Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Sermon Texts: Luke 1: 68-79 ; Luke 3: 1-6
John the Baptist
Singer Paul Simon knows something about preparing for “the power and the glory and the story” of Christmas. Hear his lyrics to “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”
From early in November to the last week of December
I got money matters weighing me down
Well the music may be merry but it’s only temporary
I know Santa Claus is coming to town
In the days I work my day job
In the nights I work my night
But it all comes down to working man’s pay
Getting ready I’m getting ready ready for the Christmas day
I got a nephew in Iraq
It’s his third time back
But it’s ending up the way it began
With the luck of a beginner
He’ll be eating turkey dinner
On some mountain top in Pakistan
Getting ready oh we’re getting ready
For the power and the glory and the story
Of Christmas day (repeats)
If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
Never mattered we were always ok
Getting ready ready ready for Christmas day
Ready getting ready
For the power and the glory and the story
Of Christmas day
Many songs have been composed about getting ready for Christmas Day. Some of those songs imply we prepare for “the power and the glory and story of Christmas” by “decking the halls” or roasting “chestnuts . . . on an open fire.” In contrast, Paul Simon’s preparation happens in the midst of relentless work and the horror of war, which drive the rhythm of this song. But somehow in spite of or because of those realities, folks are getting ready, getting ready for Christmas Day.
Arguably the very first song recorded about getting ready for the coming of the Christ is “recorded” in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It is attributed to the priest Zechariah and presented as a song he sang to his newborn son John. The joyful anthem, which the church later named the Benedictus (meaning blessing), anticipates that John will play a key role in helping others get “ready for the power and the glory and the story of Christmas Day.” According to Luke, the angel Gabriel had previously visited the aged priest to announce that his wife Elizabeth would at last bear a child. (This is the same angel who’ll tell Mary, an unmarried girl, she’ll also have a son.) Elizabeth’s child will become a holy prophet who would “make ready a people” for Mary’s son. Nine months later, Zechariah is singing to his newborn son—who’ll grow up to become John the Baptizer, kinsman and forerunner of Jesus.
What exactly does it mean to prepare a people for the Lord? How is that done? As a pastor, I need know. Preparing people for the coming of the Lord is sort of my job description. And for that matter, you, too, may be hoping your life points others Godward. We all might benefit by taking a second pass at Zechariah’s song lyrics.
Zechariah first blesses the God of Israel—we sang those words as a chorus earlier—and then Zechariah sings to his newborn a lullaby that perhaps he repeated night after night and which might have become the homeschool curriculum for the budding prophet. “My son,” Zechariah croons, “Go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 76-79). Zechariah was preparing his son to prepare others for the coming of the Christ.
If Zechariah’s song were the lullaby we sang to our children, there might be a lot more wild and crazy prophets roaming the countryside—and a lot more peace. Listen to that song again with lyrics stripped down to their essence:
“Prepare the people, my son,” Zechariah might have whispered a few years later just before a young boy fell asleep. “We can be saved through forgiveness made possible by God’s tender compassion. Then the dawn from on high will break in on our darkness to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Years later a father might have draped his arm over the shoulder of a son nearing adulthood as they walked a dusty road. “Forgiveness,” he might have counseled, “is made possible by compassion, which will let God light up the path of peace. That’s how this ol’ world will be saved, John. And you can teach us that.”
What if forgiveness, compassion, and peace were the core of the curriculum in our homes and churches? Would our children, rooted in God’s compassion, become more forgiving of their own inevitable mistakes and allow themselves to risk more and judge less? Would our children understand God differently and therefore see the world more lovingly? Would our children—would we—so value right relationships with others that we would work through the hard stuff instead of moving on and putting all the blame on someone else? Would we know God’s peace within our own spirits and beyond us in the world—if Zechariah’s lullaby played in our prayers each night and prepared us to greet God each new dawn?
We, too, can be open to the inbreaking of the Holy into our lives by giving and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness became key to Jesus’ mission of reconciliation, restoring right relationship with God and neighbor, forgiving others or ourselves because we accept God’s tender compassion, which lights up the way of peace within and without and points others Godward.
