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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
December 05, 2021
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’ve shared with you before a couple of stories from my colleague, Carrie, who is pastor of the English-speaking congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.
Yesterday, there was an attack at Damascus Gate, followed by more violence there and in other neighborhoods. Carrie didn’t know any of it happened, though, because in her home were seven children making crafts, baking cookies, playing with her cat – and she said there were also some Nerf sword battles going on outside.
She feels bad for not knowing about any of the violence until it was done. But she had her phone on silent because she needed some Advent hope, peace, joy, and love – and to share it with others.
So when she went to sleep last night, she prayed for liberation, peace, and justice for those affected by the violence, and she also gave thanks for the children that gave her hope.
At this time of year, there’s a tendency to romanticize the story of Christ’s birth and hide behind that idealized version of it. And it’s especially tempting to do that when there’s so much violence, anger, and fear in the world.
I admit, I like that ideal – it’s comforting. My favorite part about this season are the Christmas lights. I enjoy seeing them decorate people’s homes as I drive past, and I enjoy the ones I have in my own home. For me, they help take my mind off the despair and all of the chaotic things going on in the world. They give me a sense of peace, and the hope that comes with knowing that no night lasts forever.
In our gospel reading today, we hear part of the story of John the Baptist. The writer of Luke sets the context of it among the leaders who were in power when John’s and Jesus’ ministries began. To be exact, Luke names seven centers of both political and religious authority – seven very important people who occupy seen very important positions.
It’s the equivalent of saying: in the year 2021, Joseph Biden being president of the United States, Janet Yellen Secretary of the Treasury, and Merrick Garland the defender of the present order; when Ron DeSantis was governor of Florida and Greg Abbott was governor of Texas, during the evangelical priesthood of Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham.
Seven current centers of both political and religious authority; seven very important people who occupy seven very important positions.
But Luke’s gospel teaches us that the word of God went right on past the power of the state and the influence of established religion. And instead, it went to John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. A man who lived in the wilderness and who was a prophet. Probably the last person, and certainly the last place, you would expect the word of God to go.
But God’s word went to exactly the right person and place, because when John the Baptist spoke, people paid attention. And the words he says in this reading are familiar to many of us: Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s 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.
These words recall the promise God made to the Israelites in exile that their time there would come to an end – that they would return home because God would make it possible for them to do so. The road would be rough – both the road itself they would have to walk on, and also the mental and spiritual journey they would endure.
But God would prepare them for the journey and smooth the way for their return to life in the Promised Land. It was a transformation that would be arduous and difficult, and that would prepare them to continue living as God’s people.
It was the answer to the prayers they’d been crying out, and it gave them the hope and the peace they’d been longing for.
Fast-forwarding several centuries, for the people who listened to John the Baptist, this promise was fulfilled again in Jesus – and John’s job was to get them ready to receive him. To prepare for the transformation that would come to the whole world and change it forever. A transformation that could only come from God.
And for the people who listened to John, the transformation started with repentance, with turning their lives toward God. Not out of fear or to be punished, but so that their hearts could be opened to God and God’s word.
Many of them had spent their lives in places where God’s voice was drowned out by the “important” people and voices of that time. But when they went out into the desert, into the wilderness, to listen to John’s message and to undergo his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, they discovered that John spoke the truth they’d been longing to hear.
He reminded them of God’s faithfulness to them, that God was their source of life and hope and peace. God transformed their hearts on the spot and they were opened to receive more – to receive Jesus.
As we navigate this in-between time of Advent, preparing for Christ’s birth and also his return, there’s no shortage of “important” people and voices shouting to be heard with their own version of the truth. It’s no wonder we want the romanticized idea of Christ’s birth. It makes us feel safe, right? It calms us and gives us a sense of peace.
But the actual truth is that we experience that sense of safety and calm and peace when we repent, when we turn our lives toward God. Because, again, repentance isn’t about fear or being punished for the wrongs we’ve committed. It’s about turning our lives toward God so that our hearts are opened to God’s word.
Because when our hearts are open to God’s word, we’re able to let go of a lot of things. We’re able to confess our ego, our desire to be in control, and to access God on our terms alone. All the things we shield ourselves with as protection from what’s going on in the world.
And that’s a vulnerable confession to make because it reminds us that our lives are utterly dependent on God, but it’s also honest and truthful and liberating. It allows us to admit that we don’t have to be perfect, and to be truthful about the fact that we’re human and we make mistakes.
And it allows us to trust absolutely that God forgives us and loves us, and to experience the transformation that brings. And as that happens, we discover that it doesn’t stay within us – it becomes something that we share, and as we do, God continues to transform the world.
In this season, as we find ourselves wanting to hide in the ideal image of Christ’s birth, may we have the courage to turn our lives toward God and open our hearts to God’s word. May we remember that no night lasts forever, and that God is our source of life and hope and peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.