Prepare the way for the return of the King

Sermon, December 9, 2018 – Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Malachi 3:1-4; The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1: 68-79); Luke 3:1-6

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  As most of us know, in the Church year, the season of Advent immediately precedes our celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world on Christmas Day.  Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming.  Each Sunday in Advent has a theme related to how we might look forward to the coming of Jesus.  Last week, we celebrated with a festival of Advent lessons and carols. We heard how sin entered into our world through Adam and Eve, how the prophets foretold the coming of Jesus to redeem us from our sins, and how God revealed the coming birth of the Messiah to Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

Today’s Advent theme is very clear from our readings and the collect which we heard earlier in the service.  Let’s hear it again “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”  Today we heard Malachi’s prophesy of how the Messiah will come like a Refiner’s Fire, burning away all impurity.  We heard Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s call for repentance, echoing the prophet Isaiah.  And we read together the song of Zechariah,praising God for sending the Messiah as promised by the prophets of old.

Our readings tell us why the Messiah came to earth and what our part in that was.  The problems that beset the Israelites in the time of Malachi and Isaiah still beset us today.  We have turned our back on God and disobeyed his commandments.  As a consequence, we live in slavery to sin and in a world in need of redemption.

Before we look at our readings for today, we need to briefly consider what the Old Testament tells us about our human tendency to sin and to disobey God, and the many promises and actions of God to lift us out of sin.  In our first lesson last week during Lessons and Carols, we saw that the problem started at the very beginning when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden.  Later in Genesis, we learn that humans became so wicked that God almost destroyed everyone in a flood, but he saved Noah and his family.

God’s greater plan for salvation began when he called Abraham out of the city of Ur, located in what is now southern Iraq, and promised to make his descendants into a great nation.  But before this could take place, during the time of Joseph, the Israelites moved to Egypt and became slaves to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  God saved his people out of Egypt during the Exodus, and, despite their complaints against God and their disobedience, God made a covenant with them at Mt.Sinai.  God set out his law, including the Ten Commandments, and established the sacrificial system in which the blood of animals was offered up in atonement for the sins of the people.

The Israelites inhabited the promised land of Canaan, but repeatedly turned their back on God and disobeyed him.  God continually had to step in and save them from the consequences of their disobedience.  God established David as the king of Israel and made an important covenant with him, promising that David’s line would always rule over Israel.  God warned the Israelites however, that if they disobeyed him and turned to other gods, that they would suffer terrible consequences, including military defeat and enslavement by their enemies.  Sure enough, the Israelites turned away from God and engaged in flagrant disobedience, turning to pagan gods.  As a result, the great empires of the time, Assyria and Babylon, invaded and defeated the kings of Israel and Judah and forced the people into exile.

This is the context into which the Old Testament prophets wrote to the people.  The prophets reminded the people that God promised to come and save them from their slavery and oppression if they would turn to him.  The covenant that God had made with the Israelites called on them to serve and obey Him.  God was not some supernatural mercenary force that the people could pay to come and bail them out and then resume their disobedience.  No, the people needed first to put aside their pagan gods and return to their true God.  Only then would God return to save his people.

Note a couple of things.  First, there was a need for the people to repent.  Continuing on in their sinful and disobedient ways was not an option. If they looked to God for salvation, they needed to repent and return to God.  This makes sense and applies to us today as well.  If we disregard God and ignore him, we are not likely to call on him for our rescue.  On the other hand, if we truly do call out to God to save us, it implies that we are acknowledging our need for God.

Second, the repentance and returning to God wasn’t what would save the people.  Rather the repentance set the stage for God to step in and save us from that which is far too powerful for us to defeat –be it our enemies, our lustful appetites, our selfishness, or our sins.  Our obedience does not save us.  Rather it is our turning to God that makes us open to taking hold of God’s promise of salvation to us.  Only God can save us.

