The following sermon was preached on December 6, 2015 at Trinity Church, Hartford CT. The lessons can be found here. The text of the sermon is copied below and you can listen to a recording over on SoundCloud.
This sermon marks something pretty cool for me: It is the first time I’ve experienced preaching a Sunday for the second time. While I have preached Good Friday the last three years in a row, preaching the same Sunday three years apart is a different kind of ballgame. Three years ago I preached Advent 2C at St. Peter’s, Narragansett. It was one of the first times I preached in that community, and had only been sharing ministry there for a couple of months at that point. Having looked back on that sermon – I’m thankful that it isn’t on this blog and there isn’t a recording of it. But, it was exciting to see the growth in my preaching over the last three years and left me hopeful to see where my preaching will be the next time I preach Advent 2C.
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;he has come to his people and set them free.”
In the last week, the media has made us aware of one particular haunting and sobering fact: In 2015 the United States has averaged more than one mass shooting a day. We have witnessed the deaths of far too many innocent people due to this senseless – seemingly unceasing – gun violence. This reality has become so pervasive that most shootings go unreported by the media and any hope of change seems lost and impossible. Yet in the midst of all this we hear:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
Makes 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.
In the midst of fear, darkness, anxiety, and confusion we hear of the radical conversion and transformation of the world. We hear that God will remember.
These powerful and prophetic words first appear in the biblical narrative in the 40th chapter of Isaiah. In this context they offer a word of promise to the people of Israel who have been exiled to Babylon. They brought comfort and hope that their time of oppression would end with God’s rescue – that in the midst of their despair God had not forgotten them. Even though they were living in darkness, the obstacles would one day be removed so they could journey peacefully with and to God.
As these words reappear this morning in the Gospel of Luke they serve a dual role. They are a word of promise to us that, amidst the hatred, violence, anger and darkness of our day God is still present with us. In the midst of tragedy, war, and hunger God has not forgotten us. God remembers God’s promises to us and the day is coming where the rough will be made smooth, the valleys will be filled, the mountains and hills will be leveled, the hungry will be fed, and the broken will be healed. The day is coming when the light will break through – the light will shatter the darkness – and the Kingdom of God will be fulfilled in our midst. The day is coming when the Lord will appear and set us free.
These words also let us know that the bridge between the prophets of the Old Testament and the prophets of the New Testament has been secured in the person of John the Baptist. The one who cries out from the wilderness that the Lord is coming – the one who cries out that Jesus is coming.
What we hear today is the very beginning of the public ministry of John in Luke’s narrative. At first glance it might seem like Luke is just including some particular historical facts to give more credibility to his narrative, or just being really picky about setting the stage for John’s entrance. However, there is nothing that can be left out of this passage. Each and every piece tells us something important about the role of John, his prophetic message, and the Lord whose coming he heralds.
Luke is very careful to give specific details about who is in power in the society in which John’s ministry takes place. We hear:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee . . .
What Luke is getting at with this list is that the salvific work of God – the saving work of God – is situated within the general history of the world. God’s salvation is not brought about in isolation it is done in the midst of human history with all its twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies. Not only is the salvation of all people heralded in the midst of human history; it emerges not from those in power, but from the wilderness.
“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” The word did not come to the emperor, it did not come to the governor, it did not come to the ruler of Galilee. The word of God came to an ordinary man in a very ordinary place. This is one of the hallmarks of Luke’s Gospel. Each and every time there is a revelation from God it happens where you would least expect it.
The word of God comes to John in the wilderness. The angel of the Lord appears to a young girl and tells her that she is going to birth God into the world. Shepherds – those on the fringes of society – are first to hear the news that the Savior has been born.
So when I reflect on where the word of God is revealed in scripture, I cannot help but think of where the word of God is revealed today: Is it revealed to us by children? By those who have been cast aside because of whom they love, the color of their skin, or how much money is in their bank account? Is the word of God being revealed to us in the places torn apart by violence and hatred? Is the word of God breaking forth in this very place, in our little corner of Hartford?
If Luke teaches us anything, it is that God breaks into our midst in the places we think God would dare not go to the people we think God would not dare to encounter.
Finally, this morning’s Gospel reveals something to us about our own relationships with God. When the voice in the wilderness cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord” this is not a message solely for societal systems and the created world order – it is for us as well.
John, as will be revealed in subsequent verses of Luke’s Gospel, calls each and every one of us to a baptism of repentance. The baptism that John brings is the work that we need to do individually and corporately to make room for the birth of Jesus. The call is to repent and return to the Lord. To recognize the ways we have fallen short and separated ourselves from God, to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness, and to return to the path of love and faithfulness. Just as the world will be restore – valleys will be filled and rough places made smooth – so too will our rough places be made smooth, so will we be healed, made whole, and returned to right relationship with God.
When we do this work, when we reorder and reorient our lives towards God then we have made way for the Lord. Then we are ready for both the first and the final – eschatological – Advent of God.
This is not an easy message and it seems to me that is the gift that Advent has to offer us collectively and individually. If we are taking Advent seriously it should make us uncomfortable. I want to be clear that I am not calling for some sort of Advent fundamentalism. Do your Christmas shopping, attend parties, swap cookies, put up trees – do whatever is important for your family in celebrating this Advent and coming Christmas season. And as you sit in front of your tree spend time thinking not only about what is – or will be – underneath it but what is in your heart. Think about the broken relationships in your lives, the people who have hurt you and the people you have hurt. Think about the ways you have shut out God, and what your life would look like if you were vulnerable enough to let God break you open and fill you with the light of Christ.
This is uncomfortable and makes us uneasy – I don’t know about you but I would much rather eat too many chocolate peppermint cookies while watching a Charlie Brown Christmas than examine my own life. I do not want to think about the classmates I have harmed, I do not want to think about the person begging on the street that I ignore as I walk into Starbucks to get an afternoon coffee, I do not want think about let alone acknowledge the dark places in my life that I refuse to let God in. But, I’ve learned that if I take the call of John the Baptist seriously. If I truly and earnest prepare myself for the coming of Christ in the world – then my Christmas celebration will be more joyous and profound than I can ever begin to imagine.
In what we heard proclaimed this morning: John confronts us, commands our attention, and demands our responses.
We have the gift, challenge, and opportunity to prepare for and respond to the incarnation. We do not need to wait for December 25th to come around to become and continue being people of the incarnation. God has already come into the world we know what is going to happen. We do not need to pretend that we are avoiding some sort of Christmas spoiler alert.
Rowan Williams, the more recent Archbishop of Canterbury, has written rather profoundly about the power of the incarnation. He writes:
I believe that the doctrine of the Incarnation is recovered and revitalized [only] so often as we recover our authority as a Christian community to challenge and resist what holds back human community.
This is the work John the Baptist is calling us to do this Advent season. We are being called to reclaim the power of the incarnation to stand against the powers of sin and darkness that plague our souls and our world. We need to stand up in the face of violence and oppression – in the face of more than one mass shooting a day – and say enough is enough. We need to claim our authority as people of light, love, and peace that violence and hatred are never the answer – that there is another way.
We need to make clear with our lives and ministries that the Kingdom of God is breaking forth in our midst. That God remembers the promises God has made to us, that by the grace of God, our prayers and actions: the paths will be made straight; every valley will be filled; every mountain and hill will be made low; the crooked will be made straight; the rough will be made smooth; the hungry will be fed; the broken will be made whole; the scared will be given hope; the lonely will be cared for; and all flesh – all people no matter who they are, who they love, what they look like – will see the salvation of God.
My friends, Advent is upon us. The Lord is in our midst. God has come to set us free.