Sermon for December 9th, 2018
None of the gospels begin with the birth of Jesus. You would think that the gospels, being the primary records we have of Jesus’s life and teachings would begin with his birth, but they don’t really…not exactly. So if you decide one day that you are going to sit down and open up your New Testament and learn all about this Jesus character that everyone keeps talking about, well 1, good for you, but 2, I want you to be prepared for what you are going to encounter before you get to the good stuff.
Let’s start from the beginning. The first book you will come to is Matthew. And Matthew begins by giving us Jesus’s family tree all the way back to Abraham. That is just as exciting as it sounds. So-and-so begat so-and-so, one unpronounceable name after another, this is about as dry as it gets, and for many people who can’t get past the first 17 verses or so, they think that’s what the whole Bible is like. One unpronounceable name after another strung together like the lights on your Christmas tree. So maybe you decide not to give up, but you decide to move on, and see if the next guy has a catchier opening.
So you turn to Mark:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
And you think: “finally, and author who gets straight to the point! Now I am going to learn about Jesus.”
“As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, see I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…”
What is with this crazy John character? I want to read about what Jesus did and said, not this guy. He’s hardly respectable. His message isn’t that compelling. Jesus is supposed to be all about love, so why do we need to talk about all these people jumping into a river with this crazy man talking about all their sins? Do you mean to tell me in all of Israel these folks couldn’t find one good psychotherapist? That’s hardly believable! That’s what they need isn’t it? Just someone to tell them that they are OK just the way they are? So you think, I’m going to move on to the next guy and see if he gets to the point any faster..
So you turn to Luke.
Yada, yada, orderly account…in the days of King Herod of Judea (I know who he is) there was a priest named Zechariah…his wife was a descendant of Aaron. Wait, what is this about? I want to get to the bit where Linus talks about shepherds and angels and a manger. What is all this about a priest in the temple and his barren wife? Then you keep reading and think: wait a second this whole bit is about the birth of John the Baptist. Him again! Why can’t these authors just get to Christmas where Jesus is born and we all recognize him as the messiah, decide to start loving each other and live happily ever after? This book needs a better editor, because all this stuff about sin is never gonna sell.
What if I flip ahead a little…oh here is the birth of Jesus in chapter two. I’ll pick it up from chapter three, it should be good from here on out.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius pilate, names, names, names, the word of God came to JOHN son of Zechariah in the wilderness…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness….
This again! What was Luke just copying from the last guy? He must know that we want to read about Jesus, supposedly that’s why he wrote this gospel, so why is he talking about John and all this sin stuff? And why on earth do these guys keep dragging all that Old Testament stuff into this? Surely Jesus came to release us from all that?
So you give it one last try….the Gospel of John.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (A little fancy, but I will press on). There was a man sent from God whose name was JOHN!
Here we go again! I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord as the prophet Isaiah said.
They just won’t quit. These gospel writers keep insisting on talking about what God was doing before Jesus came into the picture, as if that was a part of the story. Why do Matthew, Mark and Luke and John keep talking about ancient history? Is that relevant?
Then John the Baptist, in John’s gospel says a very curious thing: “the one who comes after me, ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.” In other words the one whom I have been preparing the way for, has been a part of the story all along. He isn’t just following me. He came before me too. He has been a part of everything that came before…all of the preparation. The folks John is ministering to, they don’t know Jesus yet, but they know they need help. John knows that Jesus is getting them ready to meet him, and he has been since the beginning of time.
Maybe I can’t ignore what came before. Maybe God has always been in the preparation to meet him, as well as in the encounter. Part of that preparation is tedious. Part of it is painful. Part of that preparation involves looking at the ways and the places in our lives where we have failed. Part of it means accepting that we are not, have not been and will not be good enough. Part of the preparation to meet God, is first accepting that we need him. That on some level, we are helpless, like a little child. No matter where I turn in this book, the preparation is always a part of the story. Every author wants to show how God was preparing his people to meet him.
I must admit that whenever I hear “prepare the way of the Lord” my first thought is usually: “what must I do to prepare to meet God?” What must I do. And my mind starts to think: if I can just get my stuff together, if I can just pray the right prayers, or attend the right church, or give to the right cause, then then I will be prepared to meet God. Then God will come into my life. Then I will meet Jesus. Then I will know who he is.
But there is just one problem with thinking that way: it is built on the assumption that God is coming after me, or that God is waiting for me to make space for him before he comes into my life. But what if he’s not waiting. What if he is not following after me, but is way out in front? What if he is the one who is filling the valleys and making the mountains and hills low, so that the way is clear for him to come to me? What if I owe my salvation to a decision that God made, and not to one that I made? Maybe God is a part of the preparation.
Perhaps I need to start paying attention to what God has done to prepare me. Maybe I should look back on my past life and look at the ways that God used my bad decisions and my sinfulness and my brokenness and my helplessness to clear the way into my heart. Maybe I should look to the people whose lives and witness to God’s grace continually redirected me to a savior who loved me before I ever knew him.
This morning we are baptizing a child into this Christian faith. Cosette, whose name in French means ‘little thing,’ this little thing, this little child does not yet know who Jesus is. She doesn’t know the creed, she can’t say the Our Father, and she probably has not had any great epiphanies yet. She doesn’t even know what it means to sin, so how can she understand forgiveness? All that may be true. And part of your role as parents and god parents and family and friends and fellow Christians and members of the church is to make sure that she does know what God has done for her. You are to live lives and speak words that witness to God’s grace and God’s love, but part of the that message is that God isn’t waiting for her to get things right before he welcomes her into his family and into his kingdom.
The one thing little Cosette probably is aware of right now is that she is helpless. There is not much in this world that she can do for herself. She needs the help to come from outside. She needs love that comes from above. Maybe that is all that she really needs to know right now. Maybe knowing that we can’t do this on our own is all the preparation any of us really needs.