- First Reading Malachi 3:1-4
- Canticle Luke 1:68-79
- Second Reading Philippians 1:3-11
- Gospel Luke 3:1-6
We often overlook John the Baptist, so much so that it is almost jarring when we reach a Sunday like this one, the second Sunday of Advent, that focuses on him. We began our readings today with words from the prophet, Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…’
Our responsive reading, drawn today not from one of the Psalms, but instead from Luke’s Gospel is a passage sometimes known as Zechariah’s Song. Zechariah is the father of John the Baptist, and was a priest. The words we spoke together today were the first words he had spoken in some time. Much as an angel would soon come to Mary to tell her of the birth of her son, Jesus, an angel came to Zechariah. The angel told Zechariah:
“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.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 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.”
Zechariah was unable to say a word for nine months. Nine months during which first Elizabeth, and then her cousin, Mary, became pregnant. Nine months during which an angel also came to Mary. Nine months during which Mary came to see Elizabeth and Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb at the approach of Mary.
After nine months, Zechariah is finally allowed to speak, and he sings:
“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, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…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.”
Zechariah sings here not about Jesus, but about John the Baptist, the one who “will be called the prophet of the Most High” and who will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Zechariah is singing about John the Baptist, the one who, in Luke 3 and in every other gospel is
“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.’”
Every year, as I watch what feels like everyone doing their best to skip Advent, I wonder if I am alone in my preference of Advent over Christmas. We push Christmas ever-earlier into November and now even October, and I begin to feel like John the Baptist.
Every year, I deliver at least one sermon urging you to slow down, to step back from the seasonal rush, the pressure to make it to every Christmas party, to run out at the last minute to buy more presents, the pressure to push ourselves to the point of mania and I wonder, with all the pressure we feel in preparation for events this time of year, for what are we preparing?
Every year, I stand here, like John the Baptist, urging you to prepare the way of the Lord while struggling with the demands of the secular celebration of Christmas, and I wonder if even the people putting up the billboards saying “Put the Christ back in Christmas” hope for more than a veneer of kindness to mask a lack of justice.
Every year, as the days grow shorter and we begin to decorate our trees, our homes, and perhaps our yards with lights, I wonder: are we just trying to stave off the dark, or are we reminding ourselves that the darkness will pass with the coming of Christ? Are we preparing ourselves and our world for the return of Christ, the Light of the World?
The words of Isaiah: “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’” are tied by all four gospels to John the Baptist and they are not just a command for those who lived long ago, before the birth of Jesus, but are a command for all Christians. There will always be places where the path is uneven, winding, and rough. There will always be places where we can work to make our world better, to smooth the path for the coming of the Kingdom. As Christians, our task is not to sit back, secure in the knowledge that the day is coming when the Lord will right all wrongs, but to prepare the path. Our task is not to try to skip ahead, jumping over Advent to get to the presents of Christmas morning as we ignore the barriers to justice erected in our own world.
Instead, let us heed the message of John the Baptist. Let us look for the way of peace. Let us work to level the field, tearing down the mountains and lifting up the valleys that we have created to separate others from ourselves. Celebrate Advent. Celebrate the reminder that Christmas is not just a celebration of consumerism, that Christmas is more than the memorial to Jesus’ long-ago birth. Celebrate Advent as the promise that Christ will come again and we still have time to listen to the voice crying out in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord.”