This forgiveness-compassion-peace path in one sense doesn’t involve much action. Elizabeth prepared for her child—as Mary prepared a few months later for hers—by waiting. The pregnancy metaphor at Advent is powerful because it captures well a spiritual preparation that is not about striving and doing but about allowing. You can’t make yourself more pregnant. You can’t accelerate the pregnancy. The dramatic changes your body goes through are beyond your control—a terrifying and beautiful experience. We can use Advent spirituality to prepare for God to take up residence in our lives–not so much by doing but by accepting and allowing for a compassionate spaciousness within, by imaging the divine within. The spirituality of Advent is about giving God an empty womb in which to dwell and grow and fill us with love.
But let me not sentimentalize God’s peace, which is neither passive nor disengaged from the messiness of the real world. We see just how dangerous God’s peace can be in the life of John the Baptist, who grew up to be an abrasive figure on the fringes of society, a man who disturbed the peace for the sake of peace. The lectionary has paired today Zechariah’s lullaby to infant John with the adult John’s shouted sermon that threatened the powers that be and would eventually get him beheaded. Two readings from Luke: a lullaby and a strident sermon; one for John and one from John.
Apparently, like all children, John was influenced not only by his parents’ explicit teachings but also by his culture’s implicit lessons. At the start of chapter 3, Luke calls our attention to John’s political-social setting. John had been living in the wilderness outside the control of the head priests Annas and Caiaphas, farther still from the reach of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and from Herod, the appointed tetrarch, and much father from the attention of Emperor Tiberius in Rome. But Luke wants us to understand that John is still embedded in that specific political context. Thus, Luke’s Gospel underscores that peace is not just a spiritual goal—it’s a social and political one as well.
Rome at that time understood peace to be the result of all opponents being annihilated or beaten so severely they could no longer resist Rome’s domination. Pax Romana—Rome’s version of peace during the first two centuries of the Common Era—came at the expense of others’ freedom and welfare. The peace was maintained violently. That’s a practice we glimpse when our own culture sometimes permits police brutality or fosters militarism in the name of peacekeeping.
Living under foreign occupation and oppression, John knew the party line he’d been fed about Pax Romana. But John also had studied the ancient Hebrew prophets who had likewise endured foreign invasion and injustice. So John’s sermons are influenced not only by his father’s teachings but also by some verses from the prophet Isaiah’s scroll. The result is social justice Gospel that says God’s Spirit can transform harmful systems as well as hurting souls.
Keeping in mind that Rome’s road to peace was actually paved by privileging some and squashing others, let’s read again the words John chooses for launching his ministry in the wilderness. It’s not his father’s song: it’s the prophet Isaiah’s, who’d cried out six centuries earlier in the time of another foreign oppressor: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘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.’”
John said the saving work that God does in the world happens when the valleys are elevated and the mountains are made low. In the political context of that passage, such leveling probably refers to leveling the big discrepancies between the very rich and powerful and the very poor and powerless , when all are saved. There will always be diverse circumstances and abilities and choices of individuals. But there cannot be true peace when the fundamental rules of the game and the playing field are uneven.
Pax Romana is not God’s peace. John learned his father’s priestly instruction in forgiveness and compassion. He later studied the prophet Isaiah and understood that a whole network of relationships and rules may need to be redeemed in order to “save” the people. John became a prophet who exposed injustices in the systems of his day. Unfortunately, sharing that vision for a more equitable system would cost John his life.
But not before he had influenced his only slightly younger kinsman, Jesus, who likely was a disciple of John for a while and was baptized by John, who was the very one for whom John was preparing the people, whose ministry John blessed, and who would likewise be executed by the state.
We’ve seen how Zechariah prepared the way for John, and how John prepared the way for Jesus. I suspect that the writer of Luke saw his own role similarly. The entire scope of Luke’s Gospel is to prepare us for the inbreaking of God’s spirit in our world to guide us in the ways of peace. This is how we, too, might find salvation. We stand in a long line of peace preachers who have passed this vision of peace on from one generation to the next. Our job is not to be God but to “go before the Lord” and “prepare the way of peace.” We will forgive, find compassion, and thus walk the way of peace—even as we stick our necks out—which John did quite literally—to expose injustices.
Paul Simon’s Christmas song has a very specific political context. You and I are getting ready, getting ready amidst economic hardship and war. But we know there is a power and a glory and a story. It is a saving story. My prayer is that we experience that power and glory afresh this season. And that we, like John, carry on that story.
PRAYER: Blessed Jesus, we would carry your peace within and be harbingers of peace to a world on which your justice will one day fully dawn. Amen