God's Story, Our Story: Preparing the Way

Preaching: Marijke Strong
Text: Luke 1:5-16, 57-58, 67-80

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “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. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 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. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 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.”

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57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

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67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

69 He has raised up a mighty savior[g] for us in the house of his servant David,

70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

    and has remembered his holy covenant,

73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

    to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness

    before him all our days.

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people

    by the forgiveness of their sins.

78 By the tender mercy of our God,

    the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us,

79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

INTRODUCTION

[From the communion table] It was several years ago, here at Fellowship church, that I watched one of our elders prepare the table for communion. I think he knew that I was in the room but he wasn’t really conscious of other people watching. He was so intent on the holiness of his task. I watched him smooth out the table cloth, pour the juice and put each cup carefully in place, position the plates of bread, and finally he set the loaf in the middle of the table. Then he stood back and quietly surveyed his work. Tweaked the edge of the table cloth. And left the room. Such love! Now I know that the table is already holy because of the presence of God (the presence of God is everywhere!), but somehow I think the table that day had been sanctified in a different way because of the care that man put into preparing for the supper where God and God’s people would meet. I remember sitting throughout the service and not being able to wait to get to the table. I knew something special was going to happen there.

The way we prepare for someone tells a story. It tells something about the one who is coming. It tells something about the ones who are waiting. It tells something about what we believe will happen next.

Thinking about waiting reminded me of the time of waiting we all had when I was getting ready to come from Canada to Michigan. After I received the call to come to Fellowship Church in 2011, we started working together with immigration lawyers to apply for a Work Visa. And we worked and worked on that Visa. I think it took close to 6 months!

During the time of waiting we prepared for one another. We set the table for our meeting. In Ontario, I was praying through the church directory every day, looking at your faces, saying your names out loud, using the words of Ephesians 3: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love…..”

You were also preparing for me. Many of you sent me cards in Ontario. You made ready an office space for me and put my name beside the door. You had interviews with Homeland Security and explained why I had been called to come. You gave “Marijke updates” to the congregation. You prayed for me.  You also sent a delegation of movers when the time came, you cleaned my house for me and left welcome gifts, you helped me unpack.  Such love!

The way we prepare for someone tells a story. It tells something about the one who is coming. It tells something about the ones who are waiting. It tells something about what we believe will happen next.

ZECHARIAH

In the place where we pick up the story of the people of Israel today, there had been 400 years of silence since the voice of God was heard among the people. They were waiting for a word from God. A sign to give them hope for the coming age. Zechariah the priest was also waiting. He was waiting for a child. He and his wife, Elizabeth had been unable to bear children and were (as the text says) “getting on in years.”

So Luke invites us into the story in the middle of all this waiting. Just at the moment when things are about to change. Luke’s account begins and ends in the temple, showing that God is the primary actor in this story. First, we hear how Zechariah was called up by lot for his priestly duties, and went into the temple to minister before the Lord. What happened next was nothing short of astounding. An angel appeared to him. Gabriel, no less! And the angel told him that not only would his personal prayers be answered but also the prayers of the entire nation of Israel, all at the same time. A child would be born to him. A child! And this child would prepare the way for the Savior of the world.  Not surprisingly, Zechariah was knocked off his feet. And when he expressed his doubt (“How do I know that this will happen? I’m too old!”) the angel rebuked him for his disbelief by making him mute for the entire 9 months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. 

So let’s stop for a minute here. Because there’s something familiar about this story, don’t you think? An elderly couple praying for children. A visitation from an angel. Disbelief. Promise. This is actually an old story getting retold in a new way. That happens all the time with the story of God. Do you remember last week Pastor Brian talked about the invitation God is always giving us to carry the old story forward into a new future? In the time of Ezra it happened when a new temple was built on the old foundation, so that the people wept and rejoiced when they saw it. Well today that same movement of the old giving birth to the new is taking place.

To signal that this is happening, Luke purposefully reminds his readers about the old, old story of Abraham and Sarah: an elderly couple who were promised a child by angels, and who doubted the news. They couldn’t believe that at their age God was going to fulfill God’s promise to bless Abraham’s descendants – making them as numerous as the stars in the sky – and pledge his covenant love to them forever. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Now Luke intentionally brings the old story forward. It’s like he’s saying, “Remember the ancient promise? The one we were waiting for? The one we had almost given up on? That promise is about to be fulfilled. God is bringing something new out of something old.  And get ready. Because it’s going to look a whole lot different than you expected.” The child to be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth was going to prepare the way for a Savior, not only for the people of Israel but for the entire world.

JOHN THE BAPTIST

So Elizabeth increased with child. Her cousin, Mary, also had a visitation from an angel and became miraculously pregnant. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Finally, Elizabeth’s baby was born. And when the time came to name him both she and Zechariah insisted that his name should be John, as the Angel instructed them. Immediately Zechariah’s tongue was loosed – he was no longer mute! – and he broke forth into a song of praise. The first half of his song was about the coming Messiah, the one the people of God had waited for so long. Praise God! It is time for that Messiah to come and save the people of Israel! The second half of his song was about the wonder he felt when he considered that the baby he had waited for so long – his own son – would be the one to prepare the way for this Savior, not only of Israel but of the entire world. Listen to this:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways!

You can just hear him quivering with pride, can’t you? Let me tell you about the Greek meaning for the word, “prepare.” There are several meanings. We’re going to look at two. The first meaning is traditional. It has to do with the action of sweeping and leveling a road before a king came through. In his song, Zechariah described the work John would do to prepare the way (to level the road) for the King of Kings to come. What would that look like?

