First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
1See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Psalm: Luke 1:68-79
68Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel,
you have come to your people and set them free.
69You have raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of your servant David.
70Through your holy prophets, you promised of old to save us |from our enemies, 71from the hands of all who hate us,
72to show mercy to our forebears,
and to remember your holy covenant.
73This was the oath you swore to our father Abraham:
74to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship you without fear,
75holy and righteous before you, all the days of our life.
76And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,
77to give God’s people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
79to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11
3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
1In 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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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.
5Every 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;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
Turn to your neighbor and describe one of your favorite Christmas traditions.
PRAYER: Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock, my Redeemer, my Hope and my Peace.
Today’s text opens Week 2 of Advent. In Advent we celebrate that Christ will come, that he does come every day and that he did come at Christmas. Last week was the global overview, sitting above time as we experience it. Prophecy of Christ’s return gives us a glimpse about the future but future promises are so hard to tie down, just exactly when what is predicted will happen. We know Christ will return and so we open Advent singing “O Come, O Come Immanuel.” Immanuel means God with us! That welcomes HOPE. We hung the banner HOPE.
Today we hang the banner PEACE and our text goes from the global perspective to the glocal (that is a combination of global and local therefore glocal in modern day lingo). Our text grounds us in historical reality.
“…the word of the Lord came…”
Advent is not a “once upon a time” story. It is not an Aesop’s Fable to teach us a moral about life. It is not about the journey of some unknown fourth wise man. The journey we are walking in Advent is reported through the eyes of doctor Luke and is grounded in reality and is researchable. What Luke tells us today has not only global significance but has local, historical facts. He names Roman leaders, Emperor Tiberius, Jewish leaders, Herod, and includes geographical locations. Luke also grounds what is unfolding in religious reality naming leaders. Perhaps we would say today that while Joe Biden was President of the United States and Rev. Eaton was Bishop of the ELCA, God’s word caught our attention.
Luke also gives John, who becomes known as “John the Baptist,” a DNA genealogy affirmation. He is “John son of Zechariah.” John comes from a priestly line on both his mother and his father’s side. He’s a blue blood. John is the “miracle child” born after an encounter Priest Zechariah had with an angel when he and his wife Elizabeth were old and beyond childbearing year. Luke has connected us to Luke 1, the beginning of his “orderly account” to his friend Theophilus whom he wants to “know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:4).” Luke is connecting us with prophecy fulfilled and prophecy that touches our lives today where we are located! Today we focus on peace.
But perhaps more interestingly, the word of the Lord came to this promised child, John, now grown, living “in the wilderness.” Luke sets the text with reference to all the heavy weights of the time, political and religious, plus gives us the lineage of John but amazingly an important message does not appear in those venues. This is not a news broadcast by CNN from Washington DC. The word came while John was in the wilderness. “Wilderness” transports us to the past when God worked with his people leaving Egypt, traveling through the wilderness to the Promised Land. That was a time of vulnerability, uncertainty and danger but God was there. In the wilderness they learned dependence on God. We know that Jesus is going to go into the “wilderness” after his baptism by John and Jesus will be tested. Jesus will overcome by leaning on the Word of God. God often comes to us in our wilderness times and we are challenged.
Today many of us are living in a “wilderness” brought on by the pandemic, brought on by age, or perhaps brought on by disastrous decisions we have made that force us to regroup our lives. God’s word comes into the wildernesses of our life assuring us of his work and presence so that not only do we see our problems with eyes of hope for tomorrow but also with a peace in our hearts knowing these barren places are not places of abandonment, for God is with us working. May I repeat that: wilderness places are not places of abandonment and we can have peace in the chaos of the wilderness! Today we hang the banner of PEACE because God is with us in our wildernesses, past, present and future. It is in these wildernesses that we learn to depend on God and his Word. “The word of the Lord that came to John” tied the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s prophecy with John’s present reality and speaks not only to Isaiah and Luke but also to us today.
Prepare the way …
I guess we can identify with that word! If retail shops had their way, we would be preparing for Christmas at least starting at Reformation, ok Halloween. Isaiah was calling his people to prepare the way of the Lord. Somehow I do not think he is talking about “making a list and checking it twice.” Let’s just stop for a moment today and think about how we prepare to meet God.
For some it is indeed a flurry of activity or perhaps good deeds because we somehow think that our “good life” will make it easier for God to welcome us as he comes near. For others it is the decoration of homes putting up lights. Perhaps that is like the way we think we might be serving God through big programs that glitter and attract people. This week we had “Giving Tuesday” when money is doubled by investing in good causes. None of these are bad in and of themselves. The question is whether we think our “goodness” earns God’s favor, kind of like indulgences, or are these actions the overflow of a loving heart? John does not preach actions but a baptism of repentance. In the wilderness we are lost and need to be transformed to meet Jesus.
