Dec. 5, 2021

PRAYER OF THE DAY

Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Malachi 3: 1-4

1See, 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. 2But 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. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 1: 68-79

68Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel, you have come to your people and set themfree.
69You have raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of your servant David. 
70Through your holy prophets, you promised of old to save us from our enemies,
71from the hands of all who hate us,
72to show mercy to our forebears, and to remember your holy covenant.

73This was the oath you swore to our father Abraham: 74to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship you without fear, 75holy and righteous before you, all the days of our life. 

76And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,
77to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
78In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
79to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. 

Philippians 1: 3-11

3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I 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. 7It 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. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

John the Baptist, Altar of St. Catherine, Church of St. John and St. Martin, Schwabach, Germany

Luke 3:1-6

1In 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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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.
5Every 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;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

God’s word comes to John in the wilderness around the Jordan River.  It is also in the wilderness of the political world: during the reigns of emperor Tiberius, governor Pilate, and “ruler” Herod.  Did you hear that?  The word of God comes to John when the people are under the thumb of the native ruler Herod, the local but foreign governor Pilate, and the final authority who sits above all, Tiberius.

This is a top-down look at the political reality of the day. This situates the word John speaks and the Messiah whose path John prepares, in very bottom-up terms.  The small, the unexpected, the apparently trivial comes as the answer—the answer to the problems of the hierarchical political structure under which it is apparently pinned. 

We are given a list of the “spiritual” or “religious” power-structure as well. Not only are Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod noted.  The high priests Annas and Caiaphas are highlighted as well. 

The word comes to John like a two-edged sword.  The word divides religion and politics and speaks directly to a wounded world.  So what is the word, which comes, interjecting itself in both the political and religious realms? 

John quotes the prophet Isaiah: 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.

This quotation, in Isaiah, has to do with a promise of return from Exile. God will make straight paths through the wilderness, a smooth and easy return. This is about bringing the people of Israel out of bondage in Babylon and back to the Promised Land. The path is for the people; God-made, God-led. This is the proclamation of the prophet Isaiah, made to the people. It is declarative, promising, and hopeful.

Now John, instead of Isaiah, is the one who is out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. The people are called to repentance, to return themselves to their Lord.  This is the promise of the prophet himself.  John calls for a different kind of return to God.  His message is exhortation, challenge, command.

John preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s invitation is to ritual action, ritual cleansing.  This will be symbolic of a turning from sin and a re-turning to God—this is the call for us today. The baptism that John proclaims is not to be confused with the baptism, the one baptism, which Jesus brings. John’s baptism is summed up in the daily efforts to live into the grace, which is in Christ Jesus.

The appearance and words of John the Baptist often remind me of Eustace, a character in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace was a monster. Literally.

He did not start out that way. He began life as a boy – an annoying boy, a lazy boy, but still a boy. When Eustace got caught up to Narnia with Lucy and Edmund, he did not know what to do. A magical land? And when they kidnapped him to with that dreadful King Caspian fellow on a voyage on that terrible boat the Dawn Treader, oh horrors! So, when the ship landed on an uncharted isle and everyone expected Eustace to work, he ran away and hid. And then he took a nap. And when he woke up, he was a dragon.

It took a change in his form to make him realize what a monster he had always been. He recognized how dreadfully he had acted. That Lucy and Edmund and Caspian and all the rest of the crew were good people who had not kidnapped him. He was the one in the wrong. But now he was a dragon…and what could be done?

Sometimes it takes something drastic to wake us up and realize what monsters we all are. I do not know anyone who has been physically transformed into a dragon. However, I do know plenty of people who have lost friends, family, homes, jobs, and more before realizing what they were doing. I can point to times in my life, some distant and some recent, when I realized what a monster I had become. The truth is, these days it seems far easier to think about all the other people who are monsters, who need God’s forgiveness. 

And it is not just individuals, though I can come up with plenty of them, but whole systems that seem utterly broken and need of God’s mending. What can be done? Eustace wept great big tears… but he was stuck as a dragon. There was nothing he could do.

But Aslan, the great lion, was another matter entirely. After some days as a dragon, Eustace saw the great lion approach him. Even as a dragon, Eustace quaked in fear. He was not afraid that the lion would eat him. He was afraid of the lion himself.

The lion led him to a deep well. Eustace wanted to bathe…but the lion told him to undress first. Oh! Maybe dragons are like lizards. They could remove their skin. So Eustace raked his skin with his claws, and it came off easily without pain. But underneath lay a hide just as terrible. Eustace took of that layer…and found another terrible coat of scales. Again, and it was as if nothing had happened. Eustace realized he could not change.

But Aslan the lion approached Eustace. In the boy’s own words:

Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay down on my back and let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought he’d gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling off the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…and [he] threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. And After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone…and then I saw why. I had turned into a boy again…After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me.”

Eustace could not shed his skin. Only Aslan could free him from the dragon he had begun. Only Aslan could cut deep enough to sever those bonds. Only Aslan could wash Eustace. Only Aslan could dress him and put to death the monster in him. 

I honestly do not know how I feel about C.S. Lewis’ metaphor, of human beings being compared to monsters. I take Genesis One pretty seriously and will tell any person struggling with self-worth that he or she was made in God’s image and that God called creation, including the person I’m talking to, good. 

And at the same time, I look around the world, around the community, I look in the mirror and I know that there are times when I have been a monster. And there will be more times. We start worship facing the baptismal font to remember that in addition to being occasional monsters, we have been reborn children of God. 

Most Sundays we confess all that we have done and what we have left undone, sins committed and sins of omission. It’s a way of shedding our skin each week. And later we come to the table for bread and wine. We receive gifts of forgiveness and nourishment for the journey. This gives us strength to forgive others, part of what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. We are baptized at the font into ministry, ministry to bring new life and one way we do that is through acts of forgiveness.

Advent may not be the church season of repentance as we experience during the Season of Lent each spring. But on this second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptizer calls our entire world to repentance. It is not simply a call to say we are sorry. It is about a new perspective. It is about getting right with God–something possible in a new way because of the one for whom we wait, the one who is already Immanuel, God with us, Jesus.

Prayers of Intercession

In this season of watching and waiting, let us pray for all people and places that yearn for God’s presence.

A brief silence.

You send messengers into the world to proclaim the day of your coming. Make our bishops, pastors, deacons, and lay preachers confident in their preaching, that their words and our lives witness to your grace. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

Send your Spirit to all living creatures that are endangered. Provide them with shelter and care, and bring us into right relationship with the earth that you create and call good. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

Send leaders to our nations, cities, schools, and businesses to work on behalf of those who have lost parents, spouses, and loved ones; immigrants; the imprisoned; those living in poverty; and all who are oppressed. Make them bold in their commitments to justice and reconciliation. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

Send your servants to care for those who suffer. Use our ministries and our lives to reach out with compassion to those who are hungry, oppressed, lonely, or ill (especially). Grant them healing and wholeness. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

Send prophets to speak difficult truths, even when they are poorly received. Embolden those who ask hard questions and challenge accepted ways. Instill in youth and elders alike a passion for pointing to Jesus in all things. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

We remember your saints, both those publicly celebrated and those more humbly remembered. Confident that your work will be completed, we live in faith until the day of your coming. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

God of new life, you come among us in the places we least expect. Receive these prayers and those of our hearts, in the name of Jesus.

Amen.

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