SCRIPTURE: Malachi 3:1-4 (Approximately 400 BC)
1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight — indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
Luke 3:1-6 (400 years later, 1st century AD)
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 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;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
SERMON: Five Gifts of Christmas Luke 3:1-6 December 9, 2012
This year’s Advent readings come from the Gospel of Luke. It seems Luke is every historian's favorite gospel. Why do we treat Luke's account of Jesus' birth as the "real one" -- the one it just wouldn't be Christmas without hearing?
The writer of Luke adds historical details that make the story come alive. Luke's wealth of names, places, dates and events animates the ancient world, making it seem less like "Scripture" and more like story time.
But how comfortable do you think you would be with putting today's gospel text into a more current historical context -- bringing Luke's setting a little closer to home? Consider this:
In the fifth year of the administration of President Barak Obama, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary-of-State, Bobbie Jindal was governor of the state of Louisiana, and Betty Alford-Olive was mayor of Bastrop, during the time when the Reverend Neal D. Presa, was Moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Rev. Joe Hill was Executive Presbyter of Pines Presbytery, the Word of the Lord came to . . . you! And you went out into your neighborhood, appeared before your city council, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Suddenly the beginning of the Christmas story seems a bit too real. It's much more pleasant and inviting to read Luke's version, to feel the life pulsing through ancient characters, to sit here safely in the 21st century and know that this all happened, "long, long ago and far away."
It would take some doing to assemble a more deplorable, disreputable gallery of names than the one listed today in Luke's gospel. Tiberius, Pilate and Herod were notorious for their cruelties, their treacheries and their callous disregard for others.
Tiberius was despised and mistrusted by his own political circle and finally resorted to trumped-up treason trials to keep his opponents in order. Pilate was renowned for playing both ends against the middle -- cheating his Roman bosses and abusing his Judean subjects. Herod was insanely paranoid and ended up having three of his own sons and one of his wives executed because he suspected them of plotting against him.
The religious leaders were not much better. Annas, the high priest, was hardly more than a lackey of the Roman authorities. Long ago, he had sold out any moral credibility his position might have had. He excelled at getting his family appointed to the temple priesthood -- five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas --, but he failed to preserve the integrity of that same institution.
In politics, religion and economics, almost any first-century Palestinian would have agreed it was "the worst of times." For the Jewish people, there seemed to be no hope. No prophet of God had been on the scene for ages. It had been 400 years since the last prophet of Israel, Malachi, prophesied to the people of Israel.
It appeared as if the unshakable strength of Roman rule would remain unchallenged for ages to come. But it was into the midst of these tough tyrants and lackluster leaders that God sent His most miraculous and unexpected gift: Jesus.
The words Luke cites in verses 4-5 (refer to verses) are from Isaiah 40:3. "As it is written" was the traditional way of introducing a quotation from Hebrew Scriptures, validating their authenticity and authority for the reader.
Isaiah 40:3 describes the necessary preparations made for the approaching visit of a king. The roadway must by properly prepared so that it may be easily navigated. In verse 4, "make his paths straight" means to eliminate treacherous curves, not to make a smooth surface. The verse continues with images of contrasting pairs being brought into agreement:
--Valleys, or low spots, are filled;
--mountains, or high spots, are made low;
--crooked paths are straightened;
--rough roads are smoothed out.
Obviously "preparing the way" is no easy task.
This was John the Baptist’s duty and calling. He announced the coming Savior. He prepared the way, as it were, for Jesus’ public ministry to begin.
Christmas is a time of remembering our loved ones and what gifts we would like to give in Christ’s name. We want something special to give, to share, to show our love. Christmas is also a time of remembering the gift God gave in our names and for our sakes: the gift of Christ. What are some of God's gifts that come to us through the Christmas story?
1. The first Christmas gift is the gift of Jesus, the light of the world. God is the one that began the custom of giving. James 1:17 asserts, "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." So the first Christmas gift given is the gift from God. His present is Jesus, the light of the world.
Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness of our lives. For the light of the world, the gift of the Father of Lights, is Jesus. John 1:4-5 proclaims, "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Our Christmas decorations of lights, whether they be electric bulbs on our tree or candles on our table, remind us of the gift of the Creator _ the light of the world. The incarnation of God in a baby is the gospel's affirmation of the invasion into human darkness of the light of the world.
2. The second Christmas gift is the gift of Mary and Joseph. Their present was obedient preparation. God had prepared Mary, and Mary had prepared Joseph for the birth of the Christ child. Because their hearts were open and obedient to God's will and call, it was their arms that God chose to embrace and cuddle the Christ child. It was their hands that God chose to wrap the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes to keep him safe.
3. The third Christmas gift is the gift of the shepherds. They brought to the Christ child a very precious present: the gift of wonder. The first people to see Jesus were simple, smelly, uneducated men who were occupied with daily tasks, but were not preoccupied with temporal things.
Wonder touched their hearts and minds when they heard the angel, and they arose and went to Bethlehem bearing their gift of wonder.
Unlike the Magi, who came with regal gifts, the shepherds probably came empty-handed. These simple men of the fields hurried to Bethlehem with nothing but their wonder to give. Their hands were empty, but their hearts were full of awe. Expectancy, anticipation: this is how we should come to God/Christ.
4. The fourth Christmas gift is the gift of the wise men, the gift of excellence. Contrary to what you see in paintings, the wise men did not come to Jesus' birthplace. They arrived late, after Mary and Joseph had brought Jesus home to Nazareth. These magi, or wise men, brought the child Jesus the most treasured gifts of their day: gold, frankincense and myrrh (gold, silver, diamonds).
They offered the gift of excellence, not what was left over after other obligations had been performed. Their gifts demonstrated that it is the best of our talents and the best of our treasures that every wise man and woman will offer to Christ.
5. Finally, the fifth Christmas gift is the gift of the baby Jesus himself, the gift of joy. Repeatedly in the gospel accounts of Christmas, you come across the word "joy." It is in the angelic announcement: "Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" (Luke 2:10 KJV).
To a world crying out in all its confusion and pain for salvation, the Incarnation brought the gift of good news, and with it, joy. In the "worst of times," this tiny baby offered the best of truth. In the worst of times, God does the best of things.
In Christ, we have been gifted with the pathway to God, the route to fulfillment in life, the light that shines to illumine our steps toward God. Teilhard de Chardin asserted that "If we have faith, then everything about us begins to gleam." The gift of the baby Jesus was this gift of gleaming truth.
As you search for presents for those you love, remember that the greatest presents of Christmas are not physical, but spiritual. In all your celebrations take this journey to Bethlehem and share these spiritual gifts: the gift of light, the gift of obedient preparation, the gift of wonder, the gift of excellence and the gift of the joy. Truly, we have been blessed. Let us now go and bless one another. Amen.
CLOSING PRAYER: We thank you, Lord, for Advent --
Grant that we may be grateful enough to keep it not only for a Season, but also for always.
In the name of Christ,
Whose coming is a mystery --
Whose life is a miracle --
Whose ministry in word and deed and death is salvation --
And whose presence is now our highest hope. Amen.
-- William W. Kenney