a pretty decent trait. But Gabriel wasn’t impressed with Zechariah’s hermeneutic of suspicion, and he struck Zechariah mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

Despite the temporary inability to speak, I imagine this was an incredibly wonderful time for Elizabeth and Zechariah – wonder-full. Their dreams not only for themselves but also for the people were about to be fulfilled. And so they rejoiced.

SCENE II:  THE BIRTH OF JOHN  (LUKE 1:57-66)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

“His name is John.”

By all rights, his name should have been Zechariah. But his parents did as Gabriel instructed: they named him John.

John, which means “God is gracious.”

Gracious to give Elizabeth and Zechariah a child, to be sure. But God’s grace goes far beyond their little family, precious though that family is. With the birth of this child, the herald of the Messiah is born. God’s grace is about to pour out upon all of the people – Messiah is coming! And John, by his very name, by his very existence, testifies to the truth the Messiah will embody: God is gracious.

Elizabeth and Zechariah knew. They knew this baby was not just going to change their lives; he was going to change the lives of the people – he would get them ready to meet the promised Savior.

And so Zechariah sang.

SCENE III:  THE CANTICLE OF ZECHARIAH  (LUKE 1:67-79)

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Zechariah is singing about all that God has done.

Did you hear it?

God has: looked favorably; redeemed; raised up a mighty savior.
God has: saved us from our enemies; shown the mercy promised to our ancestors.
God has: remembered God’s holy covenant.

Why? Why has God done these things?

Zechariah tells us that, with the imminent arrival of the Savior, God has acted:

We, having been rescued from the hands of our enemies,
may now serve God without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before God.

Let’s pause and look at that word, “righteousness.” Just notice your reaction. What do you feel when you hear it? Righteous. I feel anxious. Does it mean I have to be perfect? Never mess up? If I’m not perfect, are all bets off?

Turns out: no. First, because “righteousness” has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with relationship. To be righteous is to live in right relationship.

Second, if we were expected to be perfect – if it were even possible to be perfect! – we wouldn’t need a savior. And this whole song that Zechariah is singing, the whole story of the people of Israel, the whole story of Christians is that we do need a savior!

And Zechariah is singing about the wonderful news that his boy’s arrival means that the promised Savior is coming. God’s anointed is on his way, the One who will bring peace to the nations, who will restore us to right relationships with one another and with God, who will free us from all that chains us.

Why would God do this? Simply this: because God is tender, merciful, and longs to forgive us. God is gracious.

John will:
Give knowledge of salvation to God’s people,
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Jesus is the Good News with a capital “GN,” but John is the first good news we get in Advent: God wants to be reunited with us. And that’s worth singing about.

Play “Comfort, Comfort Ye” (Tune: Freu Dich Sehr, alt.; Bach Choir of Pittsburg)

SCENE IV:  JOHN PREACHES IN THE WILDERNESS  (LUKE 3:1-14)

[And so John grew, and the years passed.]

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. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘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.” ’

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

Let’s start where John started: with the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah delivered this prophecy when Cyrus, the king of Persia, released the people of Judah from their exile in Babylon.

The journey east from Judah to Babylon when they were conquered by Babylon had been harrowing – not only because they were captives, but because they had to trek up and around the Arabian Desert. The thought of making that journey again, but in reverse, must have been a pretty terrifying prospect. There was no guarantee that they’d survive it. But here the prophet is promising that the way the people will walk will be obstacle-free and easy.

At the same time, in these words of Isaiah we hear echoes of Babylonian hymns which describe the triumphal highways on which a king or a god might enter a city. So we might perhaps picture these obstacle-free, level paths as the highway God will take as God re-enters Jerusalem.

This second image – that of making a way for God to reenter our lives – this image is the one that John the Baptist was conjuring in the minds of the people. After all, he quotes Isaiah in the context of administering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He is inviting people to clear a path for God to enter their hearts.

