FIRST READING Malachi 3:1-7b
1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the LORD whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight — indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. 6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”
PSALM Psalm 66:1-12
1 Be joyful in God, all you lands; be joyful, all the earth. 2 Sing the glory of God’s name; sing the glory of God’s praise. 3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great strength your enemies cringe before you. 4 All the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your name.” 5 Come now and see the works of God, how awesome are God’s deeds toward all people. 6 God turned the sea into dry land, so that they went through the water on foot, and there we rejoiced in God. 7 Ruling forever in might, God keeps watch over the nations; let no rebels exalt themselves. 8 Bless our God, you peoples; let the sound of praise be heard. 9 Our God has kept us among the living and has not allowed our feet to slip. 10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. 11 You brought us into the net; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. 12 You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.
SECOND READING Philippians 1:3-11
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
GOSPEL Luke 3:1-20
1 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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
Everyone it seems has his or her own concept of what’s important in life. Some may call it an agenda, some their passion, or what drives them in life, but no matter how we label it, we all work to achieve those things that mean the most to us each and every day. For example, there’s a tombstone in Wisconsin that leaves no doubt about the priority of the person who lies in that particular grave. Under a certain man’s name and the dates of his birth and death is carved this inscription: “Bowled 300 in 1982.” Apparently that’s what was important to this man. The fact that he once bowled 300 and he wanted everyone to know it.
A woman was taking her time browsing through a yard sale. She said to the homeowner, “My husband is going to be very angry when he finds out I stopped at your yard sale.” The homeowner sought to reassure her: “I’m sure he’ll understand when you tell him about all the bargains you found,” she replied. “Normally, yes,” the woman said. “But he just broke his leg, and he’s waiting for me to take him to the emergency room to have it set.” There’s little doubt where this woman’s priorities lie. Sadly, it wasn’t her husband. One more example for you.
A teenager named Buck was walking home one day when he suddenly realized that two men were flanking him. “Give us your wallet,” one of the men insisted. “I have a gun. Give us your wallet or I’ll shoot.” “No,” Buck said. “Hey, man,” said the man holding the gun, “you don’t understand. We’re robbing you. Give us your wallet.” “No,” Buck said again. “Give us your wallet, or I’ll knife you,” said the other hold-up man. By now the robbers were pleading more than they were demanding. “No,” Buck said once again. He kept walking, and a few steps later, he realized that the two men had disappeared. As he related this story to a friend, the friend asked, “Weren’t you scared?” Buck replied, “Of course I was scared!” “Then why didn’t you give them your wallet?” asked his friend. “Because,” Buck answered very matter of factly, “My learners permit is in it.” Everyone it seems has his or her own concept of what’s important in life.
Our lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent takes us to a man who believed he had one mission in life and that was to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. You and I know this forerunner as John the Baptist. Luke in his gospel describes John’s ministry in this way: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’” Central to John’s life was this one mission: to prepare the world for the coming of Christ. And this too is our task–to prepare the world for Christ. Yet with all the stuff we pack into our lives these days, it’s easy for us to forget that at times.
A young woman tells about her fiancé who had been sent to Coast Guard basic training at Cape May, N.J., soon after their engagement. She visited him when he was given his first liberty. That evening they had a wonderful, quiet dinner, and then they took a romantic, moonlit walk toward the ocean. However, at the sidewalk’s end, the young soldier stopped. His fiancée wasn’t ready to stop. “Let’s go on down to the water,” she suggested. “What?” he replied. “And have the sand ruin the shine on my shoes?” Those who’ve spent time in the military understand. It takes labor to have a lustrous shine on your shoes. But that young man needed to decide in a hurry which was more important to him–his fiancée or his shoes.
It’s easy for us, as followers of Jesus, to take our eyes off the target, to forget what’s really important. There are so many priorities, particularly during the Advent and Christmas seasons. However, keeping focused on what’s important in the season can have a positive impact on your well-being.
