This is the Promised Prophet? (December 9, 2018)
Luke 1: 67-80
This is the Promised Prophet?
Advent in the church is our season of preparation. It is the season that we prepare for the coming of Jesus. And the name Advent comes from a Latin word with a very similar connotation: adventus. This meant “is coming,” as in “he is coming.” This is what they would say when the king, or the emperor, or the local ruler, or someone like that was coming. They would send an envoy, a Messenger, ahead that would say “the Emperor is coming!” “The king is coming!” “The king adventus!” And this would tell the town: you need to get ready, you need to prepare. Any old buildings falling apart? Tear them down, we don’t want the king to see that! Or maybe fix them. Get yourselves tidy, get your best clothes on, because the king is coming.
Preparing for company looks a lot like that nowadays. And Advent is really a lot like that. We are preparing for company, we are preparing for the coming of Jesus into our midst. And of course in Advent we are called to prepare well. The standard joke that comes on sitcoms and cartoons is when someone is preparing for company they will take everything in the house, all the clutter that they’ve allowed to accumulate over the years, the dust that came into their lives; and they take it all in the shove it into the closet. So when the company comes over it looks majestic and wonderful in the house. It looks like everything is in order and there’s nothing to see here; and then the company goes to hang up their coats, and they open the closet and are buried in stuff that’s falling from from the ceiling. You know that that joke. Does that describe the way anyone prepares for company in here? My personal hand is raised here, and not just as an example. This is how I have a tendency sometimes to prepare for company: take everything and just shove it away in the guest bedroom and shut the door.
Do you think they did that though when Messenger walked in the city gates and said the king is coming? I hope not. I hope they didn’t just take everything that cluttered up their streets and their city and shove it in one house, and then tell the king, “OK, don’t go in that house. Everything else is fine, just don’t go there.” I suspect that they prepared their city for the coming of the king a lot more like what my wife does to prepare for company. She will take a week if she has it, and she will deep clean everything. We will clean the baseboards. We will vacuum and clean the carpets. We will clean every dish in the house twice. Everything has its home. There’s 17 bags of trash to go out that week; because we are preparing for company! And when company arrives, and my wife was in charge of the cleaning, they can open all the closets and rooms they want and they won’t get hit with a pile of stuff, because it’s been prepared. We are prepared for their coming.
In this season of Advent, we are called prepare our souls. We are called to prepare our lives for the coming of Christ. And we are called to prepare ourselves in a way far more similar to the way my wife prepares for company then the way that I do. And while preparing the house for company is difficult, imagine preparing your soul. There’s a reason that even my wife only spends a week preparing for company, but this season is amount is a month.
Now then imagine trying to prepare someone else’s house for company, maybe trying to prepare your son-in-law or daughter-in-law‘s house for company that they thought wasn’t coming for several more weeks. This is family, this is someone that you care about, this someone that you know. But it is not someone that is going to be overly eager for you to come into their place and mess around with things, and throw things away, and move things. Now imagine if you’re trying to prepare their house, and they didn’t invite you to help. Do you think they’re going to react positively or negatively?
This is what John the Baptist is called to do, except he’s doing it with souls. John had to be stark enough in what he is saying, he has to speak with enough authority, to get through to the people that this is going on now. He’s asked to sit here and say that “the King is coming,” and he has to get some urgency going. Because God had been sending envoys to the people of Israel for 500 years saying “I am coming.” “I am coming.” “I am coming.” “I am coming.” And they’ve done nothing to prepare. And now God is just days away, he’s just outside the city gates, and John has been tasked with saying “hey! The king is coming! Get ready!” The fact he was so successful with as many as he was is astonishing.
If you read John’s message and look at what John was doing, he doesn’t seem to be bringing peace. And this week is about peace. Next week we’re going to continue John’s message, and the first thing we’re going to read in the rest of the message is “you brood of vipers, who told you to escape the coming wrath.” That’s not very peaceful. Next week is joy. There’s not much joy here either. And yet it was because John’s job was to prepare for the coming of Jesus. And if we don’t think of peace and joy with John, I hope we do with Jesus. John was preparing the people to receive the peace and the joy and the love, not of John, but of Jesus.
