Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon: "Prepare the Way"

Scripture Intro - Luke 1:68-79

Before Jesus of Nazareth, there was John the Baptist.
And in these weeks leading up to Christmas, before we hear Mary sing her Magnificat – her celebratory song about the man her son would grow up to be, 
we hear John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah sing a similar song about his son.
Zechariah’s song is called the Benedictus – which is Latin for “blessed be.”

Luke is a master storyteller.
He doesn’t begin his gospel like Mark – with the story of an adult Jesus and John meeting on the shores of the River Jordan.
And he doesn’t begin his gospel like Matthew – with the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Instead he rolls the timeline back even further, and begins with the story of the birth of John the Baptist.
In fact, Luke spends the whole first chapter of his gospel – all 80 verses - weaving together the stories of Jesus and John.
He prepares the way for one story with the telling of another.

In a few weeks we’ll hear the story of the encounter between Mary and John’s mother, Elizabeth, as they share the news of the sons they are destined to bear,
but today we hear from John’s father, Zechariah.

Zechariah was an old man when the angel Gabriel appeared and told him his wife would bear a son who would prepare the way for God to enter the world.
The angel told Zechariah to name his son John – which means “God is gracious.”

When Zechariah questioned how this could be true given the couple’s advanced age, the angel responded to the old man’s doubt by making him mute.
For the entire length of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he could not say a word.

It was only after his son was born, when the neighbors and relatives were giving Elizabeth a hard time for wanting to name her son, John, rather than Zechariah, after his father, that Zechariah motioned to them to bring him a writing tablet.
And on the tablet he wrote, “His name is John.”  End of discussion.

It was then that Zechariah’s tongue loosened and his voice returned.
And in celebration he sang a song of joy and praise,
for the promise that was about to be fulfilled by Jesus entering the world,
and the role that John would play in preparing the way.

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 9, 2018– Second Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:68-79

“Prepare the Way”

Are you ready for Christmas?
Imagine if you walked in here this morning, picked up the bulletin and saw the date printed on the first page was December 24, 2018?
What if you then watched as Art and Vicky lit all four candles on the Advent wreath including the Christ candle in the center - just before I stood up and said, “We welcome you all to this service of worship here on Christmas Eve.”
How confused and panicked would you be right now?

At first you’d probably think we’d gotten it horribly wrong.
That we must have gotten the worship bulletins mixed up.
I have so many draft bulletins on my desk right now that could easily happen.
But what if we continued on with the service singing Christmas carols and reading the nativity story and then an usher handed you a lit candle as we dimmed the sanctuary lights to sing Silent Night –
and no one else seated around you seemed to think this was strangely premature –
you might begin to think that you were the one who’d gotten it horribly wrong.
That somehow you’d slept through the last two weeks of Advent and tomorrow is in fact Christmas Day.
So I ask again, are you ready for Christmas?

Have you purchased and wrapped ALL of the gifts for everyone on your list?
Is your tree up and decorated, and are the stockings hung by your chimney with care?
Is your house clean – and not just every-day clean – but “there’s company coming over tomorrow including your mother-in-law” clean?
Is all your Christmas baking and grocery shopping done,
and is the Christmas ham or turkey just waiting to be put in the oven – whether you’re cooking it yourself or partaking in it as an invited guest?
And what about your travel plans?
Have you gassed up the car?  Have you checked the weather forecast?
And, since today is Christmas Eve, should you even be here right now – should you already be on the road, or waiting to board your flight at the airport, or safely arrived at your destination?
Are you ready for Christmas?

Forgive me if I’ve made you overly anxious on this Sunday of Peace.
You can relax.
Today really is the Second Sunday of Advent.
You still have a full two weeks to prepare for Christmas Day.

As much as we bemoan the fact that the Christmas season seems to get longer every year, most of us really do need the extra time to prepare.  
Given all the shopping, and cleaning, and decorating, and baking that needs to be done,
and with all the parties, and pageants, and craft fairs that we cram into the weeks leading up to Christmas,
we actually do need a whole month, or two, to prepare for it all.

Can you imagine having only one day to prepare for Christmas?
Or even just one week?

