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Messenger in the Wilderness

Sunday, December 9, 2018.  Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings:  Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

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Every year on the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent, the church has an up-close and personal encounter with John the Baptist.  John the Baptist is a prophet of repentance who speaks truth to power without fear; people in power don’t always like that.  King Herod executes him for it.  Mark’s gospel tells us that John the Baptist wears camel’s hair, and eats locusts for breakfast.  John is the wild man of the New Testament, who prepares the way for Jesus. Every Advent, the road to Jesus goes straight through John.  If we want to get to Jesus, we must be willing to submit to John’s guidance, to show us the way.  John the Baptist – with all of his wildness, all of his dangerousness – is the way to Jesus, which tells us that Jesus is dangerous, too.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Jesus is good, but he is not safe.

Remarkably, the gospel of Luke begins by first describing, not the birth of Jesus, but the birth of John.  We want to look here at a couple of texts.  Before John is even conceived, the angel Gabriel tells his father Zechariah in 1:17 that (watch this language) “with the spirit and power of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, John the Baptist will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.”  John is going to turn the hearts of parents to their children.  John will live and speak in the way of the prophet Elijah.

Now turn in your pew Bibles to the book for our first reading today, from Malachi.  Around the church office, we pronounce this prophet Muh-lotchi.  But turn to Malachi, right at the end of the OT.  Our reading about the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord, by purifying the people, is from chapter 3.  Now skip forward just a little bit to 4:5. Right here at the end of the Old Testament, as the OT draws to its conclusion, Israel is waiting for the Lord to make a great return, to set everything right, and to usher in what was known as the “day of the Lord.”  And in 4:5, the Lord says to Israel, “I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”  According to Malachi, Elijah will appear on the scene, turn the hearts of parents to their children, to prepare the way for the Lord.

So fast forward to the gospel of Luke, and the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son John will be in the power and the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of parents to their children – just as was promised in Malachi 4.  Attentive readers of Luke would understand that Luke is saying that John represented the return of Elijah, and the return of Elijah was a signal that the Lord himself was returning, that the day of the Lord was at hand.  It’s all coming together. John comes as Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord, who comes in the form of Jesus.  Without John, people are not properly prepared for Jesus.  People need a John to introduce them to Jesus.

As we are moving into the season of Advent, during these turbulent times, as we await the coming of Jesus, this raises two questions for us.  The first question is:  Who is John for you?  And the second is:  Who needs you to be John for them? Who can be a messenger in the wilderness to prepare you for Jesus?  And who needs you to be the messenger in the wilderness for them? How do you need to be prepared to receive Jesus into your own life when he comes?  Then look at others:  Who are you helping to meet Jesus?  Who is John for you? And who needs you to be John for them?

The purpose of John, according to the New Testament story, is to prepare the way for Jesus, to get people ready for Jesus.  John does this by preaching about what is called “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  The way people prepare themselves for Jesus is by becoming aware of their sins, the things that are blocking them from God, the things that are getting in the way of their relationship with God.  Jesus comes to us, bringing salvation to his people by the forgiveness of these sins, the release of these bonds.

But if we can’t identify any sins of ours, or if we are not willing to identify any of our sins, then we may actually think that we don’t really need Jesus.  Jesus comes to heal the sick, not those who insist that they’re doing just fine.  Jesus comes to restore the broken, not those who adamantly claim that they have no problems whatsoever.  Jesus comes to forgive the sinful, not those who think that they are self-righteous all on their own.  This is why the gospel stories portray Jesus as hanging around with, and loving, the messed-up people in his society, while the good religious people tsked-tsked him for not paying better attention to the company he was keeping.

Some smart-aleck person has said that the percentage of people in any congregation who are sinners is roughly 100%.  We are all broken, wounded, sinful people.  That is simply part of who we are.  That is not to beat up on ourselves; it is to tell the truth about ourselves.  If that’s where the story ended, we’d be in bad shape. If our future depended on us getting it right and earning our way into the banquet party, we’d be in a pickle.  But the gracious truth is that God comes to us, and we come to God, much more through our failures and our sins than through our triumphs and our successes and accomplishments.  This is a hard lesson for us to learn, especially for those of us who have managed some degree of success in our lives. When we have achieved some level of success, we may think that we have outgrown our need for God, and we may want others to recognize and applaud our accomplishments. Success and triumph and accomplishment tend to go to our heads pretty quickly, and tend to puff ourselves up, which then doesn’t leave much room for God or for others.  That’s why, in God’s mysterious economy of grace, God comes to us much more through our sins and our failures, offering a love for all people that is not founded on our performance. It turns out that our sins and our failures do not keep God away from us.  When we acknowledge our brokenness, our concrete and actual sins, it is humbling, but it becomes the bridge for us back to God.  That’s what John the Baptists do for us.  They lead us back to God, along the broken path of our sinfulness.

So, when you think of your own relationship to Jesus, who are the John the Baptists in your life, those folks who can help you to notice the things that get in the way of a more open relationship with God and with your neighbor?  What are the things that are getting in your way? Is it your busyness, worries about your future or about your reputation, resentment of what someone else has done to you, regret over something that you’ve done or said to someone else, your desire to control the outcome of some situation?  What are the things you need to name and turn over to God, and who are the John the Baptists in your life who help you do that?  Know that Jesus the Light is waiting for you, ready for you to receive his love that you cannot earn, but can only accept.

And then, when you think of others, to whom might God be sending you?  Who might need you to be John the Baptist for them?  Who in your life needs someone to be with them, needs someone who will notice and understand and be patient with their sins, someone who will understand the way that their sins are getting in their way, and someone who will be able to point the way for them to the loving embrace of Jesus?

John the Baptist is not the Savior.  John is merely a lamp to guide people to the bright and glorious light of Jesus.  Once someone has found the light, the lamp has served its purpose, and it can move on to help someone else.  The lamp can get out of the way.  Who serves as the lamp for you, showing you to the light?  And for whom are you being asked to be a lamp this Advent season?  To God be all the glory.  Amen.