And this is a peace that they did not know. There are different kinds of peace in this world. There’s a kind of peace that is brought about by force, and is that enforced by truce or contract. This is the kind of peace that Rome brought. Rome called themselves bringers of peace. They were liberators to their people. Caesar was called a Prince of peace in that same way, a king of peace; because Rome brought peace. There was peace in Rome, and prosperity in Rome. But it was tenuous and was always vulnerable to anyone who dared stand up to them in rebellion. If rebellion broke out there would be peace no longer, Rome would respond with force just to keep the peace. Peace within the empire was contingent, it was held together by truce. It was more like the treaty of Versailles that ended World War I: there was peace in Europe and the world, but it was a peace that was only lasting as long as one side thought itself inferior to the other. As soon as that stopped the peace was no longer viable, and war was bound to happen again.
There’s a second kind of peace when the two sides agree to actually put down their arms. In the first kind of peace they’re still pointing their swords at each other, it’s just that one side knows they’re never going to actually swing it. This second kind a peace they actually lay down their weapons. They still have them, but they lay them down. And they enter into an agreement that is “I’m going to try and improve myself, and if I improve you at the same time that’s fantastic. I wish you well.” This is kind of like the United Nations, this is kind of like the peace after World War II. It has been more lasting. These peace deals are far more lasting because it is built upon an agreement, because the weapons are not always at the ready and pointed at each other. But it still vulnerable to someone later saying, “this isn’t good for me now,” and withdrawing from the agreement. The peace is still temporary, even if it is a little more lasting.
There is a third kind of peace, and this is the peace that was in focus throughout a lot of the old medieval Europe, as much as that ever could have peace. What they were going for was the peace where not only am I entering into an agreement with you where we’re both gonna try and better ourselves, but actually I am agreeing to become one with you. This was when the ruling families of Europe would enter into marriages with each other. When they agreed to an alliance, they would often wed a member of their family with a member of the other family. This way, whenever the thought of going to war would come up, they would remember they would be going to war with their nephew they would be going to war with their family. They would be going to war with themselves in a way. Whenever they looked at the other nation, they would be looking at part of themselves. They were agreeing to kind of become one. And the higher up the marriage went in the kingdom the more united they would be. And if the king himself was involved with the marriage it could lead to the uniting of the kingdoms. That happened in the British Isles, which formed Great Britain.
I say all that to point out that this is what Jesus is doing. God is becoming one with us. God is entering into this kind of third-level peace with the world. And now whenever God looks at humanity, God will see Jesus; God will see himself in the midst of it. Whatever happens to humanity happens to God. That is the kind of peace that Jesus promises to us, a kind of peace that Rome could never know. This is the kind of peace that John is trying to prepare the people to experience; this kind of otherworldly, unknown peace.
It was unknown in the world, even though it was promised throughout the ages that there would come a messiah who would bring peace that surpasses all understanding, and that before the messiah came there would come Elijah, a prophet, a messenger to go before him to prepare the way for the Lord, to make straight the paths of God.
I get the feeling that whatever the people were looking for in that moment it was not John the Baptist. Whatever it was they, especially the leaders, were expecting Elijah to look like when he came it was not John the Baptist. Maybe they should’ve, because if you look at what Elijah did in his lifetime he did crazy things a lot, like John the Baptist did. But I don’t think they were expecting a man dressed in wild clothes, with unkempt hair, out in the desert eating locusts and wild honey. John was not the kind of person they expected a prophet to be. And I can just imagine the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming out to him to going, “This is the promised prophet? This is God‘s chosen one? This guy is who we’re supposed to listen to?” Yet, this is how God answers promises; often in unexpected ways.
God has promised you something, and it’s a promise we call upon multiple times in the year but especially in Advent. God is promising to lead you to a more perfect and peaceful life. All of those scriptures about God molding you and shaping you, that you are a bit of clay and God is the potter, that God is working the impurities out in you, that you will become a work of art for God; all of those properties are about this promise: that God will work with in your life to perfect you. God refines us and purifies us.
Part of doing that is God calling us to repentance. Part of doing that is God calling us to prepare ourselves to work during this season of Advent and during Lent, and during the tough seasons of our lives; to allow God to pop the air bubbles within our clay, to work out the impurities within us, to make us that work of art.
I want you to think about Advent and what God is trying to do in your life this week. Is God making you rethink things? Is God making you look at the world a little differently? Is God making you question the assumptions you made about other people? About nations? Is God humbling you? Judith Jones, in one of the things I read this week, said this: “John calls us to let God’s bulldozers reshape the world’s social systems and the landscape of our own minds and hearts. God’s ways are not our ways. But God’s ways lead to salvation.” May God lead you this week, and bring you on toward perfection in this way during this season of Advent. This is my prayer for you. Amen.