Thankfully, the season of Advent gives us four full weeks to prepare for Christmas day,
but this period of preparation really doesn’t have much to do with cleaning the house, or baking cookies, or rehearsing for pageants,
or worrying that the packages from Amazon won’t arrive on time.

It has everything to do with preparing ourselves for the arrival of the Prince of Peace, the presence of God – who is seeking to take up residence within our hearts.

We know how to prepare when we’re expecting company to arrive.
But we may not know how to prepare when we’re expecting God to arrive.
Especially if we’re expecting God to show up like a judgmental relative - wearing a scowl and a pair of white gloves,
running a divine finger along our baseboards and poking into our dark corners and closets checking for accumulated dust, dirt and clutter,
declaring us as less than worthy of receiving the divine gifts of love and grace.

If we think we have to have the decorations just right,
and the cookies baked to perfection,
and the house looking like a spread in Better Homes and Gardens, before we’re ready for God’s arrival, then we’ll never be ready for God’s arrival.

We’ll always be waiting, anticipating, preparing - stuck in a perpetual state of Advent, longing for Christmas to come.

If you’re familiar with this sense of longing and waiting then you can relate to how Zechariah must have been feeling.
Not just because he and his wife Elizabeth thought they were well past their conceiving years when a messenger from God told them she was carrying the couple’s first child.
But also because Zechariah and Elizabeth had spent their whole lives waiting - waiting for relief – relief from the pain and struggle of living under the rule of a empire that was not their own.
Waiting for the messiah that the prophets had promised so long ago would come to set them free. 

The promises of those prophets were hundreds if not thousands of years old by the time Zechariah walked the earth.
So we may also relate to the apathy or skeptical disbelief that many in his time must have felt when reminded of the ancient ramblings found in the dusty scrolls carried around and quoted by the religious and the righteous.

By the first century, the story of Israel was just one long never-ending tale of living in captivity. 
They’d been tossed out, beaten down, or locked up by one empire after another – first the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Romans.
It’s no wonder that the prophetic voices that called for repentance and adherence to a faith that promised redemption and liberation at the hands of some future Messiah would often fall on deaf ears.

The people were tired of hearing it.
What good would changing their own hearts do, when it was the system and the ones who perpetuated it for their own benefit that needed changing?

What good would it do to cling to the hope that SOME DAY a light would come to drive out the darkness, when they were struggling in the here and now?
Hope doesn’t put food on the table, or pay for oil for the lamps, or keep your enemy from stealing the land out from underneath you.

We may think we don’t have much in common with the people who wrote the stories in this ancient book, but our time and their time is not all that different.
We’re connected across the millennia by our humanity.

We too live in a world where the sun rises and then sets, leaving us in the dark for long stretches of time.
We too live in a world where wild fires burn, flood waters rise, and the earth shakes seemingly at will.
We too live in a world where dictators rule, children go hungry, and nations go to war over land and resources and power.
We too live in a world that longs for a messiah, a savior, a redeemer, a light that shines in the darkness.

Zechariah was a priest, a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron,
so he likely held onto the hope that many others had already given up on.
When Zechariah learned that God would soon fulfill the long awaited promise – and would do so by giving him a son – John – who would prepare the way for the One to come –  he lifted up his voice in song:
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness…
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah sang his song into a world that was not prepared for God’s arrival.
Despite the thousands of years of notice.
The table was not set, the corners were not swept,
Very few had gifts they were prepared to give.
But God came anyway.

In the form of a gentle teacher, compassionate healer, and merciful messenger.
And as it turns out, there were enough hearts that were prepared to welcome such a God and provide space for an extended stay.

There were enough who realized that the only way to make room for hope, for joy, for love, for peace,
is to let go of the accumulated fear, and anger, and apathy, and judgment…
To clear out the clutter that keeps us from feeling ready to welcome God,
but to not worry so much about the dirt and dust that has collected in the corners.

Because hope doesn’t need a heart that is completely free of despair to take root.  
Just as joy does not need a heart that denies its sadness.
And peace does not need a heart that is free of conflict.
And love does not need a heart that does not know what it means to fear.

The God who came into this world in a manger, needs only a small yet welcoming space to find a home.

Are you ready for Christmas?
Now is the time to prepare.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

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