Advent Through the Eyes of John, Part 1
Jeremiah 33:14-16Luke 1:1-24
A few months ago, as I was preparing my thoughts for Advent, I began to notice how often John the Baptist appears in the lectionary passages during these four weeks. And the deeper I dug, the more I came to see how deeply intertwined the stories of John and Jesus are at the beginning of each of the gospels. The further we read, we learn that the two are distant cousins, that John baptized Jesus in the wilderness, and that their births as miraculous children and their deaths as outspoken martyred preachers seem to mirror one another. And as we look at all four gospels, all of which have as their focus the life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, none of them actually begins with Jesus. Matthew starts with the genealogy of Christ, linking him all the way back to Abraham. Mark, Luke, and John all begin with this character of John the Baptist.
And so, for the next four Sundays, as we work our way through the anticipation of Advent and toward the celebration of Christmas, the story and character of John will be our guide. The font stands here, as does the water at the back, to remind us of our own baptism. Our prayers in worship will allude to our own baptisms as well; all of this to underscore our exploration of John for the next four weeks.
Some of you will notice that the text listed in the bulletin this morning is different from that which was on the front of the December issue of the Crossings. Well, that’s what happens when you have deadlines and last minute flashes of inspiration.
Hurry up and wait...
If your family was anything like mine, then they would retell stories of your childhood again and again. Even into adulthood, these stories were meant to bring back memories of years gone by and also, perhaps unintentionally so, to say something about the person you turned out to be.
My childhood stories were always linked with those of my sister, as though part of a middle school “compare and contrast” essay. One of the favorites was about our first days at Galloway School. We grew up three years apart, and we both began attending Galloway at four years of age. The school wanted each child to have something akin to an interview with a teacher – a brief conversation of play that would help the school understand something of the child’s personality and vice versa.
My sister was very shy, and so to draw her out, the teacher gave her an M&M for every question that she answered. Unlike most children, she wouldn’t eat them right away but held them in her hand. When asked about this unusual behavior, she replied, “I’m going to give them to my Mommy.” This story was always told to reinforce how patient my sister was, how she was the perfect model for practicing delayed gratification.
My story was a little different. The teacher was asking me a series of questions, each designed to get me to talk about directions. She asked, “How does an elevator go?” The correct answer, of course, was “up and down.” My answer? “Well, the doors open, and you get in and push the button and the doors close. Then the doors open again and you get off.” The next question was, “How does a record player go?” To which I responded, “How does your record player go?” This story was not told to say that I was a patient child, but rather that there were times when I could be a bit of a, let’s just say, a bit too smart for my own good.
I’ve spoken from this pulpit before about how these roles in which we are put as children can be unfair sometimes. We are capable of great growth and change, but there are times when that isn’t what those who knew us back then don’t care to hear. In my case, there is a grain of truth: I am not a patient person. I am not fond of waiting.
There is part of me that loves life in 2006 with the rapid pace of technology: taking a digital picture and being able to instantly see the image; calling Elizabeth from the cell phone and asking her what movie we should rent; looking up pointless bits of trivia on the web when that obscure cultural reference eludes you. The other day, I was having lunch with some friends when we were trying to remember the name of the two Muppet Show hecklers; a few clicks on google, and Statler and Waldorf appeared.
As I said, there are parts of me that love the speed with which we can access information. There are other parts of me that are deeply troubled by it all; but that’s a sermon for another day.
The point here is that this little vignette from a conversation with a teacher does shed some light on my personality, even at that early age.
I wonder if John the Baptist’s family ever told childhood stories about him. No doubt one of the favorites was our lesson today. We learn in this more about John’s parents than about him, but perhaps we can see something of the expectations that awaited his arrival. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth came from priestly families: she was a Levite, a descendant of Aaron; he was a member of this order of Abijah. They were honorable folk, “righteous before God” is how Luke describes them, “blameless according to all the commandments.” They were also well-beyond childbearing years, something that would have been culturally ostracizing, and something that clearly was a source of sadness for the two of them.
