13th (and final!) Sabbatical Sunday
Do any of you ever listen to Paul Harvey’s, “The Rest of the Story?” His radio segments absolutely fascinate me. I love trying to connect the dots between the obscure details he gives us and the person, or place or invention he is waiting until the end to reveal. At the very end of the first chapter of Luke we have a little bit of history that doesn’t always get lifted out of the story that surrounds the birth of Christ. Nestled just before the birth of Christ, we have the birth of another important messenger of God, John the Baptist.
I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but we have before us what I like to call a “bonus Sunday,” this year. We have an extra week before we begin our official journey toward Christmas. I know this seems a little absurd for me to say that we haven’t started our Christmas journey yet, but as far as the church is concerned we haven’t. Now this doesn’t mean that against my husband’s wishes I haven’t already put up our Christmas tree. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t already experienced the biggest shopping day of the year, what the retail world calls, “Black Friday.” I heard another one this week, that tomorrow will be the biggest online shopping day of the year, they call that one, “Black Monday.” The culture is already in a Christmas frenzy; and many of these frenzied people don’t stop to pay any attention to the birth of Christ.
The world screams, “come on Christmas, get here as fast as you can!” But the church says, “let us wait patiently for God to make himself known in the world once again.” You will notice that our tree is not yet up, our Christmas banners are not yet hung, and our Advent candles are not yet displayed. That is not because we are not all longing to celebrate Christ’s birth- but instead we pay attention to God’s timing. God is patiently urging us to slow down our minds and be present to the Divine in our hearts.
So here we are at “Bonus Sunday”- this rare gift of a Sunday that we get every so often in between Thanksgiving and the start of our Advent journey toward Christmas. And what better story to look at than the birth of John the Baptist? John is an important figure in Jesus’ own story; in a way, he is part of the “rest of the story” of Jesus’ life. John’s story is a less-often studied one than Jesus’ story, and yet, they are connected in many important ways. John’s story is kind of a prequel to Jesus’ birth. Prequels can be pretty exciting- to find out that there is more to the story than you realized can be pretty cool. If you don’t believe me, ask any of us that grew up as huge Star Wars fans as children. Wasn’t it exciting when they finally made those first three movies that told us what happened in the story before those that came out in the 70’s? Did any of you wait in line at to see the first three in the Star Wars series like my husband did? The miraculous story of the birth of John the Baptist is a prequel to the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.
God works in miraculous ways, through ordinary people. The Bible is full of miraculous birth stories, and any time God works miracles for a child to be born, you know that child will be significant. Such is the case with the birth of John the Baptist. His parents were an older couple who never had children. His mother Elizabeth was considered barren, and his father Zechariah was a priest. One day when Zechariah took his turn in the temple praying, it was announced to him by an angel that he would have a son, by his wife Elizabeth. He was to name the baby John. Like so many others who have received that announcement in the Bible, Zechariah doubted the angel. As a result, the angel struck him speechless until the baby was born. His wife Elizabeth did indeed have a child, and on the day the baby was to be circumcised, they named him John and Zechariah’s mouth was opened.
The first thing to come from Zechariah’s mouth after his silence is a hymn of praise to God, and a prophecy of what lies ahead for his son John, and also for the Christ child, who is already on his way to the world. It is clear from Zechariah’s prophecy that these two will work together. John will prepare the way for Jesus, teaching people about salvation through the forgiveness of sin. Together they will be able to bring God’s light into the darkness of the world.
God works in miraculous births, and brings miraculous people into the world to lead others. One of the most amazing things about Christmas is the way God enters the world in human flesh, in the form of a tiny baby. What an ordinary, and yet miraculous way for God to come directly into the world. One pastor, (Brian Stoffregen), said this of Jesus' birth:
“I believe that one of the great, unique features of Christianity is that it is a religion of God coming down to us, rather than most other religions where we have to raise ourselves up to a godly plane. Christianity is light shining in darkness, which destroys the darkness. It is not the darkness trying to become light. It is being transformed by God’s delightful presence among us.”
God has always worked through people to make the light shine for the world. Christmas reminds of that coming of light in the form of Jesus Christ. We also remember John the Baptist, who helped prepare people to receive that light.
John and Jesus would have to different types of ministries to be sure. John would find himself in the dessert, wearing garments made of animal’s hair and eating locusts. He stood as a prophet outside the community and helped people understand that they needed to repent of their sins, to prepare their hearts to receive God. He was the one who offered people a baptism for the repentance of sins, and even though he found himself to be unworthy, he would baptize Jesus in the
Zechariah’s prophecy, and its fulfillment in the Gospel of Luke, reminds us once again that God keeps the promises that are made to the people. God promised to send light into the darkness, “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death…” And so Jesus Christ was sent into the world. Zechariah and Elizabeth were promised a child, and even though Zechariah doubted that promise, it came true in the birth of his son, the prophet John. Zechariah’s prophecy reminds us of the promise God made to Abraham to make him the father of many nations- a promise that was also fulfilled. God fulfills promises.
As we know, promises from God are not always fulfilled just in the way we humans think they ought to be. The people who received Jesus Christ were waiting on a savior, but many thought that would come in the form of a political leader who would save them from Roman oppression. Instead, they got God in human flesh, and many did not understand his teachings. Sometimes we ask God for things that do not happen in our lives. We ask God for healing for loved ones, and yet sometimes they die. We ask for power and prestige, and sometimes we get humility. And yet, even when God’s actions don’t agree with exactly how we thought things would happen, God is still with us. God has promised to love us and never forsake us. That is why Jesus sent to the world, to show us what real love looks like. We were also given the gift of the Holy Spirit, so God’s love could always surround us and dwell within us to bring us peace. God’s promises are for all of us, and God keeps promises.
The last few lines of Zechariah’s prophecy seem to suggest who needs God’s promises the most. For those living in darkness, or the shadow of death, or for those who are not experiencing peace- God’s promises are especially for you. God keeps promises, particularly to those who need God the most.
If nothing else is accomplished on this “Bonus Sunday,” I hope that it serves to slow us down a bit. I hope that you will join me in turning our attention to God’s timing. I hope that when we walk in these doors we can feel less pressured and hurried than we do in the outside world. Advent begins next Sunday, and it is a beautiful journey of waiting. We wait together because we know that God works in miraculous ways, and that God keeps promises. Because we know these things are true we will wait together with love and anticipation in our hearts to celebrate the birth of the Christ-Child. We will wait once again for God to break boldly into the world in the form of tiny, fleshy baby. We will wait for the light to break through into the darkness, and as Zechariah says, “guide our feet into the path of peace.” I think all that is worth waiting for- don’t you? Amen.