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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 12/06/2015

Out in the wilderness, the prophet John is preaching the word of God that’s come to him, this man who is the son of Zechariah, the priest we heard prophesying in our psalm today. Zechariah had a vision of his child going forth to prepare the way of Jesus, and it begins to be fulfilled in our Gospel reading.

God has chosen this itinerant preacher, this totally uncivilized man we remember from the book of Mark as the guy dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild locusts, this twenty-something man who lives in a wasteland, a place of chaos and disorder, where robbers lurk and ferocious animals kill their prey. John is preaching to people who dare to venture out from the cities and towns. The Lord hasn’t picked someone who is wealthy, dressed in fine clothes and living in a palace to deliver God’s message, but the unlikely figure of John preaching in the wilderness.

As he begins, John the Baptist repeats words from the book of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth.” Leveling, aligning, smoothing. Setting right the path, the road for the Lord. Evening things out and making a journey possible. Preparing.

In quoting 2nd Isaiah, he’s reminding his followers about a section of the Hebrew Bible written centuries earlier, a time when their forefathers and foremothers had been hauled off by Nebuchadnezzar, their possessions taken from them, their nation defeated, and Jerusalem destroyed. This had been a time of judgment and downfall, an era the people of John’s time haven’t forgotten.

John is reminding the people that, back then, Isaiah was expressing hope, because God was acting to free the people. God was showing grace and preparing for a return from Babylonian exile.

And the people in the wilderness know this centuries-old story. It’s familiar, but in their time and place it takes on new meaning. The Baptist is re-stating the text for their situation in these early days of the 1st century. They’re living in Judea, and the people aren’t dealing with the Babylonians anymore but with the Roman Empire. The Luke reading begins by providing us with a setting in time, mentioning Tiberius and Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias – they had titles like emperor, governor, rulers, and one of them even sought the title of king.

People in John’s time are dealing with issues of power and control over their land. They face overwhelming debt and excessive taxes, leaving most of the citizens powerless and in a struggle to survive. They not only deal with Roman political domination, but their religious leadership, the priests, and rabbis, and scribes are part of a system of power and privilege that excludes 80 to 90 percent of the population.  There are enormous differences in wealth and power between the elite and the non-elite of Judea.

Yet, through John, a faithful God is again sending a word of hope, announcing the coming of the long-awaited Lord and the need to prepare the way. People flock to the Baptist to hear that the Lord is coming, not just for the powerful and rich, but for all.

Out in wilderness, John begins by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Verse 3 of our reading is quite the phrase isn’t it? A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What does this mean? How do we begin to understand a prophet like John?

The scholars tell us that John is asking people to change their hearts, to get ready for something completely new and unexpected and different, something that is going to be available not just for the priests and for the wealthy, not just a select few, but for all people, including the poor and powerless. Something new is going to happen, the Lord and Messiah is coming, and John uses the familiar Isaiah text to help people understand.

Wonderful words of hope. And today, once again in these weeks before Christmas, we get to hear them too.                 

I believe these are words of hope that we are aching to hear in the aftermath of San Bernadino and Colorado Springs and Paris. Words we need as we see maps detailing the locations of mass shootings this year, and we hear numbers like 355 shootings in 2015 alone. We are learning new terms like radicalization, and we see news footage of the injured, the police cars and ambulances and SWAT teams, people holding their hands in the air, and people lying on the ground. Our issues are so different from the ones in Scripture but they are real and they are very painful. Our problems as a nation and as a world community are heartbreaking and complicated and terribly discouraging.

We need the Lord to come to us and to act in the midst of a reality that may be our new norm: the escalating gun violence, the radicalization and terrorism, and the diminishing opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people who want to find protection from oppression.

We are a people in need of hopeful words this Advent season as we prepare for and anticipate Christ’s arrival.

As we grow accustomed to the latest in breaking news, we do our best to handle the shock on our own. It’s the American way to go on, be tough and resilient, living life normally in spite of tragedy. We know things aren’t right, but we go on. We wish for a return to the time of simplicity and innocence, even as short a as time twenty years ago before Oklahoma City, Waco, and Columbine.

We humans don’t have the answers. If we thought we did, we’d all feel a lot better, but we don’t. Our situation is complex, and the solutions being proposed are the subject of much debate. Even within this sanctuary, there are many opinions about the hot-button issues of gun control and refugees and the fight against terrorism.  

The real temptation now is to close ourselves off to what is happening because we feel helpless. But we know better. As Lutheran Christians, we know that we can make the choice to stay in the world and work within it to do something.

But from where do we find the strength and determination, and how do we discern the right direction?

I believe our hope is in asking God to change our hearts.

Or as John the Baptist would say, it is to repent, reorient ourselves and our lives to God, to what God desires for creation, this world and all who live within it.

When we do so, when we have a change in heart so our focus is on God’s will, we cannot ignore what is going on in the world around us, we cannot shut down. . .

But we can’t find strength to do this on our own, by our own will. Our strength comes from God who will help us re-orient, who will open up our hearts.

Our strength comes from hope in the Christ child who is to come, whose birth we will celebrate in a few weeks.

Our strength is in our faith in Christ who has come with his incredible life and with the gift of his death and resurrection, granting forgiveness of sins, for you and for me.

And our strength rests in the belief that Christ will come again.

God’s love will soften our hard hearts so that we can turn away from our inward focus, so that at the very least, we are open to listening, to conversation, to caring about one another as we seek solutions. We can talk with each other and take into account our varying points of view and legitimate concerns on these complicated issues. Maybe we can’t resolve the big problems, but we can talk, and our dialogue can be meaningful.

And at the same time, we can be confident God will help us move forward with actions that continue the “sparking” in our changed hearts as we do what we can in each of our individual lives. We know what these things are – there are many small, incredibly easy ways to make a difference, and we just need to keep them on our radar.

God has been acting in this world for centuries. The way was prepared for the exiled Israelites to go home. The way was prepared for the arrival of Jesus. And now, we can prepare for the Christ child. In this season of Advent, let us keep from turning inward and shutting out the world. Let us prepare for a change in our own hearts, for deep, holy longing as we wait for the Christ child, the one who is to come, the one who has come, and the one who will come again. Amen.

Vicar Terry Frankenstein

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
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welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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