TEXT: Luke 1:76-77
GRACE, MERCY, AND PEACE are YOURS this Advent-tide from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.
As Zechariah’s tongue was released, he sang the praises of God and spoke of his son, John the Baptiser, saying, “You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.”
In the Name of Jesus. AMEN.
In many ways, I dread the holiday season. It used to be a time of joyful expectation – of preparing for something wonderful and grand to happen. I was able to enjoy and savor the days, weeks, even months leading up to Christmas. And while there were often things left undone or things that could have gone better, I never truly felt “unprepared.”
Such preparation is somewhat a lost artform – especially in 21st century America. We feel as if we hardly have time to catch our breath and we’re on to the next thing.
Too often, “Preparing” gets reduced to a number of tasks to be done, things to put on our to-do list. We think that if we get these things done, we are, “prepared.” If everything is done when the time arrives, then, we have prepared well. If things remain undone, then, we should have prepared better.
At no time of the year is this more evident than this time. We go from Halloween to Christmas and try to slip Thanksgiving in between somehow. No sooner have the kid’s costumes been put away than our task list fills with Christmas shopping, Thanksgiving family dinner plans and menu’s, whose house are we going to celebrate Christmas at and, of course, figuring out when we’re going to put the lights up. And all that has to be fit around all the other things of daily life.
But this task based view of preparedness leaves aside some of the most important aspects of the idea of “preparation.” In our go-go-go do-do-do lives, by the time the event arrives, whatever it is, we are already so busy gathering our list and figuring out what needs to happen in order to be “prepared” for the next event that we have no time to enjoy the moment. Even if everything goes off without a hitch, we feel let down and unfulfilled. We long for those days when it seemed as if everything could go wrong and still we felt blessed and content. You know – like in that movie, “A Christmas Story,” where, in the ending scenes the neighbors dogs come in, eat the turkey that was cooling on the kitchen table and the whole family ends up eating roast duck at the Chinese restaurant. A far cry from what was expected, but there was a certain joy as if the chaos didn’t seem to take away their apparent “preparedness”.
The season of Advent is all about Preparation – no, not the type of preparation that involves checklists – the more important type of preparation. The type of preparation that is required when you don’t exactly know when the event will occur – so you need to be prepared all the time. If that were a matter of checklists – we’d be driven mad!
During the season of Advent, we prepare to meet the Lord. Now, I’m not talking about meeting and greeting the baby boy in the manger. That’s already occurred. It is, indeed, an event worth celebrating! And it is, for most of us, truly a most wonderful time of the year. And, in fact, that celebration is an important part of the preparedness we talk about during this season of Advent.
For, as we make ourselves ready to celebrate that historic event, we are reminded that the baby Jesus didn’t stay a baby. He grew up. He suffered, died, rose again, and He ascended into heaven. But He is not going to stay there. There is coming a day, a day certain and a day set, when He will return in the clouds attended by His angels and will judge the living and the dead.
The final verse of our hymn speaks of that last day, whenever it will occur. And we are driven to ask the question posed by the first verse of our hymn, “O, Lord, How shall I Meet You, How welcome you aright?” Especially given our go-go-go do-do-do lifestyle – how are we to prepare for it? How are you made ready something when we don’t know when it’s going to occur? No one knows the day nor the hour appointed by the Father, not even the Son! So how shall we be prepared?
Here is where the words of our text, the song of Zechariah, are so helpful. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people!” They remind us of the glorious coming of our Lord in the flesh. They announce to us again that in that tiny Baby in Bethlehem, the fullness of the diety dwelled in bodily form. God came down to earth and visited us and dwelt among us and redeemed us.
And, therein, the love of God was made known – in the birth of Jesus we see God’s love – knowing He was born to suffer and die for us.
IN THIS IS LOVE, says St. John. “Not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
For in Jesus, God, “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.”
For centuries, God had declared that He would bless all people through the one offspring born the descendant of Abraham – the one who would sit upon David’s throne forever. And here, Zechariah prophesies that, with the coming birth of Jesus, that work was to be accomplished. And, in no uncertain terms, He tells us of the benefits that are ours because of Christ’s work – we are saved from our enemies – from the hand of all who hate us.
But, in order to partake of the blessings that Christ came to bring, we must be prepared. Now, I don’t mean you should get out your checklists and add something. It is not that we must make ourselves ready, rather, we must be made ready. And it is God, himself, who must make us ready – just as He made ready Israel for the first coming of Jesus.
You and I are not left to prepare ourselves for His return. We are not told, “Jesus is coming, so get prepared!” That’s a human way of doing things. Get ready! Prepare yourself! As if we were going to a formal dinner and needed to get all gussied up, high-end suit or tux for the guys – formal gown for the ladies.
It’s more like the preparation made by a devastated community when tragedy strikes and the agencies and authorities from outside are coming. The trucks are coming! Relief is on the way! Be ready when they get here!
