Year C; Advent 2; 12.9.2018
Luke 3:1-6; Song of Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79
Zechariah was a priest. He was the husband of Elizabeth who gave birth late in life to a child called John. Luke’s gospel gives us a beautiful poem from Zechariah that foretells the coming of his son John. It is a peaceful and serene poem, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” John is called the “forerunner of Jesus” proclaiming the hope of the messiah – the one anointed by God for the salvation of the world.
Prophets are supposed to bring challenging and difficult messages to the people of God. So these serene and peaceful words in the Song of Zechariah seem inconsistent with that image. “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall 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.” These words instantly bring us the calm assurance of God’s peace and salvation. They are not a call to change our ways.
Except that’s exactly what John the Baptist was born to do! To call God’s people to change their ways and prepare the way for God. Two of the four Sundays in Advent are gospels about John the Baptist. When we eventually meet up with him, we don’t find a serene, calm guy. We find someone who in next week’s gospel screams, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
The gospels describe John the Baptist not so much as shouting the “tender compassion of our God…” as calling out “Repent! Repent!” with scary urgency. He emerges with a fierce voice and a fierce mission – to call God’s people to prepare for the coming of Jesus. His urgent voice comes from the wilderness, not from the hallowed locations of government or the temple. Perhaps the wilderness gives him more “street cred” for the people to take heed.
John the Baptist was either crazy or courageous. You could say that about all the prophets. Maybe all prophets have to be a little crazy to be the courageous, outspoken voices of God. John’s call to the people to turn, to change, to repent.
Unfortunately, for me, the word “repent” recalls a tall, skinny preacher with a bony finger pointing to the people of the Wild West, “Repent and return to the Lord!” From that bony finger pointing at me, the last thing I want to do is repent and return to a God who might be like that.
I prefer the Greek word, metanoeoor metanoia. Metanoialiterally means to change one’s mind. To change from evil to good, or from good to better. It is less about being a “brood of vipers” and more about turning toward God, making an amendment of life and making our own “rough places plain.”
The words John calls out in the gospel passage for today are Isaiah’s lovely promises that we hear this time of year in George Frederick Handel’s magnificent work “The Messiah.” After the premier of the “Messiah” in London, Handel was asked what he hoped to accomplish with this work. He simply said, “I hope it changes the people.” That’s really what John the Baptist was calling the people to do. To change.
If I were to imagine John the Baptist today, he might be wearing a close-fitting knit cap over his very curly dark hair. He might be sporting a nose ring or two. Certainly, he would have visited the tattoo parlor once or twice. I imagine that he would have on one arm the word, “Repent” or maybe “metanoia.” On the other arm would be the word, “Salvation.” Both in Gothic type face.
He would be standing in the Androscoggin River boat ramp; you know just below the dog-walking, bicycle and jogging path. He would be calling the people to repentance. Possibly, very few would listen to him, though his appearance would give him a fair amount of credibility with the younger set. Over time, though, I imagine some people would listen to him. They would listen to him because they would see in him an authentic voice of truth and humility, doing God’s work without a whiff of hubris.
The few who would listen to him would hear him call them to profound change. And they would ask, what does “repent and return to the Lord really mean?” And he would say, “Change your mind. Change your heart. This is how you may meet your God. Through humbling yourself before God. Through letting go of the belief that you are the center of the universe.
One of the biggest blockages to repentance of the modern heart and mind is the cultural message we receive that the world revolves around our needs and wants. Advertisers this time of year are exposing us to messages informing us that our worth is related to the things we have. That we are worth nothing if we don’t buy this or that or if “Santa doesn’t bring us the latest, trendiest object.” They know what to tell us to release the deepest cravings in us.
Last week I saw an ad that printed the biggest lie of humankind. And I was initially taken in by the photo because it was delicious-looking food, my great weakness. I saw this ad in the car of the “T” I was riding to my destination for a silent retreat with the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge.
Settled in my seat, I looked up to see a photo of a plate over-flowing with French fries, a large, sumptuous lobster roll with a lemon wedge and a side of very fresh-looking cabbage slaw. It evoked an instant craving in me. I actually thought about skipping the vegetarian lunch at the monastery that was waiting for me and go find this food.
But it was the caption that sobered me up. It read, “You are at the top of the food chain. Eat like it.” It spoke to the lie that so many humans believe, that no other power is above ME, ME! ME! ME! The caption read to me vaguely like Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism; you know when “Satan…showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world…and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and…glory. If you will worship me, it will all be yours.’” “There is no other God but you!”
Honestly, lobster roll ad, “lead me NOT into temptation. And don’t tell me I’m at the top of the food chain because that kind of hubris will destroy not only my relationship with my Maker, but also the natural world we live in.” Changing from this lie is exactly what John the Baptist is calling us to as we prepare for God to come among us in Jesus Christ.
This parish is practicing two marks of our faith this morning that symbolically renounce the lie that we are at the center of God’s universe. One mark of our faith is stewardship – that is, acknowledging that all we have and all we are have come from God in the first place. The Stewardship Program Team has shared the theme this year of “Jesus Calls. We Follow.” It’s a faithful, four-word statement of our priorities. Today, we are asked to pledge a portion of our income to St. Paul’s in order to continue to do the work that Jesus is calling us to. Giving to God what is God’s is a humbling practice.
The other mark of our faith today is the practice of initiating a new member into the life of Christ in the Church, the Sacrament of Baptism. We will stand with Ana May Dohle’s parents and godparents to say “We will” to the question, “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” Will you help this child to know God’s deep abiding love for her in her life and the life to come?
Ana May will receive the Sacrament of Baptism and know the promise of John the Baptist, that “edgy prophet” who stands in the public square shouting, “…all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Yes, this IS the truth, that “…ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Ana’s precious flesh is included in this Advent promise.