The story we heard this morning is of Zechariah’s delivering the daily prayers at the Temple in Jerusalem. This would not have been something he would have done with any regularity. Most priestly orders were able to celebrate prayers twice a year in the holy city; a priest would only get the chance once in their lifetime to officiate. This is a moment for which he has likely been waiting his whole life. It is then that Gabriel, who is very busy in these first few chapters of Luke, appears to Zechariah with these simple words: “Your prayer has been heard.”
“Your prayer has been heard.”
Which prayer? Is it the lifelong prayer of Zechariah and Elizabeth, that prayer that must have echoed Abraham and Sarah and generations of others, that prayer for a child, even now? Or is it the age-old prayer of the Jewish people, the desire for a Messiah, the hope for deliverance, the prayer that Zechariah was reciting at the moment when Gabriel appeared? “Your prayer has been heard...”
In Gabriel’s answer, we can see that there are elements of both prayers at work. They will have a child. His name will be John, which means “God shows mercy.” They will be happy, and so will others. But they are to raise him specially, taking particular vows of purity and preparation. And his lifelong work is to be that preparation, that ushering in of a new era, preparing the people for the coming of the Lord.
And whichever prayer it was, there was an ancient longing attached to it, whether that of aging Zechariah and Elizabeth or that of an entire people for centuries. The prayer has been heard, but there was an awful lot of waiting that had to happen before. I don’t think I would have made a very good Zechariah.
In a sense, though, I think that’s exactly the point. Which of us likes to wait? Who among us would have that patient persistence to keep that prayer alive for so many generations?
Here we are, at the start of Advent. This ancient season of preparation before Christmas is four weeks long, symbolically remembering the 400 years between the last of the Messianic prophecies and the arrival of the Christ. Talk about patience. It is a time of patient waiting, of a slow progression toward Christmas. Meanwhile, the culture that surrounds us has already sprinted ahead to the finish line. Radio stations play Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Mathis around the clock; the stores have put Santa hats on their mannequins; the “Merry Christmas greetings of neighbors, friends, and family have already begun, and Charlie Brown has already bought his sad little Christmas tree. The over-saturation is such that, when Christmas finally comes, we’re done. We’ve had enough.
I deeply appreciate the felt need for the quick fix, the immediate gratification of an instant society. In a world that is so far beyond our control, there is comfort to know that there are things that we can attend to on our own timeline. But could it be that there is a purpose in this waiting? Could it be that there is something to this four-weeklong discipline of spiritual patience?
We know a great deal about the need for preparation in other areas of our lives. We study before we take a test. We rehearse before we perform. We order appetizers before the main course. We give the set-up before we get to the punch line. Could it be that our shaping as people of faith, that very thing which is so central to who we are, deserves the same kind of patient preparation as the jokes we tell?
Friends, I want to encourage us to take these four weeks of Advent this year as that important time of preparation. Find a practice to do at home. Place four candles on the dining room table, lighting them as you read the daily reflections in the Advent book. I don’t know what this period of waiting will bring, but I do know that there is purpose in it, in sitting with dumbstruck Zechariah in that moment of personal or tribal or worldwide longing, listening and watching for the presence of God.
It might be as simple as giving ourselves a discipline remembering that the purpose of Christmas for which we wait is very different from what we hear in the cacophony of the world around. How many times have you been in a conversation with a friend or seen a TV show or heard an ad on the radio and heard someone say, “After all, that’s what Christmas is all about.” Most of the time, these conversations revolve around something like giving, or family, or gratitude, all of which are truly noble and honorable. But is that really what Christmas is all about? Or could it just be that this thing for which we wait is something much, much larger? Could it be that the ancient prayers that Zechariah recited in Jerusalem spoke of something far greater than even he could imagine, the arrival of the Christ, the dawn of salvation, the interruption of grace and mercy, the beginning of a defining moment that turned the whole world upside-down?
I encourage us all to take these four weeks of Advent to wait and see what God would do. It might just leave us speechless...