We tend to shy away from talk of repentance, and I think that’s primarily because we have loaded the word repentance with shame. In the word “repent” we hear accusation, we hear disdain, we hear harsh judgment with no mercy. We hear not that we did something bad, but that we are something bad. If we hear the command to repent often enough with all of those overtones of shame and unworthiness, then we come to fear that Jonathan Edwards was right: we are sinners in the hands of an angry god.

But we aren’t bad; we are part of the creation God called “good.” Therefore, biblical repentance begins with the assumption that we aren’t bad, nor are we irredeemable. We get a hint if we look at the Greek, metanoia, which means to change one’s mind, or to think again. It means to turn one’s mind in a new direction.

Repent! John says. He’s not actually yelling at us, although I confess that in the past I thought he was. But now I think he’s shouting the way a parent does when a small child runs into the street: “Come back! You’re in danger! Come back to me!” He shouts because it’s urgent – not because we’re bad. He shouts because God is calling us to return.

John is calling to us, “Turn around! Change your focus! Turn your mind in a new direction – in God’s direction! God is coming – so make a path! Clear out the obstacles between you and God so God can meet you and scoop you up in love and forgiveness!”

When we repent, we make a way for that loving God who longs to be reunited with us.

play “Every Valley” from Handel’s Messiah.

SCENE V:  JOHN FORETELLS THE COMING OF THE MESSIAH  (LUKE 3:15-20)

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

So here’s the thing. Yes, we’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes awful ones. And the ones that break our relationships with others or with God, the mistakes that cause harm to ourselves or others – we call those sin.

We will keep on sinning. After all, human history is full of sin.

AND we mustn’t forget that human history is also full of forgiveness, and fresh starts, and incredible creativity that comes after one project or another fails.

No, it was never promised that we would be perfect.

It was promised that we would be forgiven.

John was a bit harsh and perhaps overly dramatic in his self-presentation and his preaching, I give you that. John’s words about a winnowing-fork and unquenchable fire are frightening. But pay attention: those didn’t make the people walk away. No, they “were filled with expectation” – and so, too, should we be.

God would separate the wheat from the chaff not because God is vengeful and we are bad, but because God is just. God will not allow injustice to be part of God’s kingdom. In the coming kingdom of God – that is, when God is King of all – God will not allow the cruel and violent and self-serving – those like King Herod – to rule anymore.

So John exhorts us to be just in all we do as well. And we do that by caring for others, even at the expense of our own comfort; by dealing fairly with others and avoiding the temptations of greed; by living according to this truth: God is gracious, and we who are made in God’s image are also made to be gracious.

When John told the people that he was not the Messiah but was, in fact, the herald of the Messiah, they heard not something terrifying but rather good news. They heard the promise that the Savior was about to arrive, and along with that Savior, God’s kingdom of justice and peace was about to break into the world.

And that’s good news, because when Messiah comes, we have some serious help clearing out the obstacles on the path between us and God. We don’t have to do all that lifting and leveling and smoothing and straightening ourselves. We have a Savior who is the straight, smooth, level path connecting us in unbroken line to our God.

play “And the Glory of the Lord” from Handel’s Messiah.

SCENE VI:  PREPARE!

So, dear ones, remember this: John’s words sound harsh to our ears, and perhaps rightly so. After all, he is calling us to repentance – to change our minds. But I say it again: we are not “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” We are beloved children and God longs to put God’s arms around us. John, and Jesus after him, are inviting us to turn back towards God, towards love, towards life.

In Jesus, God comes to us. In Jesus, God not only comes to us, but rushes headlong towards us, heedless of danger.

And John sounds harsh, but this year I hear him differently. I think of a child, bouncing on the sofa in front of the living room window, looking out hopefully for Grandma and Grandpa’s car to pull into the driveway. And then, joy! – the car turns around the corner and as it comes up the street the child races into the kitchen shouting, “They’re here! They’re here!”

Play “Prepare Ye” from Godspell

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