A reading and reflection for Sunday, December 9, 2012.
The eighth day of Advent.
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Luke 3:1-6 NRSV
This reflection is taken from portions of Rev. Novak's sermon delivered on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca. The sermon audio can be found online on Monday morning by visiting this link.
Today is the second Sunday in this season of Advent. Two candles are lit, two more remain before it is almost time to welcome yet another Christmas. And today, we come once again to Luke’s gospel, anxious for a lesson, yearning for a word from the Lord, something to speak into our lives, offering perhaps a word of comfort, but also realizing that sometimes during this busy season we need to hear the hard message of the Christian gospel again.
During this season Advent, the strange figure of John the Baptist, that locust-eating, animal skin-wearing wilderness prophet becomes a model for the Church. The Church, like John, is the voice, standing the wilderness of our culture, proclaiming not cultural acquiescence but repentance. The Church is the voice calling to one another and to the world to prepare a proper road for the Lord, a straight path.
Karl Barth, that great Swiss theologian was quite fond of John the Baptist's persistence in pointing ahead to Christ. In a church in Germany, a famous altar piece hung that depicted the figures of Mary on left, the crucified Christ in the middle, and John the Baptist on the right, his right hand outstretched and his finger pointing right at Christ. In this painting, Barth saw the character of the church, a witness pointing to Christ.
And here, in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius' rule, the word of the Lord came to this man, John, in the wilderness. Now, to use a phrase like “the word of the Lord came to John, the son of Zechariah” is to remind the reader of other prophets to whom the word of the lord also came: Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah; Isaiah, son of Amoz; Jonah, son of Amittai; and Ezekiel son of Buzi, among others.
To each of these people, the scriptures say, “The word of the Lord came.” And here, John, son of Zechariah, is included in this list. And to be associated with the prophets, meant that you were a voice relaying a message to the people from God. To be a prophet didn’t mean that you were predicting the future, but it meant that you were communicating a word that demanded immediate attention. You were calling people to listen to the word from God.
That the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, also meant that God’s word was not shriveled up, dying on the vine, unable to still bring comfort and challenge to his people. God’s word is active, living, piercing through the armor of human time and history, energizing a person to proclaim its message to anyone who would hear. To say that the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, was Luke’s way of saying: God isn’t finished speaking, so open your ears, people and listen to what this person is saying.
And John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Now, in the first century, if you were born outside of Israel, you were a Gentile. If you parents weren’t Jews, you were a Gentile. And if you wanted to become a Jew, say you were converted and wanted to practice that faith, you would likely undergo a baptism of repentance. A ritual washing to show that you were clean from your pagan practices and dedicated to the service of God. So when John is going around Judea proclaiming to the mostly Jewish region that they needed to undergo a baptism of repentance it was likely offensive. We’re descendants of Abraham, they will later reply. We don’t need a baptism! Save it for the Gentiles, John!
We might say the same thing today, when we come to church. That’s a nice message, preacher, but save it for the people who aren’t Christians. They need it the most. I’ve been coming all my life. My parents were Christians!
But John’s message of repentance is one that must he heard by all of us, no matter how old you are or how long you’ve been a Christian. All of us get trapped in certain practices, in certain habits, in certain patterns that we must eventually repent from, we must eventually turn around from, repent in the Bible seems to imply that you were walking in one direction but you have done an about-face and are now walking in the opposite direction.
The church, like John, is to be faithful in its proclamation. And we have both a message and actions. Today, we hear the message. Next week we hear the actions of this witness.
We are the ones called by the Word of God to proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is coming, and that we must prepare for that day, we must prepare the way for that kingdom, by repentance, by washing away the symbols of sin in our lives. If you’re drinking too much, or working too little, or spreading rumors too often, or judging her too regularly, or if you’re too stuck in the past, it’s time to repent.
It’s time to turn around.
Take an opportunity this Sunday to listen to the following music pieces from Handel's Messiah. Enjoy the rich Scriptural background to the pieces and listen closely for references to the verses from today's passage.