a sermon by Fr. Matthew Brench for Grace Fitchburg upon IV Advent 2013
As I was reflecting on the Scriptures for this morning, I was reminded of the beauty that our tradition contains and delivers. The three readings, Psalm, and Collect weave together a beautiful tapestry. Many preachers over time have said that preaching is an art, but at times like this feel like liturgy is the real art, and the Preacher is simply the Art Critic helping other people to appreciate the beauty of the liturgy with him.
While the interweaving of today’s readings is complex, there is a main point that lends itself as the center of the picture: the Testimony of John.
The Content of the Testimony
Let us begin in the Gospel lesson. The famous introduction, “In the beginning was the Word,” has just wrapped up, and the body of the Gospel story begins with the testimony of John. We have this brief 10-verse story, and then it wraps up with the setting of the scene in Bethany. It’s a very neat and clear unit pericope – one self-contained unit of Scripture.
A group of Jewish clergy – priests and levites – are sent by the Pharisees to interrogate John the Baptist.
- “Are you the Christ?” No, he tells them, you’re looking too high.
- “Are you Elijah?” No, I’m John, born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. And there’s no reincarnation!
- “As you the prophet?” No, now you’re looking too low.
- Finally they ask him to explain his identity in his own words. And John quotes Isaiah 40.
- They still don’t understand, so he has to explain Isaiah 40 – he is the forerunner of the Christ!
So far, the testimony of John is two-fold: “Make straight the way of the Lord” and “among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” In short, the Christ is not just coming, he’s already here, and the Pharisees are missing him.
But we can dig deeper into John’s testimony by reading more of Isaiah 40. How kind of the lectionary to provide that for us! These first 9 verses form a bit of a dialogue between God and his servant who we now understand to be (in the final sense) John the Baptist.
God commands John: Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
John declares: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
God commands John: Cry out!
And John asked: What shall I cry?
God instructs him to say: All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not.
So John says to the cities of Judah: Behold your God!
John has the wonderful task of announcing the comforting news to God’s people that their Savior, the Christ, is arrived. But this comforting news is also challenging news, because God is holy, his Word is holy, and if the people are unwilling to live a holy life in his sight, the result will be disastrous. The language of leveling mountains and valleys speaks both to the speed with which Jesus will arrive and the destructiveness of his arrival upon the unprepared. If we’re sticking up against God like a mountain or slinking away from God like a valley, we’re going to need straightening out! And when Jesus comes, he will reveal the glory of the Lord and all flesh shall see it together. Nobody will be exempt; nobody will escape. This is true for Jesus’ first advent when he died for the sins of the whole world, and this will be true for Jesus’ second Advent when he judges the whole world.
This double effect of God’s arrival in our midst is reflected in the excerpt we read from Psalm 145. Again as we explore this beautiful liturgical tapestry, imagine these verses as the voice of John the Baptist. God is just and kind, near to all who truly call upon him, fulfills the desires of the godly and saves those who cry to him, but he destroys the wicked. And, just as John’s words from Isaiah said all flesh will see the glory of the Lord, the Psalm says that all flesh will bless God’s holy name forever and ever. No matter how disconnected people seem from God in this world and in this life, everyone will meet him face to face eventually, and justice will be served, one way or another.
The Response to the Testimony
Prophets and Preachers from God have two responsibilities. The first is to speak the word of God they have received, be it direct from the Holy Spirit or indirectly from the Spirit through Sacred Scriptures. We have looked at the words, the message that John preached by the power of the Holy Spirit, drawing especially from the earlier prophet Isaiah. The second responsibility of a prophet or preacher is to elicit a response. The more effective the prophet or preacher, the more extreme the response of the hearers tends to be. Our Lord himself pointed out that the majority of the prophets of the Old Covenant were killed by their own people. The same was true for John the Baptist, as well as for Jesus, and almost all of the Apostles. And the martyrdom continues to this very day; as God’s people continue to proclaim his Word, the responses continue to bounce back in two extremes: people committing their lives to Christ and his Gospel on one hand, and persecuting and killing the messengers on the other end of the spectrum.
In part, that was a topic among last week’s Scripture readings: just as the prophets of old prepared the way for Christ’s first advent by calling people to repentance, so do God’s ministers today seek to prepare people for Christ’s second advent. But today the focus isn’t on the ministry of prophecy so much as it is on the immanent content of the prophecy. Christ is coming! He is already in our midst and there are those who don’t recognize him! The Lord is at hand!
So before we seek to figure out how this message applies to “the world out there,” first take a good hard look at how this message applies to you. Are you sticking out against God like a mountain, or slinking away from him like a valley? Are you conforming your life to the teachings of Christ so that his supreme kingship and lordship is made manifest in your life? When the Ten Commandments are proclaimed, and you answer “Lord, have mercy, and give me grace to keep this law,” do you really mean it? When the Summary of the Law is read and you hear that you are to love your neighbor as yourself, does your mind kick into Pharisee Mode and start asking picky legalistic questions like “But who is my neighbor?” Because when Christ returns, he won’t pull any punches. The mountains that would oppose his way will be knocked down, and the valleys that would slow his advance will be filled in and covered over. When the glory of the Lord is revealed at his triumphal return in clouds descending, all flesh will see him. Those who are on the pilgrimage on the Highway to Zion will rejoice, because their long-awaited help has come. Those who are trying to make their own way through wilderness will tremble, because the futility of their pursuits has been called out.
They say Christian preaching is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. So if you feel somewhat afflicted right now, that’s probably a good thing. Nevertheless, Scripture also brings us words of comfort. In our epistle reading this morning, St. Paul reminds us that this message from John is still true. “The Lord is at hand!” Therefore do not be anxious about anything, but in everything make your requests known to God through prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving. And then the peace of God will keep your hearts & minds on Jesus. St. Paul isn’t saying that anxiety is a sin outright. He knew all too well that anxiety-inducing situations still happen. What he learned was to be content despite those situations. Rather than wallowing in anxiety we, like him, are to pass over those anxieties to God. Tell him what’s on your mind. Admit your failings and shortcomings to him. Share what’s burdening you. Don’t try to go it alone in the wilderness, look for his Highway to Zion, remembering that being a Christian in this life is not about living in the perfect Heavenly Jerusalem, but rather, being a Christian in this life is about traveling to the perfect Heavenly Jerusalem!
In that light, I’d like to turn your attention back to the Collect of the Day.
O LORD, raise up your power, and come among us, and with great might help us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are hurt and hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through the satisfaction of your Son our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory, world without end.
Do you hear the prayer and supplication about anxiety-inducing situations? “With great might help us! We are hurt and hindered in running the race! Speedily help and deliver us! And we pray this through the satisfaction of Jesus, because there is nothing we can do on our own to make satisfaction for our sins; all our hope for salvation is in Jesus. And so we pray the very theme of Advent: “O Lord, raise up your power and come among us!” We’ve sung O come O come Emmanuel, and we’ve also prayed it. It’s a prayer we make with joy as we seek to behold his glory in the flesh. It’s a prayer we make with trembling as we realize our sins and wickedness that expose our rebellious hearts. But at the end of the day it’s a prayer we make in hope, because God himself has promised peace, comfort, and joy to those who earnestly seek him. That is salvation by grace through faith. That is the Gospel. Seek it, pray it, live it. Amen.