Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sermon for Dec. 10, 2006, Advent II

Heralds of Jesus
Luke 3:1-6

We begin in the year 587 BC. If we could time travel to Jerusalem, we would see a city ravaged by war. Babylon, the merciless and dominant military power, has captured the King of Jerusalem and his family. One by one, The conquering army slays King Zedekiah’s sons as he is forced to look on. Men and boys are taken to the sanctuary of the Temple and killed. These moment of terror are the last things King Zedekiah sees before soldiers gouge his eyes out. The king and all of the Jewish survivors are shackled and marched across the desert to Babylon as political prisoners. It’s a lampoon of a victory parade as 15,000 prisoners march away from Jerusalem. Most of them will never see their homes again.

Israel’s prophets warned that their defeat was the punishment for Israel’s sin. The leaders hated justice and honesty, and led the people in the worship of the fertility gods of the other nations. God’s patience had run out. Judgment had come.

We don’t know much about what happened to the people of Israel over the next 70 years of exile in Babylon. We assume that the exiles built houses and farms and blended in with the general population. After generations passed, some forgot about their homeland. Yet, some never forgot Jerusalem. They longed for a day when their punishment would be over and God would bring them back to the Promised Land. One of these people was a prophet. Scholars call him “Second Isaiah.” We don’t know his real name or occupation. We only have his message, preserved in chapters 40-59 in the book of Isaiah. His prophecy begins with words of hope: “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for’” (Is 40:1-2).

God promises comfort. No more harsh words of anger and judgment. Now God promises a time when the exiles will return to their land. God will flatten all obstacles like hills, mountains and valleys. The people of Israel will find safety and security in their relationship with God. When that day comes, all who look to God will find salvation.

The Jews did return to the Promised Land, as the prophet foretold. The Persians came to power, conquered Babylon, and the Jews home. God opened a way through impassible forests, broken rocks, and sandy deserts for his people to return from exile.

500 years later, we read about a wild man living in the desert. His name is John. He might be the kind of person whom we wouldn’t want our kids to hang out with. He lives in the desert no man’s land of the Dead Sea. He wears itchy clothes made from camel’s hair, and eats locusts for lunch. I imagine him with long hair, twisted and matted from neglect. In my mind, John has a grizzly beard, and he smells. As he talks, his eyes wildly stab at his listeners. He is the fulfillment of prophecy, this weirdo in the desert. Luke tells us that God chose John to as a herald or forerunner of Jesus. He is the voice crying out the words of Isaiah, “In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord.” John preaches repentance and baptism so that all people will be able to recognize the coming salvation that is about to break in upon the world.
John the Baptist’s message is that there is hope in the wilderness. Wilderness is not only found in untamed domains of land. Wilderness is also the bare and threatening place in the hearts of humankind. In the wilderness times of life, we are stripped of comfort and pretense. It is the place where we meet God. I hear John the Baptist saying, “In the barren areas of your life, prepare the way for the coming King. In the frozen muck of your being, in the emptiness that the world has to offer you, get ready to come face-to-face with God’s salvation. The impassable forests of sin are about to be mowed down. The desert areas of dry religion are going to be removed. Everyone now ha a chance to see what God is about to do.”

If we listen, we can still hear the herald call of John today. It says, “Prepare the way for the Lord.” God is going to make a way to enter your life so that you can be transformed by God’s salvation.

We live in a world that needs to know about this saving touch from God. People need to know that there is hope in the wilderness – rescue from spiritual exile. Many of our friends and neighbors suffer in the wilderness areas of life and they need to know that God sends a message of Good News. I’m not just talking about head knowledge about Jesus. I’m sure that most Americans have heard the basics of the Christmas story: the baby, the shepherds, the angels, the manger. But how many hurting people have let the story speak to their souls? How many know that the child born in Bethlehem is also the King of kings and the Lord of lords? The world still needs heralds of Jesus – followers of Christ who go before him to prepare the way.

God can use you a messenger today. The world around you urgently needs men and women who have the courage to say, “No matter what you struggle with God has Good News for you. In the grip of sickness, there can be hope. In the turbulent ride of addiction, there can be peace. In the arbitrary disasters that hit without warning, there can be comfort. For those who go from religion to religion, from spiritual fix to spiritual fix, there is a firm foundation of truth in Jesus the Messiah. In depression, in disappointment, even in death, there is an assurance of new life through Jesus.

I’m not asking you to go to football games wearing John 3:16 placards. I’m not asking you to go knocking on doors or to hand out gospel tracts at the mall. Preparing the way for the Lord is nothing more than finding where people are hurting and offering faith in Christ as a pathway out of the wilderness. It’s all about relationships with one another, and connection with God. What the world needs is people who care enough to make those relationships – people who commit to loving others enough to show them how Jesus can make a positive difference in life. Some will do it like John the Baptist – publicly condemning authorities with brash actions. Others share the news of salvation through gentle words and loving gestures that speak from God’s heart through you. Being a herald means that we reach people where they are, telling them through words and actions that God has a path out of the wilderness. There can be comfort and safety in God’s presence.

Whether you like it or not, your life may be the only Bible some people will ever read. So today, go from here and be Good News. Let your life point to the Truth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, I hope you have the courage to be heralds of Jesus – living and speaking the gospel to a world waiting to see the salvation of God.

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