And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius … the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
My father would never have claimed to have been a prophet but based on a comment he made to me one day you might think so. It was the early spring of my last year in high school; I had just told him of my plan not to pursue any further formal education upon graduation. My father had only a grade 10 education—everything else was by self-education. His only comment was that he was disappointed for me because he thought I could have achieved academically whatever I set out to do. That was all he said about it. Since that day I have been engaged in a formal education programme for most of my life. It is amazing how a little word can profoundly seed the imagination of a young person. I am sure that there were times when my father wondered if I would ever finish school.
1. Keep that thought in your mind of how profoundly a little word can seed the imagination as we come to the gospel story. Zechariah is the father of the prophet we know as John the Baptist. Picture him this day holding his newborn son; his little baby boy cradled in him arms telling him how delighted he is to have him in his life. “Filled with the Spirit,” scripture informs us, “he spoke this prophesy.” “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”
This sentence is the compilation of two texts of scripture from what we call the Hebrew Bible. First from the prophet Malachi (Malachi 3:1)—which we read from for our Older Testament lesson—“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” The second is from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3). “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” I am sure that it wasn’t just as an infant that John heard his father’s word that “you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”
Fast forward about thirty years. Luke tells us that “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Luke is using a well-known formula that was used for many of God’s prophets to Israel—the word of God (or the Lord) came to (name of the prophet). Think about John at this moment and how his father’s word seeds his imagination—you will be called the prophet of the Most High. John would have known well the promise of God through the prophet Malachi—“see, I am sending my messenger.”
But when it says that the word of God came to John what word is Luke talking about. Luke gives us a clue when he cites the prophet Isaiah 40:3-5: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This is the word Zechariah whispers to the infant John; the same word that now informs John in his ministry and preaching.
The church season of Advent is a season for getting ready—as season of preparing for something that is coming. I invite you to take note of something about Zachariah and John in their readiness that I think is instructive for us. Please note their attentiveness to God’s word. Consider how their engagement with scripture seeded their imaginations in preparation for the coming of the Lord—for the appearance of the salvation of God. John would preach that the one coming after me; his sandals I am not worthy to unloose.
Attentiveness to God’s word is demonstrated to us by how these men lived. Because of this attentiveness they anticipated that it was God who would come among them. We too come to know that this babe of Bethlehem is not just any child even though we know every child is precious. The Christmas message of good will isn’t a general message of “let’s all just get along” but the specific message of the One whose will it is to come among us in Jesus of Nazareth. It is God’s good that has come among us.
Last week when as we considered this theme of Advent readiness we wrote down “oriented to God’s redemptive plan.” In this message I am inviting you to also write “attentive to God’s word.” So mark and know scripture such that they seed your imaginations as you get ready. There is nothing wrong with planning meals, and family get-together, and getting decorations in place, and wrapping gifts but none of these tell us why we celebrate. Let the word of Isaiah seed your imagination that at Christmas “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” To see the child is to see God’s salvation.
2. The Synod of Barmen was a meeting of German Protestant leaders at Barmen, in May 1934, to organize Protestant resistance to National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany. The synod was of decisive importance in the development of the German Confessing Church. The theologian Karl Barth was instrumental in framing this document. The first article reads this way: “Jesus Christ, as he is testified to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death.”
Shortly after the framing of this declaration Barth’s commentary on the Book of Romans appeared embodying Barth’s discernment contained in the Barmen Confession. The commentary “burst like a bombshell on the playground of the European theologians,” according to a Roman Catholic scholar. Controversy erupted and never abated. Yet Barth refused to surrender the apostles’ conviction of the uniqueness of the Incarnation. When he was harassed and mocked by political authorities, university faculties, and ecclesiastical bureaucrats, he insisted that the Church always falls down in unfaithfulness and disgrace when it fails to understand three small words: his only Son.
One of the things I so appreciate about Barth is his attentiveness to the word of God announced in the good news of Jesus Christ. Barth reads John 3:16 that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son and he sees in its application the call to resist Nazism. Only Jesus Christ is to be obeyed and so he must resist the state demanding his allegiance to that which is not gospel. I think of how many times I have read John 3:16 and such detail escaped me. Three little words; his only Son. This is Christmas. Four little words for our text today; the salvation of God. This is Bethlehem’s child.
When Barth was over eighty years-of-age an elderly woman in a Zurich nursing home wrote to tell him how much his printed sermons meant to her and to the ninety-eight year old resident to whom she red them. He replied, “I have no fewer than eleven honorary doctorates, but none has given me more pleasure than your little letter. . . .” He concluded, “God grant you both more of his incomparable light.”
