May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Today we heard two passages from Luke's Gospel – the first was our Psalmody, sometimes called Zechariah's Song or the “Benedictus”, it is the prophecy that John the Baptist's father spoke right after he confirmed that his son's name would, indeed, be John. I recently read a reflection written by Pastor Larry Hoffsis, a retired ELCA Pastor who served for many years in Dayton, Ohio. Pastor Hoffsis remembers back to seminary days with his class of 1963, recalling how they would gather every weekday morning for worship in Schenck Chapel. Once a week the liturgy they used was “Matins” or as we know it, “Morning Prayer.” It is the same liturgy that we are using for our midweek-Advent services this year. Larry claims that after the nervousness they felt for whichever seminary classmate was preaching the chapel sermon was over that day, the Matins liturgy was culminated by launching full-voiced into the chant form of the Benedictus, much like we did between our 1st and 2nd lessons today. Larry says, “The chant began by our joining old Zechariah in blessing God for having looked favorably upon his people and redeeming them. But then, in verse 76, when old Zechariah turns from blessing God to addressing his newborn son, the chant changed musically and so did we. For when the infant son John was addressed with the words, “And you child shall be called a prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way…” we took it personally.
Larry continues, “To a young man (for we were all young and male then) we heard those words addressed to us. We felt that we were in the process of being commissioned to prepare hearts so competently that the Lord might find his way to them.” When I read that reflection this week, I felt the power of the liturgy. We remember these old passages from the Bible in our worship forms – we sing them, speak them and pray them and sometimes their meanings get lost. But Larry's words encouraged me to picture Zechariah speaking to me personally – “You, Ralph – child of God – shall be a prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way; to give knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” It is not only a prophecy sung to a tiny baby long ago; it is not only a prophecy that is sung to and with seminarians preparing for the ministry of word and sacrament. It is a prophecy sung to and with the baptized children of God who are called to prepare the way for Christ, which is why you should take it personally yourselves. John paved the way for Christ during his earthly ministry; more importantly, he paved the way for all other disciples and prophets through the years who still today seek to follow and proclaim that Christ has broken into the world – even and especially those of us who are gathered here!
Our other passage from Luke's gospel this morning is the introduction to the ministry of John the baptizer in the beginning of Luke 3. Luke is unique in relation to the other Gospel writers in that he names the secular rulers in the midst of recounting the story of Jesus' birth. So we hear names like, “The Emporer Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas and Caiaphas.” These are people who can be verified by the secular history books – you can find historical records of them all to prove that they did live and rule and were important people. For Luke, it is important that we understand that Jesus and John lived right alongside of these people – they are not made up figments of someone's imagination! They came as real people in order to save real people – us!
But there is an even more important reason for Luke to mention these men alongside of John and Jesus. It is because they all commanded the complete servitude of the people who lived under them. They carried great power in their day. To hear John's and Jesus' names alongside theirs is a little bit of a joke. My favorite episode of the old sitcom, “Cheers” was the one when Cliffy got the chance to go on Jeopardy. When the announcer introduced the contestants as the game show started it sounded like this: “From Boston this is Jeopardy. Let's meet our contestants: A doctor and chief of neurosurgery from Boston General Hospital, Milford Reynolds; A lawyer and mother of 6, Agnes Dorsey; and a mailman, Cliff Clavin.” It is funny because we wouldn't think the mailman would have a chance against the intelligence of the first two contestants. It is the same thing as we hear the names and positions of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. These seven represented the collective power of the world, and against them stands just John, armed only with God's word, proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, pointing people to the savior to come. The amazing thing is, by the time Luke's original audience was reading and hearing these verses, none of these seven were still alive! And today these proud and powerful men are, for most people, just a footnote in the story of Christ, the one sent to reveal the salvation of God to all flesh.
Where does that put you and me? Just like John compared to Tiberius and the rest, I suspect we can usually feel overlooked, insignificant and small surrounded by insurmountable problems, people and challenges. Maybe it's not an Emperor that makes life miserable; maybe it's a difficult neighbor or unhappy marriage. Maybe it's not a Roman procurator that oppresses, but instead a struggle with addiction to alcohol, drugs or something else that has a powerful hold on your life. Maybe it's not governors that threaten to destroy, but instead feeling lost at school or work with no real friends. Maybe it's not rulers and priests that overwhelm, but instead struggle with depression, grief or loneliness.
Whatever it may be Luke shared the gospel promise that these things too will pass; that in the end, they will be but a distant memory; that over time they will become mere footnotes to a larger, grander and more beautiful story of acceptance, grace, mercy and life. The waiting can be hard, which is why Luke reminds his community and ours of this promise that is so easy to overlook when compared to the big challenges of life, but is big enough to save and transform us into people like John – heralds that Zechariah would sing as lovingly to as he did his own son.
Pastor Hofsis concludes his reflection on The Benedictus with these words: “Could old Zechariah have guessed that he would be speaking for God, not only to his son, but to young recruits who would be called and then promise, “to go before the Lord to prepare his way.” Could graduates of '63, who will next year mark their 50th anniversary of ordination, imagine the uniqueness of all of the ways and means they would have employed the sum total of their combined ministries to “prepare his way.”?
On this second Sunday of Advent we are introduced once again to one of the enduring people of God's plan to save the world, John the Baptist. Remember that it is not only John that endures, but it is every one of us; every one of us who endure (with God) the powers and forces that try to control or ruin our lives. Like the refiner's fire and the fuller's soap that Malachi mentioned in our first lesson, we may endure some difficult times at the hands of those powers and forces; but God promises to be with us through it all, making us into people who prepare the way of the one is the Lord and savior of the World. May we continue during this Advent season - with John as our model – to be people who might not seem to compare to the powers and forces of the world, but who will endure in the presence of God forever. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.