I read, recently, that singing Christmas carols is good for your health, especially singing in a choir. — Now if I were to say “hint, hint”, would that help some you decide to be part of our choir? I’m sure Diane wouldn’t mind! — Anyway, according to this report, singing can reduce stress as well as boost hormones that promote feelings of trust and bonding. Just as important, says this research, singing in a group can improve self-esteem and increase feelings of social belonging, which can ward off loneliness. So, for those who want to reduce stress, boost your hormones and good feelings, you’re invited to come out with the youth group on the 16th and help the youth carol our folks and folks in the local care facilities. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge!
Even if you’re not able to go with the youth group to belt out a few Christmas tunes door-to-door, according to this report, singing Christmas carols along with your kids or your spouse to the radio station while you run errands or drive to visit family can be beneficial as well. Just ignore what other drivers think–sing Christmas songs at full voice with a silly smile on your face. If nothing else, you might enjoy the fun of making the other people on the road wonder what you’re up to. But please, don’t get so caught up in all the planning and preparation that you forget what the season is really about, Jesus. This includes all the events here at church.
Preparing music and other elements for our worship services are important. So are all the other activities of the church. As long as we remember our overall goal–to prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of Christ. “In ancient times,” says Jeremy Myers, “when a king was going to visit a city, he would send before him someone to herald his coming . . . The herald would go around the city, and go before the leaders of the city, telling them, ‘The king is coming. He’ll be here any day. So clean up your lives. Make sure you’re in obedience to the king’s commands so that you won’t be punished when he arrives.’ “This herald also served as a city inspector.
The herald would go around the city and make a list of things that needed to be fixed. He would tell them, ‘Clean up your city. Sweep your streets. Get rid of all the garbage lying around. Round up any criminals to make the city safe. Fix the roads; make them smooth and straight. Make sure the town is gleaming. Make sure the city is fit for a king to ride through.’ “It was an embarrassment for that city, and its people, if they weren’t prepared when the king arrived. It was also an insult to the king if they hadn’t prepared properly for his arrival . . .”
In the same way, John the Baptist came to announce the coming of a king, a different kind of king. “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’” What a wondrous way to depict the preparation of the world for Christ–straightening the curves, filling in the valleys, cutting away the high mountains that the road might be level and easy to travel upon.
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson tells about the effort it took to straighten a highway in Southern California years ago, the old highway, US 99. This treacherous piece of highway used to wind, dip, and climb as it crossed the rugged Tehachapi Mountains. At one point the road rises to an elevation of more than 4,000 feet. An old deacon told Wilson that, when he was young, it took him two full days to drive a large truck only 110 miles from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, CA. As the road climbed the steep mountains he would have to shift to low gear and crawl up the slope. When the road descended into deep canyons on the other side, he would have to shift again into low gear and ride the brakes in order to keep the heavy truck from careening off the narrow road. Fortunately, the government decided to do something about this dangerous piece of road.
Between 1960 and 1972, highway US 99 was upgraded to Interstate I-5, one of the most impressive engineering projects in human history. Road cuts, hundreds of feet deep, were sliced through the mountains. The rock and dirt extracted from these slices were then used to fill deep gorges and canyons. “Whenever I cross the [this stretch of] I-5,” Wilson continues, “I think of Isaiah’s words, of John’s mission of preparation, and of God’s working in my life to make me a fit disciple of Jesus. God is seeking to prepare you and me. To cut through the mountains of our pride, to fill up the valleys of our despair, to straighten our crooked moral rationalizations, and make us fit for the King Himself to travel upon.”
This is why each year, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we revisit John the Baptist’s preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. The leveling of the land is a word picture helping us understand the way John’s ministry prepared the way for the ministry of Christ. “And all people will see God’s salvation,” Luke says to us, quoting the words of Isaiah, this was the message of John, the voice in the desert–“salvation has come to all people.” But how were the people to prepare themselves for the coming Christ according to John the Baptist? They were to repent of their sins and be baptized.
We read concerning John, “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” However, repentance is a difficult word to tie to Christmas. After all, Christmas is a warm and fuzzy holy day. At Christmastime we think of God like a jolly old St Nick who forgives all and accepts all and would never hold us responsible for how we live our lives. The last thing we want to think about at Christmas is repentance.
