December 6, 2009
The Rev. Robert G. Hetherington
Song of Zechariah Luke 1:68-79
Luke 3 1-6
This morning we find John the Baptist striding across the Advent stage. He was a man of the desert who wore strange clothes and ate locusts and wild honey. John was a cousin to Jesus. His parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth. Given the age of his parents it was remarkable that John was born at all. When the angel Gabriel visited Zachariah to tell him that he would have a son, Zechariah was disbelieving. As a result he was struck dumb and could not speak until his son was brought forward for circumcision. People wanted to name the child, Zechariah, after his father. However, Zechariah wrote on a tablet: “His name is John.” Suddenly Zechariah could speak again. He proclaimed the words which we sang in our canticle this morning: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” John was destined to become a messenger for God. John’s message was very stern: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee before the wrath to come.” Many people responded well to his message but others were deeply offended. Eventually, John was arrested. Herod executed him. John’s message challenged the established political powers of his time.
Let me say three things about John the Baptist this morning: A few words about the surprise, the message and the promise.
The surprise: The event took place in the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judea. Herod was the ruler of Galilee. His brother Phillip was ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis. Lysanias was the ruler of Abilene Anna and Caiaphas were the high priests at the temple in Jerusalem. What happened?
The “Word of God” came to John in the wilderness. What a complete surprise that God’s word would come to John in the wilderness. No one expected that to happen. Why did it not come to the rich and powerful? That would be the usual expectation. Instead the “word” came to a strange man who lived far from the centers of wealth and power. The account illustrates that you never know who God will call to be his messenger. God’s true messengers often come from the edges of life. They live at the margins. We can only see them with our peripheral vision. If we don’t pay careful attention, we will miss the message. As the hype of Christmas begins there are many voices calling to us. We need to be still and listen closely for the voice of God.
The message: John’s message was a call to “repentance.” The Greek word that is used literally means to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. Let me describe the process in gentle terms. You have a vision. You see clearly where you are in your life in relationship to where you are meant to be. So you turn toward the light. You begin to move along the path toward your vision. Because we are human beings it is easy to lose sight of the vision. We get off the path. Then we have another vision and we turn again toward the light. In fact, I believe our lives are a series of turnings. The visions do not end until life ends. As long as we live, there will be a new vision which will require us to turn again toward the light.
John proclaimed a message of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” His message was not gentle. He was a hammer smashing through social conformity and the belief that nice people do not sin. The reality is that we are all sinners. All of us stand in need of God’s saving grace. St. Paul put it this way: “The good that I would do, I do not and the evil I would not do, I do.” There is a perversity in the human spirit which prevents us from getting it right. We must never underestimate our capacity to sin. We are separated from God. We live in a state of alienation from God.
Human beings have a great capacity to live in a state of denial. Just ask anyone who has had extensive involvement with alcoholics anonymous. John’s sledge hammer style smashed the defensiveness of people and made them look at themselves as they really were. His behavior alienated many people but it helped others recognize their need for God. Many people came forward to be baptized by John. In turn, they experienced the blessing of God’s forgiveness.
The promise: The promise is salvation. John’s message is associated with the message of the prophet Isaiah: “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 will see the salvation of God.” Isaiah’s salvation vision is one of homecoming. The people of Israel have been in exile in Babylon and Isaiah promises that God will make a highway in the desert and will lead God’s people home to Jerusalem.
I remember a time when I buried a person in an old country graveyard. It was a family plot which contained the graves of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I had a sense as I conducted the service that all of these family members were putting their arms around the deceased person and welcoming him home.
The ultimate point of John’s message is good news. Through the process of confession and forgiveness God welcomes us home. God embraces each one of us in God’s everlasting arms and God will never let go.
Who are the John the Baptist figures in our lives today? So often they come from the margins of our lives, from the places we least expect them. The message they bring is hard to hear. It calls us to deep self-examination when we would rather simply go on with our lives. Yet the message also contains the seeds of hope and the promise of salvation.
John the Baptist strides across the Advent stage this morning. He brings an important message to God’s people. Yet he is simply preparing the way for someone else who will come after him. But that is another story.