Sunday, December 06, 2015

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)
Malachi 3.1-4; Canticle 16; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6
Sunday, December 6, 2015 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

[While this is the sermon I prepared, this is not what I preached. Due to the tragic shootings by terrorists in San Bernardino, I felt led by the Spirit to go off-script and talk about that event and our Christian response. I did, however, end with portions of this printed text.]

Anticipation and preparation are foundational to the season of Advent. Anticipation of and preparation for the coming of our Lord, both at his birth at Christmas and his Second Coming at the end of the ages. We dealt with these aspects as related to the Second Coming last week. Now over the remaining weeks of Advent we turn our attention more and more to the First Coming at Christmas.

As we journey further into this short season, the sense of anticipation and the need for preparation only intensifies. With only three more weeks until Christmas – okay, 19 days – how can we not anticipate the celebration of the coming of our Lord into the world? And what about the associated preparations? There are still gifts to buy. There are presents to be wrapped. There is baking yet to be done. And there are holiday gatherings to attend.

Of course, all of that is related to the outward, even secular, observance of Christmas. For us practicing Christians, there is even more anticipation, even more preparation, of a different sort. This is particularly evident in today’s scripture readings.

Setting aside the commercialization of the run-up to Christmas and looking at the purely religious aspects of this season, we see that our whole sense of anticipation is motivated by a promise. A promise that God made to his people, that he would send a messiah to liberate us, to provide for our salvation, to put us back on the right path in our relationship with God. This promise was then conveyed through the prophets of the Old Testament. Their message was certainly one of anticipation of fulfillment of that promise. And today, we hear the tone shift to place more emphasis on preparation. Our readings for today move from images of expectation of a new heaven and a new earth of last week, closer to the reality of our own lives by bringing the prophecies of the Old Testament closer to fruition. And with it, the increased sense of the need for preparation.

In today’s readings, the prophets Malachi and Isaiah specifically point to the messenger who will prepare for the coming of the Messiah. To the messenger who will not only himself prepare the way of the Messiah, but will guide us in our own preparation.

Our Old Testament lesson is from Malachi, who was a minor prophet writing about 460 years before John the Baptist came on the scene. Malachi serves as an example of the expectation that a messenger would come to urge the people to prepare for the coming of their messiah. A messenger who would call his people to more devout worship and righteousness. For this, he uses the imagery of a refiner’s fire, in which the impurities of ore are burned off, leaving only the pure, precious metal.

The response to this prophecy is the Song of Zechariah, proclaimed by John the Baptist’s father. In this song, Zechariah recounts the nature of the coming Messiah, who will “save us from our enemies, from the hand of all who hate us,” who will have mercy. And he brings this prophecy closer to reality by proclaiming to his newborn son, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Lk 1.76).

And then in our Gospel lesson we have John the Baptist actually entering the picture in fulfillment of the many prophecies of the messenger would indeed prepare the way. With John’s coming, we come one step closer to the long-awaited appearance of the Messiah. This nearness is proclaimed using the words of one of the greatest prophets of all time – Isaiah, who foretold of the coming of the messiah about 800 years before. “’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’” (Lk 3.4b-6).

Isaiah is using imagery of the exiles in Babylon who, at the time of his writing, were about to be released and would be allowed to return to their home in Israel. These exiles who would need to travel across the wilderness of the desert to reach home. But the promise he makes, or rather, the promise God makes, is that with God as their guide, their path will be smooth. The path shall be made straight. The ups and downs of mountains and valleys will be leveled out. So that all will experience the salvation of God. With God as their guide. And so it will be with those who anticipate and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. The imagery of the wilderness not only refers to the desert the exiles would have to cross in returning to Israel, but also symbolically illustrates the wilderness experience of human life. That with guidance offered by the one who prepares for the Messiah, the rough places in our life will be smoothed out.

John the Baptist shifts the emphasis from a messenger who will prepare the way for the Messiah to us preparing ourselves for the Messiah. The preaching of John the Baptist calls us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. In the run-up to Christmas, however, the way he calls us to prepare is in a very different way than our usual preparations for Christmas. For John the Baptist heralds the coming Messiah, whose way is prepared by “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This is embodied in the act of baptism. That in order to prepare for the Messiah, to be able to receive him in our lives, we must turn away from our old ways and be cleansed of our sins.

Malachi uses the image of cleansing, of burning away the unwanted parts of ourselves, as in a refiner’s fire. John the Baptist uses the image of cleansing through baptism. Both invoke cleansing of the people to be ready to receive the promised Messiah and all that goes along with it – the promise of forgiveness and salvation.

Our readings for today provide a definite shift. The coming of the Messiah is getting closer to becoming a reality. And in anticipation of his coming, the need for our own preparation becomes more urgent, more real.

This is indicated by the beginning of the Gospel lesson. We are told that all this happens “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” (Lk 3.1-2). Unlike any other Gospel, Luke identifies the specific place and time when all of this occurs. In short, the year 27 AD in Galilee. Luke is providing a historical context for John the Baptist, for his pointing the way to the Messiah – to Jesus – and for our own preparation.

By providing a context for Jesus’ life and ministry in space and time, we have assurance that Christ stands firmly within human history, fulfilling the prophecies and the religious expectations of God’s people. This is not just merely providing historical context. It is saying that the 800 year old prophecies, pointing to the coming of the Messiah at some point in the future, is now upon us. It is now no longer a mere prophecy, but is imminent reality. And that means the need for our preparation is not just something that we need to think about. It is not just something on a to-do list that we need to consider some day. It means the time is now.

In the words of Brother Robert L'Esperance of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastic order, “In Advent, we are called to more clearly engage the subject of God’s judgment; we are challenged to realize that we have sinned and are in need of God’s forgiveness. God’s judgment is his love and his truth. If we would hook into God’s love, we must walk through the door of repentance and forgiveness” (, 12/3/15). Not some time down the road. Not tomorrow. But now.

Just as Advent is predicated on God’s promises to us, our response, our preparation, is in our promise to God. Our promise to God to take this season of Advent to prepare ourselves for the coming of his Son, through repentance and acknowledging our need for the only one who can possibly provide for our salvation, who could possibly give fullness of life. Now is the time for that reality. Not just for this season, but for our whole life. We proclaim the coming of our Lord in our words and actions, in the very way we live. We proclaim the reality of the promise of God’s love, embodied in the coming of our Messiah. A love that that endures for all time. A love that cannot even be shaken by acts of hate and violence such as occurred in Paris last month. As occurred in San Bernardino last week. In our lives we proclaim our hope and our certainty that despite the evil and ugliness in this world, God’s promise is indeed real. That God’s love will prevail, just as the embodiment of that love, Jesus Christ, prevailed over sin and death. That is the hope and the promise that we celebrate, that we anticipate, and that we prepare for in this season. That is the hope and the promise that we are called to proclaim in this season and through our entire lives as followers of the one who comes into our midst at Christmas – the Prince of Peace.

So, in the style of Luke’s pronouncement – in the seventh year of the presidency of Barack, when Jerry was governor of California, and John was mayor of Santa Paula, when Jon was Bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles and Guy was the Bishop of the Southwest California Synod, during the priesthood of Michael, the word of God comes to the people of St. Paul’s Emmanuel Church, calling them – calling you – to be voices in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

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