A People Prepared for the Lord
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness….
How do we begin to tell a story—to tell the story?
Charles Dickens’ description of life in Paris during the French Revolution is so poignant and relevant that it also describes this moment in Washington, New York, Bejing, and Lansing.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That’s a pretty good beginning. One sentence… thirty words… and each phrase packed with significance. I had a professor once who called this the perfect thesis sentence. So much is said in one sentence that if you had never heard it before, you know that the speech will not be long; but it will be important.
My grandchildren often start with a question: “Papa, do you know what?” “No, I don’t know. What?” Then they repeat, “Papa, do you know what?” And I can almost see the gears inside their mechanical brains struggling to click into place so the words can spill into place. “Papa, do you know what?” It often takes three times to get the words straight and the story started. Then it spills out with such breathless abandon that my frail ears and slow mind cannot grasp it all in one hearing. Something that happened at school, or at home, or on the football field or baseball diamond. It is news that I’m as anxious to hear as they are to tell. But getting started is not so simple.
You can be as swift and direct as Mark in his gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is not even a proper sentence, but Mark tells it like he’s grabbed the collar of your shirt and shouts in your face. “Listen to me!”
John thinks the story is deserving of unearthly beauty. He all but whispers poetry:
“In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
And by the time the sentence is over, we are on the edge of our seats listening for more.
Matthew is a little bit like my grandchildren, with many starts and stops.
“These are the generations of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham… No, no, do you know what… the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way… In the time of King Herod, magi from the east came asking to see the child who had been born king of Jews.”
Luke wanders into his story about Jesus. Without the preface or the headings added by editors centuries later, you could read fairly far into Luke’s Gospel and never guess what he was going to tell you. Modern scholars find the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel so disjointed that they think it must not be Luke’s work at all, but some well-meaning but misguided editor who have attached these tales to the front of the Luke’s Gospel.
But I maintain that Luke is telling us a story that is set within a much larger story than anything he can write on his own. Jesus does not just appear one day in Galilee and start preaching and healing. He is connected to God’s story with this world. Jesus is connected to the history of God’s people. His people are our people and his God is our God. Jesus’ story is a continuation of God’s story with our world.
In the beginning, we hear about Elizabeth and Zechariah—two people who are connected to Moses and Aaron, connected to Solomon and God’s temple in Jerusalem, connected to the vision of the prophet Daniel, connected to Abraham and Sarah by blood and by circumstance and by Spirit. It is from these rich connections that Jesus will enter into this historical moment, when Augustus is Caesar in Rome and Quirinius is governor of Syria and Herod the Great is Tetrarch of Galilee. By entering this particular moment in time, Jesus promises to be with us in all other moments—even our moment—when Donald Trump is the American president and Bashar al-Assad is governor of Syria, and Benjamin Netanyahu is tetrarch of Galilee.
Luke understands that the first good news of the gospel is the news about John—the one who will become known as the Baptizer. The kingdom of God that Jesus ushers in will need an Elijah to prepare God’s people for this good news. So the child born in impossible circumstances—like Isaac, like Samson, like Samuel—this child John will be a nazir. He will be set apart—to live differently, to dress differently, to eat differently, to pray differently and to sacrifice differently than others.
Zechariah and Elizabeth have waiting so long for a child that they seem to have forgotten they were even waiting. Luke doesn’t tell us of any prayers offered by either Elizabeth or Zechariah, but while Zechariah is serving God in the holy sanctuary, the angel Gabriel appears, saying that God has heard the old priest’s prayers. When Zechariah hears Gabriel’s announcement, he responds with words that sound like Abraham: “I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”
But Zechariah should know better. Gabriel reminds him: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.” Well Zechariah also stands in the presence of God when he lights the incense and prays before the Lord. He should know that the God of Israel is a God who finds a way when there is no way.
We have met this angel Gabriel earlier, in the book of Daniel, and he behaves here like he does in the writings of that prophet. Gabriel is more warrior than member of the choir. He visits people when they are at prayer; he strikes fear in the hearts of those who encounter him; and he strikes Daniel speechless after their encounter.
Zechariah stands in for us each Advent season. He is the one who must wait in silence. He stands frozen in sin, separation, and hopelessness, like so much of this world where we live. Just this week, the news of the day was of the frozen darkness. It was announced that the average life span of each adult has gone down—our lives are shorter, due to the rising number of people who die from opioid overdose and young people who commit suicide. This is a sobering cause and effect. But we, who stand in the presence of God have been sent out with good news—news that there is a glow in the eastern sky; dawn is approaching; the Sun of Righteousness is near, with healing in his wings.
Advent is a season when we always ask what time is it? What time of year? What time in my lifetime? What era in the age of the earth? Here in the northern hemisphere of our planet, time seems to be shortening in December. What are we going to do with the short time we have been given?
We are meant to approach one another with breathless enthusiasm: “Do you know what?” We do not simply anticipate the unfolding of the Christ story—we anticipate the future—our future and God’s future. Karl Barth reminds us that we live with constant reminders that Jesus is ahead of us, assuring us of our righteousness and holiness… and yet… and yet our unrighteousness and unholiness are still behind us, and they are always taking new forms and hold us in a formidable grasp.
So we wait, and we call upon the Lord. Come, Lord Jesus; come and save us. We are the people John was sent to minister to—Advent people, people prepared for the Lord. So we light our lamps in the darkness, we do the works of the day—works of light—by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and teaching those who have no other access to education. We visit the prisoners and the sick and the dying, we throw birthday parties for children who have no parties, we give gifts to strangers, and make music because in this world there are far too many people whose lives have no music in them at all.
A few years ago in Billings, Montana—out on the lonely prairies full of self-reliant people this story was reported. It never made much of a splash on the evening news, but the story was passed along like the letters of Paul, from one church to another. On a tidy residential cul-de-sac, people put up their Christmas lights to light up the edge of the cold, dark prairie. One home among the dozen homes on this cul-de-sac was a Jewish home. They had a lighted menorah in their window celebrating Hanukkah. One night, vandals smashed that one window out of all the other lighted windows. They removed the menorah, threw it on the ground, and scribbled a swastika on the side of the house. The next night—the very next night—every house on that cul-de-sac had a menorah burning in the window—lamps shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in the hearts of us all.
This doesn’t happen spontaneously. Everyone does not have a menorah stashed away in the basement. It requires people talking to one another—face to face—and resolving to do something and to say something. It requires a lot of little actions, little decisions, little sacrifices, and even a little courage to stand up to the dark and violent hearts that acted otherwise. A lot of different people had to make a quick decision to either do something or remain silent and dark.
You and I stand on the threshold of God’s kingdom. We can go dormant or we can decide to bloom even as winter is descending. We can leave our neighbors to the darkness, or we can decide to let our lights shine. The choir sang it to us this morning:
“Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.”
That is Christ’s command to us, as clear as his command to love one another. God’s future still approaches, the future where all things are made new. Christ’s promise is sure; he will come. We are a people prepared for the Lord every time we light whatever little lights the Lord has put in front of us. No light is too small to be used by our Lord.
Emily Dickinson begins her telling of the story this way:
I dwell in possibility,
a fairer house than prose,
more numerous of windows,
superior of doors.
A Chambers as the Cedars…
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
My Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise.
We are called to this table and to dwell here in possibility. This table has many windows and many doors that lead us to its goodness. Above us for a roof are the eternal heavens. And our occupation, our task, the work set before us—is to spread wide our narrow hands and gather Paradise. Amen.