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Voices in the Wilderness

December 10, 2006, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Second Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6;

Each second Sunday of Advent we find ourselves drawn back into the wilderness to listen to John's message. But did you notice the way Luke introduced John? Why is Luke so preoccupied with this detailed survey of Roman and Jewish figures as he prepares to bring John center stage? The list includes the Emperor himself, four regional governors--the two most prominent being Herod in Galilee and Pontius Pilate in Judea--and two Jewish high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. These are more than historical markers. These are men of power and influence who will play a role in the gospel that is about to unfold. Luke has set the stage, and it turns out to be the world, for a world-shaping event is about to take place. God's messenger is coming, caustic, like a refiner's fire or fuller's soap, to purify God's people so that they can serve him rightly.

That promise had been made some four hundred years earlier, by the prophet Malachi. The people had returned from exile, reoccupied Jerusalem, rebuilt the temple, and then fallen into the routines of life under Persian rule. By Malachi's day, deliverance from Babylonian exile seemed more the result of geo-political events than God's intervention on Israel's behalf. The notion of God breaking into their world seemed as remote then as now, when indifference and cynicism to the presence of God in daily life is the norm in all but political speeches,1 and God is relegated to the realm of the private, "spiritual" side of life, while in public life we remain pragmatic. It is in this context that the messenger appears.

And what is his message? The Lord is coming. Make his path straight. Repent and be baptized. John is calling on the people to slip out of their lethargy and to submit their ways to God's ways, their priorities to God's priorities, their ethics to God's ethics, their purposes to God's purposes. The long awaited One is coming.

You and I hear this story and assume that John's words brought with them a power and veracity that was surely self-authenticating. After all, just a few verses later we read that huge crowds came out to him to be baptized.2 But was it really that simple? Were there not other voices in that wilderness, voices calling for the people to submit to other ways, other priorities, other ethics, and other agenda? Why should that day have been any different than our own today? If there were but one voice in the wilderness of 21st century confusion, things would be easy. But, but there are many: some political, some financial, some scientific, others psychological, sociological, and of course, many are religious. So, which voice, amid the voices in the wilderness, is God's voice? Notice the word of God did not come to the Emperor, the governors, nor even the high priests. It came to John. So how are you and I to determine to whom the Word of the Lord has truly come?

A hint to answering that question comes in the texts themselves; for Malachi it has to do with the impact of the message--it purifies. Advent not only makes promises, it calls for change--God is coming!--a word that should be both hopeful and fearful. There is a frighteningly hopeful newness promised in God's coming, but it is also terrible--terrible because it promises to overthrow all our old, comfortable, sinful ways. Yet, it is hopeful for precisely those same reasons.3 Advent may point us back to the "Babe of Bethlehem," but it is not a baby we are expecting this time. We await the Risen Lord, who will come and bring all things under his reign. He will make all things new--all things--not just our worst efforts, but even our best. Even our best efforts at faithfulness will be purified--the dross of religious self-interest burned away--so that our service is motivated simply out of our love and devotion, rather than the "shoulds" that so often stand behind religious behavior. Think of a world with no "shoulds." Think of a world in which we love and serve God and love and serve one another simply because we love God and all God loves.... I don't know about you, but that is going to take some significant purification on my part! The One who is coming will challenge and change us--purify us--not simply comfort and confirm us. All dross is to be destroyed and the world purified. One sign of God's word in life is this: it challenges and changes as well as comforts and confirms.

A second hint to where God's voice may be found in the wilderness is in the prophetic reference Luke employs to validate John--the words of the prophet Isaiah. We heard them beautifully proclaimed last Sunday, as Scott Williamson sang Handel's "Every Valley" during communion distribution. "Every valley shall be exalted--raised up, filled up--and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain." It is a grand excavation of the holy highway for God. All obstacles will be removed; anything that would retard or impede the swiftness of God's coming will be straightened out. The words are so familiar to us that we have probably missed something extraordinarily significant in them: every verb in that passage is in the passive voice. Now, what does that mean for those of us who do not daily live in the literary world of grammar? It means that this is God's work. It is God who will fill in the potholes, God who will excavate the mountains and hills to fill in the low places, God who prepares the way for God's coming.

But if this is God's doing, then what are we to do? We are to listen for the right voice in the wilderness, and remain faithful to it in our wait--faithful in those places where he has already come, faithful in those places where we experience him coming to us again and again, and faithful in those places where he yet promises to come.

What does it mean for you to be faithful in those places where he has already come and were he continues to come? You are here today for a reason. Well, actually, you are probably here for many reasons, but whether you know it or not, your being here is being faithful to where he has already come. Here is where that story is told. Here is where that is remembered. Here is where the meaning of that is proclaimed in ways that touch us in our day-to-day living.

And your being here is being faithful to those places where he continues to come. This is where the Coming One meets us in our worship, feeds, sustains and prepares us for his final coming. This is where he continues to come to us.

Being here is essential if you are going to bear him faithfully in the other places of your life, being faithful in those places he has yet to come. What does it take to remain faithful in a world where good and evil appear on the stage together, and are neutralized in the name of pragmatism? What does it take to live faithfully in a world in which a nation's behavior is justified because that is the way other nations behave? What does it take to live faithfully in a world where biblical ethics are thrown to the wind because they are neither pragmatic nor popular? A messenger has appeared on the scene like a refiner's fire or fuller's soap, announcing the coming of God. Were John to appear in this sanctuary today, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, how would your life have to change?

But it is not simply a messenger that has appeared--the message itself has come as well. The One for whom John prepared the way has come, and continues to come to all who will welcome him, purifying them so that they can serve God in righteousness. The gospel's story is not over yet. Its conclusion still lies out on the horizon. God is still at work in the world, moving all of life into God's future until all flesh sees the salvation of God. Until that day we wait in hope, sustained by the knowledge that the One who comes to us here in this time of worship, the One who comforts and sustains us is also challenging and purifying, and is the One who will come in the fullness of God's time, not only as our judge, but also our redeemer.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

  1. Thomas Dozeman, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 32.
  2. Luke 3:7
  3. Cousar, Gaventa, McCann and Newsome, "Introduction to the Second Sunday in Advent," Texts for Preaching--Year C, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 10.

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