The Salvation We Seek

Sermon on Luke 3:1-6 for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C, December 6, 2015

Luke 3:1-6
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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. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 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.
  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.'”

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Mike Wetzel is the man in a video taken in his church last week.  He is holding an infant child.  Four of his other children are standing with him.  They are there, in their church, to light the Advent Candle.  Mike holds the microphone which the baby tries to take.  It is an awkward moment.  He introduces himself to any who may not know him, explaining that his “better half” is unable to be there with them because she is at home, tending another child.   Mike is the father of six children.

As he does the reading, with his fidgety children around him, he is clearly out of his comfort zone.  At one point, he uses the baby’s blanket to mop perspiration from his brow, and comments that he is missing his support team – his wife.

Mike closes with a prayer.  He mentions hope; the hope that Advent celebrates.  He speaks of Jesus as “hope to the world.”

The video of Mike and his family was posted on Facebook by a friend of mine.  Mike is a friend of a friend of hers in San Bernardino, California.  Mike was one of the 14 people shot and killed there this past week.  Now, his wife, his support team is left alone, to raise those six children without her support team.

Hope?

What does hope mean?  What does it mean in a world of random acts of violence?   What is the salvation that we seek in the birth of Jesus?

Mike was there to light the first candle of Advent.  This is the nature of our hope, and the salvation we seek: lighting a candle, in spite of the darkness, because of the darkness, as a protest against the darkness, as an alternative to the darkness.

“God Isn’t Fixing This”
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Where is God in this?  You may have seen the headline in the New York Daily News announcing that “God Isn’t Fixing This.”  The headline was meant as a retort to politicians who announced prayers for the victims, but who would never work to change any laws in our country about guns or ammunition.

To me, the headline was all wrong.  It is not true that God is standing idly by, refusing to fix the problem of violence.  A God who would not step in to protect the father of six little children, or the scores of victims in Paris, or Beirut, or  Syria, or anywhere else, would not be good.

Our hope is not that we will be saved from evil.  How could it be?  Jesus, himself  was not saved from evil, violence, and death.

Our hope is that God is at work in this world, not as a separate observer, but as part of this world, on the side of the suffering victims.  This is what we celebrate at Advent; that God is at work in the world now, and always, as Jesus was in the world.  God is at work, luring us towards goodness, towards truth, towards beauty; towards the light.

Advent starts with John
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The Advent story begins with John the baptist.  At John’s birth, Luke records for us a poem spoken, in the story, by John’s father, Zechariah.  It is a remarkable poem.  In it are echoes of Israel’s past.  Zechariah recalls Israel’s hope which was set in motion by the covenant God made with the ancestors, with Abraham and Sarah.

Remember that story?  Abraham goes into a deep, dark dream.  He has a vision experience.  Animals are cut in two, and arranged in rows to form an aisle.  It is a solemn covenant ceremony.  One of the parties to the covenant would swear loyalty to the other by walking down the gruesome aisle, between the pieces.  It was considered an oath.  He would be saying, “May the same fate be mine as was these animals, if I am ever disloyal to the covenant.”

And in his vision, Abram must have imagined that he himself would walk between the pieces of animals, swearing loyalty to the God who had promised him a future family, and a worldwide blessing.
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But no!  Remarkably, God, symbolized by a flaming torch and the smoke rising from coals, passed through the pieces.  God was cursing Godself, lest God every be disloyal to God’s own covenant-promise to Abraham.

So, Zechariah prays that his new son, John, would be a part of that promise coming true.  He evokes the memory of king David and the covenant God made with him.   God, through the prophet in the story, promised that there would always be a king on David’s throne.

Even in exile, even during occupation, even after all the violence, the mistakes, the human betrayal, somehow that hope was still alive.  God had, for God’s own reasons, bound Godself to God’s people, for their good, for their well being, for their future.

Zechariah prayed that his baby, John, would grow up to be a voice, as Isaiah had imagined, of one crying out in the wilderness; “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

The Way of the Lord

How?  By stockpiling swords, ready for the final battle?  This was the wish of many.  This is still, the wish of many.  They amass weapons; they gather ammunition.  They are ready to shoot and kill.  They believe the myth that they will be saved by violence.

But violence only begets violence.  Those who live by the sword die by the sword.  Those who think that a country, awash in guns, in military style assault weapons, in automatic pistols, in huge ammunition clips, will be anything but a country of mass shootings, and dead children, and dead fathers of children, are walking in a deep, deep darkness.

We are the fix

How is God going to fix this?  By faithfulness to the covenant-promise of loyalty to his people.  By being among us to teachScreen Shot 2015-12-04 at 1.58.38 PMh us to light candles of hope, instead of joining the darkness of violence.  By luring us towards goodness, towards truth, towards beauty; towards the light.

God fixes this by coaxing into life a community of people who will not give in to the darkness.  An Advent community of people who live by an alternative set of values.  A community that practices patient waiting as Advent teaches us to do, for the celebration of Christ’s birth, the birth of hope that violence and death will not have the last word.

The birth of hope that there is a king on David’s throne, that his worldwide kindom is big enough to gather in all humanity, so that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one.  All share one bread.  All share one cup.  All gather around one table, in peace.

Zechariah ends his dedication prayer with these words:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high
will break upon us,
to give light to those
who sit in darkness and
in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

To guide our feet into the way of peace.”  That is our hope.  This is our salvation.  That God’s people would hear the call to prepare the way of the Lord by refusing violence at every level.

That we would be those who live in the light of Jesus, who is called “prince of peace.”

That we would open our eyes, in the light of Advent, so that we could see God at work fixing us, healing us, transforming us from people of instinctive, primitive, beast-like violent reactions, into people of compassion, people of reconciliation, people of the spiritual kindom of God; people of hope.

People who would rather die than kill.

People who believe that no matter how many mass shootings are yet to come, no matter how many people ISIS can kill, no matter how much darkness there is, evil will not win.  Love will win.  That one day, as the prophet imagined,

“all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

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