Sermon, December 6, 2015


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Baruch 5.1-9; Canticle 4; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6

The story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John is a beautiful story! Canticle 4 only tells a portion of the story. Let’s back up a bit and examine the context more fully.

Once upon a time in the days of King Herod there was a priest named Zechariah. His wife, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Aaron. As they kept all the commandments, loving God and their neighbor, they were righteous before God. From all appearances, their life was good except for one thing – they had no children, and they were getting older. They had been praying for a child for some time.

When Zechariah was performing his priestly duty of offering incense before the Lord, an angel of the Lord appeared at the right side of the altar. Like virtually everyone else who has ever seen an angel, Zechariah was terrified; fear overwhelmed him.

But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1.13-15; NRSV).

Now Zechariah was doubtful; he wanted assurance. Zechariah asked how he could be assured this would take place and reminded the angel that he and Elizabeth were quite old. The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (Luke 1.19-20: NRSV). When Zechariah came out from the altar and stood before the people, he could not speak.

Elizabeth soon conceived. In due time, she delivered a child. Her relatives and the neighbors heard of God’s mercy and they rejoiced with her. On the eight day, they came to circumcise the child; they were going to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth told them, “No, he is to be called John” (Luke 1.60; NRSV) which means “God is gracious.” The relatives reminded Elizabeth that no one in their family was named “John,” and they began to question Zechariah. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John” (Luke 1.63; NRSV). The people were amazed but they had not seen anything yet. John’s speech was restored and he immediately began praising God. The people were filled with fear and began to wonder what the child would become. Zechariah was then filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the prophecy we read as Canticle 4.

The prophecy is a beautiful song which has been used in worship across the millennia. It begins with words of praise: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1.68-69; NRSV). Zechariah further recounts how God has shown mercy, fulfilled God’s covenant, and rescued the people from the hands of their enemies that they might serve God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1.75; NRSV). And then, Zechariah sets forth God’s plan for John: “And you, 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 by the forgiveness of their sins. 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” (Luke 1.76-79; NRSV). Note that the knowledge of salvation comes through the forgiveness of sins. This is unlike most knowledge, for it is experiential knowledge which comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Luke then tells us “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1.80; NRSV).

John, “The Prophet of the Most High,” was the last in a long line of prophets who heralded the First Advent of Christ. In the Old Testament, the prophets were frequently set within the context of the times and the rule of kings. For example, in Isaiah 6, the call of Isaiah, we read, “In the year that King Uzziah died…” (Vs. 1; NRSV). Likewise, Jeremiah begins as follows: “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month” (Jeremiah 1.1-3; NRSV).

In establishing the significance of John as a prophet, Luke uses the same formula: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3.1-2; NRSV).

This common formula used to announce the coming of a prophet accomplished two things: first, it served to acknowledge the worldly powers and principalities of the time and it served notice of a new order which God was establishing on earth. In John’s case, this new order was announced to the region around the Jordan River – it was an order “proclaiming a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins” as announced by the prophet Isaiah. John the Baptist was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3.4-6; NRSV).

So how does all of this relate to you and me? What significance does it have for us?

First, John proclaimed a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. Last week, we noted the renunciations required during our baptism – renunciations which would promote righteousness: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?…Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?…Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” (BCP, p. 302). Baptism also calls us to affirmation and commitment: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? … Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? … Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” In Advent we need to once again consider the implications of these renunciations, affirmations, and commitments. Baptism invites us to participate in Incarnation – it leads us to new life in Christ.

Second, we must remember that the Incarnation was not just a one-time historical event; it is also an ongoing process through which Christ’s presence becomes more and more manifest in our own being and actions, and hopefully, in our social structures and cultural practices. Are we experiencing the blessings of Christ’s incarnation in our own lives? Blessings which come from preparing the way of the Lord, from having our valleys filled and our mountains made low, from having our crooked paths made straight and our rough places made smooth, from seeing and experiencing the salvation of God? Preparing the way of the Lord demands that we question injustice and oppression. Preparing the way of the Lord demands that we confront exploitation of natural resources by the rich and the powerful and the resulting degradation of our environment and habitat. Preparing the way of the Lord calls us to consider St. Paul’s mission and witness. Preparing the way of the Lord calls us to love God and our neighbor, to live in the imitation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. All of these practices promote the presence of God’s kingdom – the way of the Lord.

Third, like Zechariah, our experience of God’s mercy and majesty should at times leave us speechless. When we can’t talk, we tend to listen more. And who would not benefit from listening more closely to God? Advent is a time to watch, listen, and pray – a time to hope for new life within us. It’s time to prepare the way of the Lord!



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