I love the Christmas story of Papa Panov by Leo Tolstoy. An old widower, shoemaker in a small village in Russian, sat Christmas Eve reading the Nativity story. If Jesus had come to his house, he would have given him his bed and would have covered him with his special quilt. His eyes wandered to the small box on the shelf that contained a tiny, perfect pair of shoes he had made for a child. He would have given those to baby Jesus as his gift! As he sat by the fire he dozed and dreamt. He dreamt Jesus stood before him. Jesus said he would visit Papa Panov Christmas Day but would not identify himself. Papa Panov awoke excited. Christmas morning he put on a special pot of coffee. He opened his front door and saw the bedraggled street sweeper in the cold. He invited him in and gave him a cup of coffee. At midday he made a pot of cabbage soup. Again he looked outside and saw a poor young mother with small baby, creeping along the street, making her way to the next town for work. Papa Panov invited her in, fed the baby milk, and decided to give the baby the pair of shoes. All afternoon he handed out bowls of soup to the needy. But he pondered when that special guest would come? As darkness fell, he decided he had only dreamt. He would have to wait to meet Jesus. He sat by his fireplace. Suddenly he was aware he was not alone. Jesus was present. Jesus said it was he who came as the sweeper, as the young mother, and as the needy to Papa Panov’s door. Tolstoy ends the story, “then all was quiet and still. Only the sound of the big clock ticking. A great PEACE and happiness seemed to fill the room, overflowing Papa Panov’s heart until he wanted to burst out singing and laughing and dancing with joy.”
Papa Panov did not recognize Jesus working in his life. Each encounter challenged him. Each encounter changed him. As he realized the wilderness was actually a place of meeting with Jesus a great peace filled his heart. John preaches a baptism of repentance, a change of how we understand life. He speaks of repentance as a process of transformation and an equalization in preparation for the Messiah.
Repentance as transformation
“and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth”
Preparation is not just dusting off our shelves or hiding our clutter or putting forth our “special treasures” to decorate for Christmas. It is more than a beautiful tree. Isaiah spoke of making straight the crooked, the broken places in our life. There is something about “making a list and checking it twice” that brings to light dark shadows in our life, some of the crooked places. I know the questions that rattle in my mind now. How do I treat all the kids fairly? Must I give a present to that person I am frustrated with or even worse carry a grudge against? Roots of bitterness, of broken relationships that call to be healed, and of lost connections that need to be repaired, surface in my plans. As I decorate and compare myself to the dazzle of shops and ponder my “impression,” I am convicted of the game of comparisonitis I play in my mind and the insecurities of my heart. “Am I good enough?” is a question I try to push to the back of my mind. Perhaps the crooked way is the temptation of maxing out a credit card, borrowing from tomorrow to meet my wants of today. Perhaps the spiritual disciplines of the season just feel heavy because of the weight of life these days, so pausing to do my personal Advent wreath and light two candles feels somehow hollow. We have created Blue Christmas services to connect God to people laden by grief of loss, to make straight those crooked paths in a wilderness where they feel alone. There are so many crooked paths that do not lead directly to God during this season. Papa Panov felt a deep peace when he realized he was meeting Jesus in those “rough places that became smooth” as he helped someone carry their burden – if only a cup of coffee or a cup of cabbage soup.
How will we practice repentance this season and put ourselves in a place where we experience the God who wants to give us peace? For Papa Panov it meant doing kindly and generously the task that presented itself in the moment as he waited. For us it might mean lighting that candle and sitting in prayer five minutes before bed. It might mean reading a devotional. Perhaps a phone calls to apologize and reestablish relationship. Writing a check to include God in your gift giving was a true delight as we returned to the States and there was more wiggle room in the budget. It’s a blessing to give, to restore, and to build in a world that is so divided and struggling these days.
Repentance as equalization!
“5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,”
This seems to speak of a leveling experience. Repentance takes my mind off others whom I judge to be higher or lower and focuses me on my walk with God. What are the valleys and mountains in our lives about which we need to repent? The most obvious for me is the pit in the stomach I try to fill with food rather than trust in God. The friend lost weight last week and woe-is-me, I gained. They are at the top of the mountain and I am in the valley of self-pity. Perhaps when I look at life through eyes that place others up and me down, or me up and them down, then I need to repent. My eyes have turned from God to self. When I am crippled by fear about the future because of finances, health, or relationships then I have created mountains and valleys. The God of Advent comes as an equalizer. God did not just send his Word in the past at the time of Isaiah, at the time of John, in the Incarnation of Jesus, or about the future with the Apostle John. The God who parted the Red Sea, who gave the Ten Commandments, who helped Esther facing Hammon, who closed the mouth of lions for Daniel and quenched the flames for the three men in the fiery furnace, also raised Jesus from the grave and is here today. He is with the rich and the poor. He is with the happy and the sad. He is with the challenged and the gifted. He is with our grandkids and our aging spouses. He is with our weird neighbors and with us. That, my brothers and sisters, can give us peace as we focus on God’s presence, recognized and unrecognized today.
“…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness…”
Papa Panov’s dream gave him hope that he would meet Jesus on that Christmas day. Papa’s Panov’s experience of Jesus at the end of Christmas day with the realization that he had met Jesus in the events of his life that challenged him to trust, brought him great peace. May we go into this week realizing that God goes with us, beside us, before us, and he has our back…in all that happens. For sure I can relax and be at peace knowing that. He is Immanuel, God with us!
The people of God said, “AMEN!”