When we are attentive to God’s word; allowing God’s disclosure in Jesus Christ to seed our imaginations; such attentiveness points us to the future only God can imagine both here in this life and in the one to come. To treasure and reflect on this word given us by God is to render ourselves open to God to grant us more and more of his incomparable light. “Prepare the way of the Lord.” This word seeding John’s imagination energized his work and ministry. He is preparing the way for God! May such wonder also energize all our Christmas celebrations.
3. In our advent attentiveness to God’s word I invite you to write this word in bold and underline it: promises. The reason that Zechariah and John anticipated and got ready was because of the promises of God. Our Puritan fore parents in faith correctly noted, for example, that all God’s commands were covered promises. The command not to steal, positively understood, calls us not just to merely refrain from stealing but to promote the prosperity of the neighbour and carries with it all the blessings (think “promise”) God intends.
Advent is the season that anticipates something coming because of the promises of God. And not just Advent, of course, but the whole Gospel. Luke clearly invites us to see John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that one will come crying out in the wilderness. The text Luke cites from what we know as the fortieth chapter of Isaiah was given to Israel at one of the low points in its history; Babylonian captivity. It begins with, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” and ends with those treasured words, “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” It’s the whole of Isaiah’s promise of comfort, deliverance, and renewal that the gospel is claiming happens in the ministry of the one John heralds.
And the thing about promises is that they are not static. Not ever. Rather, promises – if you hear and believe them – create an expectation about the future and set something in motion. When I promise my grandchildren a trip to McDonald’s on a hot summer day in exchange for their cooperation they can already see themselves licking ice cream. When a friend promises you a ride to an event, you don’t make other arrangements – why should you; you’ve got a promise. Promises create an expectation about the future and that future expectation sets something in motion right here and right now in the present.
The same is true about God’s promise. Truth be told, even more so. And that, perhaps, is the key message of Advent. That in the stable at Bethlehem God is not only keeping promises God made to Israel but also making promises to us. That in Jesus, God hears our cries of fear and concern and doubt at our lowest points and responds.
4. As we think about being attentive to God’s word it is important to distinguish between the one Word of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures that testify to him. Jesus in not the Bible and the Bible is not Jesus. However, the gospel (good news articulated) is inseparable from him whose gospel it is; correct articulation of the gospel is related to the reality of living person, Jesus Christ.
“If you want to behold the child,” said Martin Luther, “then you must go to the manger.” Plainly Luther knew the manger to be the place (the only place) where the Christ child was laid. In his characteristically earthy manner Luther wanted us always to be aware of the crucial relationship between Jesus Christ and the Bible. Only as we immerse ourselves in the book that speaks of Him can we apprehend, cherish, and prophet from Jesus Christ. At the same time, we shouldn’t confuse the book with Him who is Lord of the book. We shouldn’t mix up the manger and the One who was found only there—yet forever transcends it.” (Victor Shepherd, Our Evangelical Faith, Clements; 2006, p.27)
Every time I return to the Christmas story I am increasingly astonished at the faith of this young teenage girl named Mary. I know that Paul wrote to young Timothy “let no one despise you youth.” (1 Timothy 4:12) Even so I am amazed at someone so young with such profound trust in God. It is her response to the Angel Gabriel that sticks with me; “let it be to me according to your word.” That little sentence percolating in my imagination speaks volumes in guiding my trust of God. No doubt you have sentences that hold you in faith; who among us does not treasure the opening line of Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was 19 years of age in 1853 when he was called to the pastorate of Metropolitan Chapel in London England. He was a gifted preacher. The congregation quickly outgrew their building, and moved to Exeter Hall, then to Surrey Music Hall. In these venues Spurgeon frequently preached to audiences numbering more than 10,000. At 22, Spurgeon was the most popular preacher of the day.
Spurgeon maintained that if people are standing around a tiger cage debating the nature and power of the tiger in it, many different arguments will be brought forward even as some people believe them and others don’t. He further noted that there is only one way of persuading people conclusively of the tiger’s nature and might: let it out of the cage. It is as Scripture is used in the Church’s life and work and in the believer’s life—“uncaged”—that it will persuade people of its inherent nature and might in the course of persuading them of Christ’s.
The whole purpose of the Book of the Lord is to effect our adoring surrender to the Lord of the Book.
In 2014 Latvia’s capital city Riga was named as one of two European Capitals of Culture for that year. On January 18 (2014) around 15,000 Latvians celebrated this honour by forming a human chain moving 2000 books by hand to the new national library. Temperatures were as low as -14C. This human chain was a deliberate echo of 1989's Baltic Way when some two million protesters formed a human chain across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to fight for independence from the Soviet Union.
Buried at the end of the news story was this line. “The first book to be placed on the shelves in the new building was a copy of The Bible.” May it be the “first book” our lives. Amen.