Another Advent sermon—this one is from the second Sunday of Advent. I was surprised by how much the folks at church responded to this one. People had lots to say. Many voices were heard during our sermon discussion time.
Title: Advent: prepare the way for the coming of the Lord
Date: Dec. 10th, 2006
Texts: Luke 1:68-79, 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11; Malachi 3:1-4.
Yesterday, an hour or so before lunch, Katie and I were on our way to buy a bed so my parents can have something to sleep on when they come for Christmas. We were driving down University, and came to a stop at MLK—right there by the K-mart.
When we stopped, Katie pointed out three people standing at the corner—one man was holding up a big, black bible, a woman was walking around with her head bowed (it looked like she was praying), and another man had a megaphone. So I rolled down the widow. The guy with the megaphone was shouting bits and pieces from Scripture—“Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “Jesus desires that none should parish, no not one. Now is the time to accept Jesus, to turn to Jesus, to let Jesus be the reason for the season, to let Jesus rule and reign in your life.” And he said other things along those same lines.
And I thought to myself, what does it mean to announce the good news, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ? It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and it is especially brought into focus in our passages today, this second Sunday of Advent. The passages lock our gaze on John the Baptist, the herald, the harbinger, the one who prepares the way and announces the coming of the Messiah.
The passage from Malachi announces the coming of a messenger who will prepare the people for the one to come, the Lord. At the beginning of Malachi 3 the Lord Almighty says, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.”
And our passage from Luke picks up on this same language of “prepare the way” and names John as this messenger. At the birth of his son, Zechariah’s mouth is opened and he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and in an ecstatic moment he prophesies about his son: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” (Luke 1:76).
Later, in the 3rd chapter of Luke, the storyteller describes John’s ministry of baptism and the call to repentance, and then quotes from Isaiah 40 in order to say what John is all about. 3:4, “As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for him.”’”
Prepare the way for the Lord. The purpose of John’s life and ministry is to prepare the people for Jesus; his life points to Jesus.
Usually we talk about the Christian life in terms of imitating Jesus, or following Jesus. And I think that’s right—it’s the Mennonite way, after all. But I think there is also something to be said for shaping our lives to the model of John the Baptist. His life is witness; he’s a sign pointing to something coming around the bend. He doesn’t claim to possess anything that he can give; all he has is an act of preparation, the baptism of repentance—so the people will be ready when the holy one comes. His calling, as one who announces the coming of the Lord, is to make space among the people where Christ, the Messiah, may be received.
Clearing space, preparing a place—That’s how we see John’s mission when Luke links his life to Isaiah 40: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all humanity will see God’s salvation.” John announces a time of preparation, time to make ready for the coming Messiah—so all humanity can see God’s salvation.
When I was three years old, my mother was pregnant with my sister. And the way my parents prepared me for the birth of Cynthia, my sister, was to tell me that from my mom’s belly would appear a friend for me. Of course I was excited. Now I would have a friend to play with, and I wouldn’t even have to leave my house. So, I got all ready for the day when my friend would arrive. And when my mom and dad brought my sister back from the hospital, they put her in a crib, and I went to work getting ready for hours of endless play—a life of endless slumber parties.
I got together all my hot wheels—those little toy cars—and lined them up all along the edge of the crib. I was prepared for my new friend to play hot wheels with me. But nothing happened. She just laid there. She wouldn’t respond to my gestures of friendship. So, I took my cars and went across the street to my friend Matt’s house. Obviously I didn’t understand my parent’s announcement, nor did I understand how to prepare.
How do we announce, like John the Baptist, the preparation that needs to take place for the arrival of the Messiah?
Do those three people standing on the corner of University and MLK with a megaphone, do they have it right? Is that how we announce Christ’s advent? I’m not sure. Probably part of it is that I don’t think I could do it—stand out there in the cold and shout at cars passing by. But another part of it is that I think evangelism—our announcement of the gospel—is more than shouting from a megaphone. Megaphone evangelism just amplifies the mouth, our speaking—it turns our talking into shouting. But it doesn’t do anything for our ears—it probably makes it even more difficult to hear because we are talking so loudly.
But listening is also an important part of sharing our faith—we need to cultivate our skills of listening, of hearing those to whom we speak. We need to hear if and how the gospel might be received; because sometimes those strangers to our faith can hear things about our gospel that we have trouble hearing. So, an easy example is Gandhi—a stranger to Christianity. But he got ahold of Tolstoy’s book about Christianity, The Kingdom of God is Within You, and learned about the nonviolence of the Gospel. Gandhi had ears to hear that part of the good news, when many British Christian colonizers didn’t. And then Gandhi in turn taught many Western Christians about part of the good news that was easily forgotten.
Sharing the gospel is about an exchange, about giving and receiving, about speaking and listening.
But I don’t want to criticize that group on the corner too much, because I think they have something to teach us. For some reason, they realized that witness is a communal activity—it wasn’t just a solitary man, Mr. Megaphone, out there. There were three of them; they traveled as a team.
And that’s the shape of our announcement of the good news as well. We announce as a group, a small group, that Christ will arrive. Just as we can’t follow Christ by ourselves, we can’t be heralds like John without a church. It’s our communal life, our church, that embodies an announcement. We proclaim Christ’s advent together.
And our announcement looks like this ordinary stuff we do here every Sunday. We read passages from the Bible. We sing hymns. We pray. And we preach. That’s all part of the good news we announce, the good news of the advent of the Messiah. But that’s not all we do. We also make space and time in the middle of our service, for a time when we must listen to all the voices of those gathered here—it’s our chance to respond to the Word proclaimed through hymns, Scripture, and preaching. We not only proclaim, but we also respond; we speak and listen, receive and give, and sometimes we wait in silence
And we do this because we believe that the Spirit of God moves through all of us, and speaks through all of us.
But our trouble, it seems to me, is that we have a hard time seeing this ordinary stuff as the movement of God’s Spirit. We have trouble with our eyes, with our ears, with those organs of reception. It’s like me waiting at my baby sister’s crib waiting for her to play hot wheels with me. When my parents announced that a friend would come from my mother’s belly, I did not expect what I encountered in that crib. I had trouble seeing her as the friend that she would become.
And that’s the humble audacity of what we gather and do here every Sunday. We have the audacity to claim that Christ is here with us, even if we don’t exactly know what to look for, or where God’s Spirit leads us, or what happens when Jesus arrives and meets with us—all we can do is fumble around with words and papers.
But this is also the nature of John’s announcement, as he gives his life to prepare the way for the coming Lord. He confidently proclaims the arrival of the Messiah, but he doesn’t know quite what he’s looking for. Later in Luke’s story, in chapter 7, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they all expected. It seems that John had trouble seeing this Jesus as the Messiah. 7:18—“Calling two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” He’s not quite sure.
Church is this sort of invitation. We invite others to join us in a life dedicated to discovering the love of Jesus. And it’s a sort of love and life that we don’t know just yet what it looks like. It’s something we know as good news, as abundant life, but we don’t quite have a handle on it just yet. It’s not something we possess, but it something we constantly discovery through our lives together. We’ve seen the dawning of a great light, and we walk, sometimes blinded by the Sun, toward the mysteries of the life of Christ made present in our shared lives.
And evangelism is the invitation for others to bring their ears and eyes into our midst and help us discern the mysteries of God, the mysteries of Jesus’ arrival—the Advent of the long-awaited Messiah.
I will close with Malachi 3:1—“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” And we are this temple.