Yet, even if it weren’t Christmastime, it’s hard to combine a vision of a prophet out in the wilderness dressed in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey and calling people to repentance with a vision of our modern day society that doesn’t even acknowledge the concept of sin. “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,” trumpets the television commercial. I’m not so sure we even know what sin is any more. It’s a word that’s somehow lost its sting, like the punch line of a tired joke. As a matter of fact, I think the idea of what it means to be a Christian period, has changed.
I read an article the other day, that will be printed in its entirety in the next Rock, that speaks to the problem we face today as Christians. According to Christian Smith in an article posted in the April 2005 edition of The Christian Post, Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at UNC Chapel Hill, took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, they found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” No problem. 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” Again not to problematic. But here is where things go off the rails. 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” 4. “God doesn’t need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.” No wonder people have no idea about what it means to be a disciple of Christ or of what Advent and Christmas is all about. And to make matters worse, Christians don’t even know how to explain what it means to be a follower of Christ themselves. So how can we expect others to know the true meaning of the season? I contend that we’re in greater need of a baptism of repentance than we even imagine.
The Jews of John the Baptist’s time felt no need for a baptism of repentance. Jews believed that only Gentile converts to Judaism needed to be baptized. This was to wash away all their defilement from their past lives. Jews considered themselves children of Abraham. Why would they ever need to be washed clean from their past? They, like we, had no concept that they needed to prepare their lives for a new kind of reality–the coming of the King of Kings, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace who would establish a new reign of love and light. I love the way that preacher and writer Fredrick Buechner described John’s ministry.
Pastor Buechner said, “John the Baptist didn’t fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage-sale people wouldn’t have handled. When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time. “The Kingdom was coming all right, he said, but if you thought it was going to be a pink tea, you’d better think again. If you didn’t shape up, God would give you the ax like an elm with the blight or toss you into the incinerator like chaff.”
And Buechner didn’t stop there, “being a Jew,” he said, “wouldn’t get you any more points than being a Hottentot, and one of his favorite ways of addressing his congregation was as a snake pit. Your only hope was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had. Some people thought John was Elijah come back from the grave, and others thought he was the Messiah, but John would have none of either. ‘I’m the one yelling himself blue in the face in the wilderness,’ he said, quoting Isaiah. ‘I’m the one trying to knock some sense into your heads’ (Matthew 3:3).”
Maybe we need a little head-knocking as we get closer to Christmas–all of us. We’re preparing our homes for the holiday, but are we actively preparing our hearts? We’re hanging up lights, but ignoring the darkness in our own lives–the darkness of strained relationships, the darkness of moral weakness, the darkness of anger, apathy, hopelessness and fear.
Many of you, I suspect, were at one time fans of a television show called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Back in 2004, about this time of year, Time magazine carried the story of Alice Harris of South Central Los Angeles, who told how the good people of Extreme Makeover volunteered to demolish her house.
It seems that the year before, a flood had left Alice and her family, who had no insurance, living in one bedroom. Even worse, the flood had ruined a host of Christmas toys. Harris, a community activist, had collected the toys for poor kids. Harris said, “I figured no one was going to come to Watts and help us. No one had ever done that.” But Extreme Makeover: Home Edition did.
Their staff shipped Harris and her family off for a week’s vacation while a hundred workers and neighbors tore her home down and built a new, bigger one. They replaced the Christmas toys and other donated items and gave them to her flood-stricken and needy neighbors. They even threw in a basketball court for the neighborhood kids. What a wonderful Christmas Alice Harris and her family and neighbors had, thanks to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
John the Baptist wanted people to understand that the coming of the Messiah would mean the coming of Extreme Makeover: World Edition. And that day is still to come–a day when certain groups will no longer be oppressed, a day when the hungry will be fed, a day when the world will no longer take up arms, a day when children will no longer live in fear. And you and I have the privilege of participating in that makeover.
The question for you and I this Advent season is, are we willing to do our part? Or are we simply satisfied to participate only in that part of Christmas that feeds our desire for parties and presents and pleasant thoughts and cares little about the plight of our neighbors and our world? If Advent and Christmas are nothing more than parties and presents, then the prophet says it’s time wake up and to repent. The King is coming. Our central mission and that of John the Baptist’s should be the same: to prepare, the way of the Lord. We’re called to be prepared and to prepare the world for the coming of Christ.