Preparing The Way For A ‘Nobody’

Luke 3:1-6
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-the-baptist

Advent2 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-6-15

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

Today we light the “Candle of Hope.” Last week it was “Peace.” Or, as it’s named in Hebrew: shalom. We hear it every Christmastime as angels sing from the heaven above: Peace on earth and good will toward all.

And, in today’s lesson, we hear Zechariah’s song to his son, John the Baptist… who would help “guide his people into the way of peace.” These are hope-filled texts. In fact, there’s almost a “Lion King” feel to Zechariah’s song. You can imagine him lifting up baby, John, as the heavens parted and the sunbeam falls upon him as he declares with hopeful expectation:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High
For you will go before the Lord to prepare the way
To give the people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassions of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
And to guide our feet into the way of peace

As we light this HOPE candle for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we prepare our hearts for the coming Christ-child. We pray with HOPE for PEACE in our world. When nations go to war with one another we send in diplomats for peace talks with the hope that eventually they will sign “peace treaties” (and actually abide by them). We admire those around us who seem to have found ‘a little peace of mind.’ – or, if nothing else, a little ‘peace and quiet.’ Jesus, himself, said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But how do they do it?

I’m reminded of the story that is told about the young Ojibwe boy who was given the task of ensuring the entire village had enough wood for winter. This was the first time he had been given such an honor and he wanted to do it right. Before he went to work he decided to call the weatherman to ask what kind of a winter was to be expected. The weatherman told him it was going to be a warm and uneventful winter. The boy thought to himself, Great! I won’t have to work too hard and I’ll be able to look good in front of the whole tribe.’ Just to be safe, he gathered a few of his friends and they went to work for a week. At the end of the week, after chopping and piling the wood, the boy decided to give the weatherman a second call. The weatherman told him it was going to be a very cold winter. Shocked at this sudden change and not wanting to disappoint the elders of his village, he gathered more of his friends and they went to work. For two weeks they cut and piled wood, hoping that it would be enough to last the whole winter.
And, once again the boy called the weatherman and this time the weatherman told him, “Son, it’s going to be a very bitter, cold and long winter. Maybe the worst winter on record.” Exasperated, the boy had to ask, “What makes you say that sir?” The weatherman replies, “Haven’t you heard? The Indians are gathering wood like crazy!”

(At least they were paying attention to each other.) So, who are you paying attention to these days? In Isaiah 40 we read: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” And so, praying and waiting and listening are all a part of this Advent-kind-of-waiting. Remember for a moment the great expectations leading up to John’s birth. His own father, Zechariah, literally couldn’t speak for nine months until John was born.

That was his punishment from the angel, Gabriel, for not believing that he & Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. “We’re too old! How can this be?” (It wasn’t much different than what Mary said when she found out Jesus was on the way). But, in stern-Gandalf-fashion, Gabriel declares: “For your disbelief you shall remain mute – unable to speak – until all these things have come to pass!” It is kind of harsh, don’t you think? Gabriel didn’t punish Mary for asking “How can this, for I am a virgin? I suppose nine months of morning sickness, public humiliation, and breaking the news to Joseph more than made up for it!

I wonder what we’d say – if we had only so many words TO say. Nine months is a long time to not say anything. Can you imagine? Some days it’s all I can do just to think before speaking. We should all learn how to taste our own words before saying them out loud. And, in a way, that is what Advent is all about. Watching, waiting, weighing our words – for when the time is right to speak.

In our culture there’s no shortage of words. We post to Facebook or tweet our thoughts and opinions – sometimes multiple times a day. It seems everyone has something to say. There is no shortage of verbage and thoughts to fill our news feeds and minds.
But when we are silent…

When we intentionally shut our mouths, even for a moment, to breathe and to listen – God stands ready to fill our hearts with gladness. Hear again the angel’s promise to Zechariah: “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:14)

There is a sense of anticipation – I mean, once Zechariah let it sink in, what was happening, I’m sure he too was looking forward to it. And, when his tongue is finally set free he sings! His papa, Zechariah, speaks from experience – he, himself being the first to repent. Before he’s even born John is turning the heart of his father around. And, in the end, it is Zechariah who names him John: God’s gracious gift.

Alyce McKenzie puts it this way: “In those moments when we name God at work in the world, we find our voice, our identity, and our message.” No doubt, after nine speechless months, Zechariah had had plenty of time to think about it. And here, in this Advent season, he’s found his voice – he knows who he is and what his purpose is.

So what does this mean for you and me?

You may say to yourself: “I’m nobody.” “Why would anyone care what I have to say?” I would argue that John probably felt the same way. I mean, just look at this long list of dignitaries Luke begins his gospel with in v. 1 – Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip – all the bigwigs are here. Even the religious leaders, Caiaphas and Annas the High Priest, get a mention. And during that time, the Word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness. John? Who’s he? A ‘nobody.’

John became a prophet, as important as Elijah, calling people to repent and believe in the good news. This crazy preacher, clothed in camel fur, eating bugs & honey – cried out in the wilderness, and people didn’t know what to do with him. He had no credentials… but the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. Never underestimate what God can do with people the world calls “nobody.”

Consider Jeremiah, who hid his underwear down by the river (in Jeremiah 13) to show the people how they had spoiled themselves, though God made them to cling to him – closer than a loincloth (i.e Fruit of the Looms!). He was trying to make a point – and people remembered it.

Consider Isaiah who walked butt-naked and barefoot for 3 years (in Isaiah 20) to warn the people that they, too, would be taken prisoner – naked and ashamed – into a foreign land.

Consider Hosea who married a temple prostitute to show the people how much they had ‘cheated on God’ (in Hosea 1) by following after false gods.

Time and time again, God sent people to speak and to act in ways that woke others up. Now, I’m not suggesting you run off to get married… but I am suggesting that we should listen more for that voice that shapes our identity that shapes our message. The Word of the Lord was with those prophets – and lives were changed as a result. “Prepare the way” is not just a phrase for Advent. It’s for every day. What part of you needs to be brought down a notch – like a mountain laid low? Or, what part of you needs to be restored – like a valley being filled up?

It may be something as simple as snow removal. Do you even stop to think about the snow shoveling crews that we have on call this time of year at First Lutheran? Who shovels the snow and salts the sidewalks to prepare the way for worship? Who gave you a lift to get medicine or visit the doctor? Who prepared a meal for you during a death in the family so you didn’t have to think about meal planning while you were busy funeral planning? Who prayed for you when you were in need?

One thing is clear: when Christ comes into your life it is Good News. And it is irresistible – like a song, rising up from within.

I want to close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle entitled: The Risk of Birth, Christmas 1973. She writes:

This is no time for a child to be born
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by the comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Thanks be to God that love still takes the risk to be born among us! All around us – prophets are being born – people who prepare the way for us! People who show us how to love in a world broken by hate. So, what’s being born in you? What are you hearing in the silence? Something new is coming that will forever change your life. Let us pray:

O God, we ask for patience as we wait and watch and wonder at what you are about to do in our lives. We pray for HOPE and PEACE in our world. Give us the right words to say to prepare the way for others this Advent season, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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