by Daniel Harrell
Your preachers this Advent are taking cues from the Lectionary, a three-year cycle of assigned Bible readings for every Sunday of the church year. The Lectionary was compiled by a consultation between a large swath of denominations, from Presbyterians and Lutherans all the way to the Free Methodist Church of Canada and the Polish National Catholic Church. As Congregationalists tend to do their own thing, we weren’t as involved, and thus don’t use the Lectionary that often. Personally, I don’t like that it skips so many of the harder and weirder passages of the Bible. As a mathematician once explained by comparison, you don’t get a choice when it comes to numbers, you can’t say I’ll work with the sevens but skip over the threes. This may be why I wrote a book about Leviticus. But then again, that book’s now out of print.
However, I do like how using the Lectionary means preaching a passage being heard simultaneously by millions of Christians in other churches worldwide. That’s one reason we’re using the Lectionary this Advent. Each of the four Sundays before Christmas has its own focus. The first Sunday is apocalypse, the texts looking more forward that backward, on Jesus’ forecast Second Coming more than his first. Danielle spoke to apocalypse last Sunday. Next Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday, meaning rejoice, though the texts are typically devoted to repentance. Jeff Lindsay is preaching so we’ll let him sort out all that now that he and Tammy have gotten Nicole married. (A beautiful wedding yesterday, by the way, and quite the floor show on Jeff and Nicole’s part. I’m sure somebody will post it on YouTube.) The last Sunday of Advent just before Christmas typically features annunciations, announcements of Christ’s birth by angels especially, and we’ll cover that by hearing our choirs sing like angels during our annual Lessons and Carols service on December 20.
Today’s focus is typically Old Testament prophecy about Jesus, and like next Sunday, often features John the Baptist, regarded as the high water mark of Old Testament prophets. Even though John appears in the New Testament, he acted out Isaiah, looked like Elijah, grew his hair like Samson, bellowed like Jeremiah and baptized like Moses and Joshua, for those willing to see the Red Sea and Jordan River crossings as baptisms, even though nobody got wet. Well, nobody except Pharaoh’s army that got drowned. John was a baptist, but his baptisms weren’t Christian since there was no Christianity yet. Once Jesus did show up, to be baptized himself, John protested that things should work the other way around. There’s a lot to be said about what this meant, and I’ve said some of it in sermons past. Books about it are still in print. But suffice for this morning, understand that John’s baptizing was decidedly Old Testament. Old Testament baptism was a ritual cleansing rite for Gentiles who wanted to join Judaism and partake in the privilege of being chosen people. The shocking part of John’s ministry was that he wasn’t baptizing Gentiles as much as the chosen people themselves, treating Abraham’s descendants by the riverside as if they were outsiders. “Don’t presume you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’;” John howled, “for I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham from rocks.” Being born was not good enough. You had to be born again.
Baptists in the room should be saying Amen. Baptists won’t baptize babies for this same reason—being born is not good enough. There’s a lot more to be said about what this means, and I’ve said some of it in sermons past. Books about it are still in print. But suffice for this morning, we’d all agree that Jesus didn’t need to be born again. But he insisted on baptism and John did it and the skies tore open and the Holy Spirit flew down and the voice of God boomed his blessings: “this is my beloved Son, listen to him.” It must have been quite the moment. It certainly met John’s expectations. “The one who is coming after me is far greater than me,” he’d said. “I’m not fit to untie his shoes. I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and unquenchable fire.” And then sounding like the Old Testament prophet he was, John went on to add about Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will char with unquenchable fire.” Turn or burn.
John went on to rail against every sort of sin, taking aim specifically at the sordidness of Herod Antipas, the local Roman puppet ruler. Herod threw John in jail for sedition, but no matter, John knew he wouldn’t be there for long. Jesus would be bringing down his winnowing fork of fire. But then came the reports. Jesus wasn’t sticking a fork into anybody. Instead, he was walking around preaching sweet sermons about the poor and the meek being blessed and how you should love your neighbor. Silly stuff about loving your enemies and even praying for your persecutors instead of searing them. No unquenchable fire. Not even any quenchable fire. Worried, John sent a message to Jesus to find out what was up. He wanted to know: “Are you sure you’re the right guy, or should we wait for some other Messiah?” Things just didn’t look like John thought they should.
The same with John’s father, Zechariah, the mouthpiece for our Lectionary passage this morning. Zechariah was a minister, an old Jewish priest married to a nice old lady named Elizabeth, with no kids of their own even though they’d longed to have children. Zechariah drew the short straw for incense duty in the temple, a religious ritual dictated by Torah. Incense represented the prayers of the people but also provided a smokescreen of protection against seeing God face to face since that would be fatal. The fact is that it’d been a long time since anybody had come close to seeing or hearing the Lord. Hundreds of years and nary a peep.
This explains Zechariah freaking out like he did when the angel Gabriel appeared and announced that his prayers had been answered. He and Elizabeth would parent a boy named John who’d have prophet-like power to bring people back to God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he’d prepare the way for the Lord. Zechariah scratched his beard. Are you sure you have the right guy? Don’t you know how old we are?