First, John would prepare the way by giving the knowledge of SALVATION to the people by the forgiveness of their sins. The Jewish people had been waiting for a political savior. Over the years they had suffered under countless dictators and now they were experiencing oppression once again under Roman rule. So of course salvation in their minds meant freedom from oppression. And God is certainly concerned with freedom from oppression. Zechariah knew that. But what was being proclaimed here was a different, deeper kind of freedom, the kind that John would one day preach by the waters of the Jordan River. A baptism of repentance. Forgiveness of sins. Freedom from our own wrongdoing.

This was a freedom that showed God’s deep concern first and foremost for the human heart. And not just one human heart. Or two. Or three. Every human heart! In the gospel of John (1:29) John the Baptist would announce Jesus’ arrival by saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The world. Truly, there is a wideness in God’s mercy. It is not just for a few select individuals but for all people. So John was called first, to prepare the way for the coming of Christ by proclaiming salvation for every human heart.

Second, John would prepare the way by declaring the tender mercy of God – like dawn breaking on high, to give LIGHT TO THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS and in the shadow of death. “Tender mercy” is a word in Greek that means a compassion so deep you feel it in your guts. It’s the same feeling that moved a mother in the time of Solomon to give up her child to another woman so that the child wouldn’t be harmed. It is a love so powerful it moves you to selfless action. Clearly, God is concerned not only with saving the human heart but also with redeeming the human condition. This is about release from all of the darkness, bondage and injustice in the world.

That’s why Luke deliberately quoted the prophet Malachi, who said, “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” And from the prophet Isaiah, who said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined…. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” With him there shall be endless peace, justice and righteousness forevermore. John was called second, to prepare the way for the coming of Christ by sharing the gut-wrenching compassion of God, which moves God to set people free.

Finally, John would prepare the way by guiding the feet of God’s people into THE WAY OF PEACE.  It wasn’t enough to be saved from sin and liberated from injustice. Now the people would be invited to go and do likewise. Remember James said, “faith without works is dead.” Remember Matthew told us that when the King comes again in righteousness and divides the sheep from the goats, he will say to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of [these], you did it to me.” (Mat 25) Truly, to walk in the way of peace is to join with God in restoring shalom to this world. So finally, John was called to prepare the way for the coming of Christ by challenging the people to walk in peace.

THE PEOPLE OF GOD

As it turns out, John wasn’t the only one called to prepare the way of the Lord. He prepared the way for the incarnate Lord, who would be born in a stable, walk among the people, teach, preach, heal and love here on earth. John prepared for the one who would die to conquer death, rise to new life and ascend to the Father’s right hand, where even now he is interceding on our behalf and on behalf of the world.

But listen: that same Christ has promised that he will come again to restore all things to God’s design. That’s what we are waiting for. We feel it especially in Advent as we feel the tension between “Christ has come,” and “Christ will come again.” And now John is passing us the baton. He is holding it out for us. The question is whether we will take it. Will we take up the call to prepare the way for the Risen Lord? Will we declare salvation from sin to all people? Will we share the tender mercy of God, like a dawn bringing light to those who sit in darkness? Will we walk in the ways of peace? I believe we are doing this already. And we are called to do it even more fully. Wholeheartedly. Courageously.

Let me tell you a story. I have a friend who is a nun. She lives at the Dominican Center in Grand Rapids. Last month my friend told me, “I notice that those Dutch people always sweep and scrub the streets before a parade. They’re so meticulous in getting everything ready. So spic and span. It’s a bit of an obsession, right?” I was nodding my head. I know! I grew up in that tradition. “Well,” she said, “About 15 years ago I saw that peculiar habit put to good use. It happened that a demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan took place on the steps of a major building in the city.” My friend the nun had just seen a Broadway play and was coming out into the night, putting her coat on, getting ready to go home. She looked over to the building where that demonstration had taken place and saw an astounding sight. A group of Calvin College students were silently washing the steps where those men had stood. They never said anything. Just scrubbed and scrubbed. My friend thinks they had quietly followed the rally and done this in various places throughout the city. It was an act of protest.

I wonder if every moment of our lives is an act of protest. A message of defiance against the powers of darkness and an invitation for the Lord of Light to come again.  Remember that the way we prepare for someone tells a story. It tells something about the one who is coming. It tells something about the ones who are waiting. It tells something about what we believe will happen next.

Not all of us will have interactions with the KKK (thanks be to God). But in some way we will be called to get down on our knees and scrub the steps. To level the road and prepare the way of the Lord through the little acts of love and the large acts of courage and justice to which we are called every day. It happens in a million ways. We do this when we forgive a friend. When we care for a family member. When we clean up after children. When we open our home to people who are different than we are. When we send a card with a compassionate greeting. When we demonstrate politically. When we speak up about issues of injustice in this world. When we pray. With our lives we are called to prepare the way of the Risen Lord.

CONCLUSION

[From the communion table] Do you know the second meaning of the Greek word, “prepare”? Let me give you a hint: Revelation 19:7 “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” Revelation 21:2 “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Revelation 22:17 “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Advent is a time of waiting between “Christ has come,” and “Christ will come again.” The best way we can wait is to prepare for his coming with the everyday courage and holiness of our lives. We are called to level the road. We are called to get people ready. We are called to set the table with love and care for the coming of the King. 

Fellowship Church