Advent 2, December 9, 2018
Year C, Advent 2: Baruch 5:1-9; Song of Zechariah; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
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What many of you may not know about me is that I like to watch TV. I can become a couch potato with the best of them. And one thing I’ve come to realize is that TV shows can teach us a lot about how to live our lives. Or not.
Never fear. Dr. Oz is ready to tell you what food mistakes will make you fat, how to grill vegetables, and why you should consider probiotics. When you follow Dr. Oz’s suggestions, you will not only be more healthy, but you will also be able to overcome stress and stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
If you somehow miss these lessons and find your life spinning out of control, never fear. There is still direction for you on television. You can talk to Dr. Phil and gain some understanding of what is happening in your relationships. He is an expert at helping people figure out what went wrong in their lives and offering very specific help them start putting their lives back together.
And if your relationships still don’t improve, you can always ask for a hearing in front of Judge Judy and have your disagreements settled once and for all.
So, you can count on TV shows to tell you how to fix what is wrong with your life, right?
While these TV gurus do offer some good advice and direction, there is something still missing. In some ways, these TV personalities remind me a lot of John the Baptist, for they are calling us to stop, examine our lives, change what we are currently doing and live our lives their way. The big difference is, TV stars are trying to convince us that they have the answers for what is wrong in our lives and they themselves can lead us to wholeness, whether it is improved psychological or physical health or better management of our finances.
It is as if we fix the problem, they are experts in, all other parts of our lives will also be forever changed for the better. Each one of them proposes to change only one part of our lives. This, then will lead us to salvation.
John the Baptist, on the other hand, was actually making an even more demanding claim on people’s lives. He called people to prepare for the coming of the Christ, the Redeemer of the world, by repentance and baptism. He must have been a rather eccentric man on the fringes of society, living out in the wilderness, dressed in animal skins and eating whatever he was able to scavenge from the desert around him–primarily locusts and wild honey—hardly a vegan, much less a vegetarian diet.
So just who was John? What were his credentials? I’m sure we could find the credentials of Dr. Phil or Judge Judy rather easily; Judge Judy often tells us, “They didn’t hire me because I’m pretty. They hired me because I’m smart.” How about John the Baptist? Was he handsome? Was he smart? From the description in the scriptures, it does not sound like he was the handsome type. And being smart wasn’t really the issue here. For in reality what really mattered is that John was holy. That is what gave him the authority to call people to repentance.
He was the son of Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary the Mother of Christ, and Zechariah, a priest in the Temple. His birth created quite a stir in the Temple. Remember, Elizabeth and Zechariah were quite old when the Angel Gabriel announced Elizabeth would bear a child. Zechariah didn’t believe it, and his lips were sealed, he was unable to speak, until John was born and presented in the Temple for his circumcision at 8 days of age.
We learn more about John in the text we recited as our response to the Old Testament reading today. This passage from the first chapter of Luke is actually a hymn, called the Song of Zechariah. In the Prayer Book, it is found as Canticle 4 or Canticle 16 and is used in Morning Prayer. It is Zechariah’s hymn of praise to God for John’s birth. Zechariah blesses God for John’s birth and also announces that John, this child, has a special role to fulfill for John is a prophet, a messenger, and has come to prepare for God’s way in the world. John will prepare God’s people for the coming salvation in Christ and lead them into forgiveness and restoration.
John called people in his day and age to prepare for the coming of God by repentance for the forgiveness of sin. “Repent, turn around.” John called to people who had lost their way. They needed to change direction. To ask for forgiveness, make amends, act differently. As an outward sign of repentance, John called people to be baptized, Jews and Gentiles alike.
People may have been attracted to John or at least curious about him because he was so eccentric.
We need to do the same thing. Repentance is more than simply self-improvement as the TV stars suggest for us. Repentance is not simply about feeling guilty, and lamenting what we have done wrong. It is not about sorrow for getting caught.
Repentance is having second thoughts after thinking about something. Repentance is about a total change in our lives. We must seek to change only our outward selves, but to change our hearts, the core of our being, change who we are in God’s sight so we will be ready for Jesus to come into the world.
Instead of simply self-improvement that does not necessarily require us to connect with or care about other people in our lives, John calls us to prepare by leaving our sinful ways behind us and choosing a different path. Leave behind our own shortcomings, whatever it is that keeps us from experiencing the love of God. And in their place, put a newfound care for others, a forgiveness of those who have wronged us, a love for our neighbors in some concrete action and a love for people who are different from us.
Luke quoted the prophet Isaiah to describe preparation for the coming 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.” These are pretty dramatic changes that are being called for. If we think about these metaphors as they apply to our own lives, Isaiah through Luke is calling us to remove whatever obstacle is in our way and blocks us from being ready for the coming of God in our lives. And remove whatever obstacle that blocks us from following Christ.
Advent is a time to prepare to receive Christ. God has sent us a messenger in John the Baptist to help us prepare. Our challenge is to take up this work of preparation. To remove whatever obstacles are in our way. To open ourselves up to God’s work, whatever that might entail. To prepare by taking time to look at our own lives, not to start self-improvement, but to discern how God wants us to be in love.
Remember that God comes to us in the waters of baptism, in the sacrament of the table; and that God is always with us calling us together and calling us forward in our Advent journey out of the wilderness into union with Jesus.
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