Humanity, from the time of the fall onward, made a complete mess of the world. Even God’s chosen people had completely failed in their task to be a light and a beacon of God’s hope in the world. They had turned inward on themselves. They got all tied up with their lists and their going and their doing and completely failed to talk about the work of God for them in bringing them out of Egypt, settling them in the land He promised, and also giving them the promise of salvation and redemption. And when they did talk about it – it wasn’t something that brought them hope or peace in the knowledge that they were God’s chosen people – it was an obligation – a demand.
And – in many respects, we do the same. Consider how often “Midweek Services” and “Sunday Worship” become just another item on our to-do lists. Think about how, when though of this way, you are led to forget about the opportunities the season provides for rejoicing in God’s work of salvation.
Think about how, in the mad dash for the perfect gift, we turn our back on the chance to declare God’s mercy and grace and peace to a world in desperate need. Think how often, because of our busy-ness, we fail to love one another and all those around us for whom Christ died and whom Christ gave us as gifts to love and serve.
And so, we become much like Jews of Jesus’ day who were so distracted by the going and the doing demanded in the law that they forgot about the mercy and grace that God had promised to them on oath to Abraham and David.
This is why God sent John the Baptist to prepare the people. The people of Judah had lost sight of God’s plan of salvation, and so John was to “go before the Lord to prepare His ways.”
But John’s work was not going to be giving out “to-do” lists – so that everything got done before Jesus came. Quite the opposite, in fact. John was sent to proclaim the work of Jesus and the salvation that He was to accomplish. John was sent “to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people in the forgiveness of their sins.”
What had they done to deserve this forgiveness? NOTHING. They needed this forgiveness because they were sinners – like you and me – who deserved God’s wrath and condemnation. They had failed at everything the Lord commanded them and demanded of them, and now God was coming to make it right.
In many cases, our going – our doing – has become primary – almost to the exclusion of the good news of the greatest gift of all – the son of God, born of a virgin, born under the law, born to suffer and die for the sins of the world to redeem us who were under the law.
Yet, God showed His love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.
And, herein, we have the answer to the question of our Hymn, “O Lord, How shall I meet You,How welcome You aright?” By faith. By GOD GIVEN faith and trust in the completed work of Jesus. By receiving the mercy and grace of Him who came in the Name of the Lord to work our forgiveness and salvation.
As our Hymn goes on to say . . .
“Sin’s debt, that fearful burden,
Cannot his love erase?
Your guilt the Lord has pardoned
and covered by His grace.
He comes, for you procuring,
The peace of sins forgiv’n
His children thus securing,
Eternal life in heav’n.”
He has done all the preparation for you. He has accomplished your salvation, procured Your peace, secured Your eternal life in heaven. And, He has done and continues to do all the preparation TO you – Washing you clean of your sins in your baptism – then, each time we gather, He delivers into your ears the promises of everlasting life and mercy and grace and the forgivness of your sins. He delivers into your mouth the precious body and blood – the fruits of His sacrifice on the cross to nourish and sustain you, keeping you alive in the faith.
And this, so that when He comes to judge the nations – when He comes as a terror to His foes, you would be one who loves His appearing and see His coming as a light of consolation and a blessed hope.
By the faith worked in you by the Holy Spirit, given to you through His Word and Sacraments, God, Himself, makes you ready for His appearing.
This season of the year, we hear a lot about the “war on Christmas.” And it is true, the world has always hated Jesus – it will always hate Jesus. In that way, the war on Christmas will always be raging in the world.
But dear brothers and sisters, the real “war on Christmas,” is not waged in the media or in the marketplace or in the schools or in the halls of power. The struggle to keep Jesus as the reason for the season is not something that goes on “out there”, it’s something that is waged within you – within each of us – as we struggle day by day to lay hold of and keep the message of Christmas for ourselves and speak it to others.
The real war — is to not get so wrapped up in the go-go-go do-do-do of the season — that the work that God has done in preparing you for that final day goes to waste as you are slowly stripped away from Him and are driven to come to that day in fear and dread.
The real war is to resist the urge to love checking off items on your to-do list more than receiving God’s love and mercy, hearing His word and being made ready for that day.
The struggle we face is to ignore the love God has given you for your neighbor who needs your presence, your care, and your service.
It’s a struggle to to remember that the true meaning of this season is God’s love for the unlovable – God’s care for the rebellious. And it’s most painful to realize that YOU are the unlovable one that God loved – YOU are the rebellious one that God needed to die to save.
The season of Christmas, no less than Easter, is about God’s redemption of the race of creatures He created that made such a mess of things that it took divine intervention to set it straight.
And set it straight, He did – through the death of His Son on the cross and His resurrection on the 3rd day. And through the work of His Word and His sacraments in our lives, His work continues – as He prepares you so that you would be ready at all times for that day, So you would look forward with joy and expectation to His glorious re-appearing while we live out our days until that time loving the unlovable and serving the ungrateful as He has taught us by His Word and His example.
In the Name of Jesus, AMEN.