Now I’d like to think that as a minister myself, were an angel ever to show up while I was praying or preaching, I’d believe whatever he said without question. But maybe when you’ve been praying and preaching as long as Zechariah had with so little to show for it, faith wasn’t so easy: Doing the rituals and going through the religious motions, so accustomed to nothing changing that prayer didn’t mean much anymore, too old and too tired to get his hopes up. His country was overrun by an oppressive empire that did whatever it pleased, the local ruler was a crazy man. Zealots and rabbis, conservatives and liberals fought over identity and politics. There weren’t any good jobs anymore. No money saved for retirement. Young people too burdened by debt and lousy, low-paying labor.
A kind of helplessness and bitterness, an edginess sharpened by the horrors of dogmatically driven, gun-wielding fanatics mowing down defenseless people at concerts and restaurants in Paris last month, and this week at a San Bernardino holiday party, the murderers a husband and wife with a newborn at home, religiously radicalized Facebook foreigners, immigrants who’ve moved in and taken all the good jobs and demanded equal treatment, defended by elitist professors and Hollywood celebrities who think he’s stupid for being angry and scared and bothering with prayer in the first place.
You probably saw the much ballyhooed New York Daily News headline this week, politicians mocked for tweeting “thoughts and prayers” for these senseless gun violence victims. GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS! the headline screamed. Frustrated Christians, eager to separate themselves from the hashtag “thoughts and prayers” camp, insist that prayer without works is dead prayer. No more platitudes. Something must be done. Things have to change. But what are people supposed to do? Some say adopt a refugee and show some love. Others say buy a gun and protect your family. Write your representative and demand legislation. Bomb Syria. Move to Canada. It’s all so overwhelming. And so seemingly hopeless. When an angel finally showed up with a solution, he offers a baby born to old people and some other kid born to refugees in a manger. Seriously, what kind of salvation is that? John would end up with his head served up on a platter. Jesus would hang on a tree. God isn’t fixing this.
Friend and author, Andy Crouch reminds, “No honest accounting of history can deny that God, if there is a God, is terrifyingly patient with evil. And yet, over and over and over and over, astonishing goodness, holiness, and reconciliation stubbornly emerge from even the most heinous acts of violence. When Jesus himself voiced the psalms of lament and the anguish of every victim of torture and terror—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—Christians believe God was at work in that moment reconciling the world to himself, and that three long and bitter days later God demonstrated his power to bring life out of death. So even when human beings have done their worst unto death, it is not too late, or ever wrong, to believe and to pray for redemption…”
Zechariah is given time to silently contemplate this. Nine months and eight days, more or less. Gabriel silenced Zechariah—made him unable to speak because he refused to listen. When he finally did speak, at his newborn son John’s infant baptism—in the Old Testament known as a circumcision—Zechariah did more than just speak. He sang. The fix was in fact in. God had been at work all along.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel because he has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior in the royal line of King David the great, just like was promised, in order to save us from our enemies and everyone who hates us.” Zechariah uses the past tense to speak of the future—he declares victory before Jesus is even born. “God has shown mercy,” he sang, as both grace and righteousness, as both reconciliation and retribution, as both forgiving wrong and righting wrong. Deliverance from enemies implies a delivery of justice–which some find offensive. But a God who never does justice for fear of offending must sooner or later be construed as the God who never shows fury toward the offender no matter how vile their offense: a Santa Claus god so benign as to be indifferent, so slow to anger that he is too late to save, a Jesus who suffered the little children to come unto him but not the Christ who warned their abusers would be better off drowned with a millstone tied to their necks. The critical difference is whose hand does the justice.
We are rescued by God from the hands of our enemies, Zechariah sings, a throwback to Moses and the Exodus where God throws back Pharaoh’s armies into the sea, a baptism of a different kind. God’s people were finally freed from fear to worship the Lord in holiness and righteousness all their days, except that they don’t do it. And thus Zechariah adds the coda about forgiveness of sins—how his son will draw God’s people down to the water to wash and get ready for the salvation to come. Not only do we need saving from their enemies. We need saving from ourselves.
Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire, a refiner’s fire that burns with the relentless fury of love. The unquenchable fire of God’s justice prepares the way for the thirst-quenching relief of God’s mercy. And for those quenched by that mercy, our redeemed lives look like righteousness and resurrection—never relying on our own ability to act, but prayerfully reliant on God’s power. The Psalmist declares, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for you have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. We went through water and fire, yet you have brought us out into a place of abundance. Truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.” For those who believe God exists and redeems and refines, to pray is the first move, a necessary surrender to the God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. Action apart from this prayer “is a prideful declaration of independence, the original sin of humanity, the ultimate source of the evil in the world and in our own hearts, the presumption that what is right and good can be known, possessed, or done apart from the only One who is truly good.”
And so we pray to God for help, and for righteousness and goodness, and for peace and forgiveness and justice, we pray for mercy and for belief when it’s hard to believe, and for the Holy Spirit and fire to refine and make new and rid the world of its evil. We pray for love and reconciliation with enemies, for repentance and healing and for resurrection from the dead, for comfort in our grief, for joy in our sadness, for faith focused by doubt, for ears to hear and eyes to see what God has done and what God is doing, and for lips to praise and bless the Lord, and for wisdom to know what is right and courage to do what is right and humility to understand we can’t do it alone and sometimes we can’t do anything except trust the Lord.
Zechariah was already old. He’d be dead before all that he sings about comes to pass. And yet he still sings with the assurance of faith tried by fire: “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 and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Let us join our prayers to his.