So with that, let’s turn to our reading from Malachi.  Malachi writes that God will send his messenger to prepare the way.  Then he says that the Messiah, who the people are seeking, will come to his temple.  So far, so good.  But then Malachi asks“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.”  When the Messiah comes, he will bring some hard-core cleansing. When workers refined metal, they used a very hot fire to heat the metal to a molten state and then skimmed off the dross.  In ancient times, people doing laundry would scrub their clothes with a very caustic soap that was effective in removing all stains.  These are both illustrations of what we can expect when Jesus enters our lives – he will purify us from our sins and that experience won’t always be comfortable for us.  But it is necessary.

In our Gospel reading from Luke, we are introduced to John the Baptist who went about “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke makes it clear that John was preparing the way for Jesus, and he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.”  First century Jews would have known the rest of the Isaiah passage from which this is taken.  We can find it today in Isaiah chapter 40.  This is a very famous chapter which looks forward to the coming of the Messiah.  Listen to me read part of it for you.

Comfort,comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.  You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.  See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:  He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

In this passage we hear that even though our faithfulness is like grass that withers, God’s word endures forever.  Isaiah wrote this prophecy when Israel was in deep trouble due to its unfaithfulness to the Lord.  The people had no right to expect that God would save them.  And yet, we hear God speak tenderly to his people and proclaim comfort for his people.  God declares that Israel’s sin has been paid for.  The Lord will come and tend his flock like a shepherd, gathering us into his arms and carrying us close to his heart.

This is what John the Baptist was proclaiming says Luke.  It is Jesus Christ to whom John was pointing.  Jesus Christ who, despite our unfaithfulness has paid for our sins.  Jesus Christ who speaks tender words of comfort to us.  And Jesus Christ who would gather us into his arms and carry us close to his heart.  Preparing for our Messiah is what the season of Advent is all about.  Repenting of that which pushes Jesus away from us. Confessing our sins so that we can receive the forgiveness that Jesus won for us.

Our repentance does not make us worthy of God’s salvation.  Rather,God is reaching out to us, even though we have turned away from him and put ourselves and our sinful desires first in our lives.  Repentance is our necessary step to receiving God’s salvation.  Think of it this way –if you are in a battle, and you come to realize that the army you are fighting is actually in the right, and they have proclaimed to you that they will treat you honorably and fairly if you stop fighting, you must first surrender, lay down your arms and present yourself to the other side before you can cast yourself on their mercy.  This is a basic necessity.  And this is like what repentance is.  In fact, this is exactly what repentance is.  Turning away from that which is hostile to God so that you can receive God’s love for you.

The Song of Zechariah, which we said together in place of the Psalm today, and which can be found in Luke 1 brings this all together.  In this song,Zechariah sang about the coming Messiah, recounting how the coming of Jesus fulfills God’s promises made of old.  We heard about some of these promises earlier on in this sermon, including the major promises made to Abraham and David.

Zechariah tells us that Jesus will come “To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.  In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  We hear again the themes of God’s compassion towards us and the forgiveness of our sins.  We hear also of how Jesus Christ will break through to us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and that he will bring to us the light of God just as the dawn follows a long night.

I don’t know about you, but as I meditated on and pondered all of our readings today, I was greatly moved to thankfulness and rejoicing.  As I look around the world today, I see a world cast in the shadow of sin and death.  A world in which darkness seems to prevail at every turn.  A world of greed,self-centeredness, and self-interest.  A world of radical disobedience to God, and indeed a world which proudly and affirmatively turns its back on God.  But this is the world to which the prophets of the Old Testament spoke to.  It’s nothing new.  It’s what’s always been.

And God is breaking through the shadow, darkness, sin and disobedience. Zechariah tells us that “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”  Jesus has come.  Our redemption is at hand.  Come, let us prepare ourselves to receive him.  After my prayer, we will sing together Hymn 67 “Comfort, comfort ye my people”, which is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40.  Let that be our prayer this Advent.

Let us pray, hearing again the words of today’s Collect. 

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.