December 5, 2021. Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 1:68-79
Forgiveness of sins, Salvation, Mercy, Light, and Peace!
Today’s sermon title is rather long.
Did you know that the longest title of a book consists of 3777 words? Today’s sermon in comparison is about 1800 words. A while ago I read a fascinating book with a very long title. The author is Simon Winchester and the title of the book is: Pacific, Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires. It was a great read. The NY Times Book Review wrote that the author “delineates both the tragedy and the dynamism of contemporary world history, with all its ghastly horrors”.
As far as history books go, Winchester’s book is relatively short, only about 450 pages. But the title is long. History books usually have short titles but they are of substantial length.
You see, human history is long, messy, complex, frequently brutal, and not always easy to interpret – for as Winston Churchill said: history is written by victors.
And yet, knowing history is important, for we are aware of what happens when we don’t know history – we will be doomed to repeat it.
And what do we see when we read history? Well, we see many things; some good, uplifting, inspiring, and worthy; others not so noble. We learn that our species are resilient, creative, and able to do good things. But we also learn that humanity are violent, intolerant and even cruel.
And, we also learn that we are unable to free ourselves from our dark and vicious impulses – we need redemption or salvation.
Human history is one, long struggle of our species in which success and failure, wonder and anger, beauty and malice, joy and sadness are like a pendulum, swinging back and forth.
And therefore, it is good news that there is another voice that needs to be heard. This voice helps us to interpret history and this voice puts everything in perspective. It is the voice of the Biblical witness. For the Biblical voice provides unique and important footnotes to human history.
As I mentioned today’s sermon title is long – perhaps the longest one I’ve ever come up with. Forgiveness of sins, Salvation, Mercy, Light, and Peace. And I would like to think that the title, taken from our readings, helps us to notice or rediscover some of the Biblical footnotes to human history. I hope that today’s sermon will somewhat delineates both the tragedy of wasted potential of humankind and the rich hope of God’s future.
You see the Biblical footnotes allow us to see the stark contrast of a bright light shining into a dark world, of a dream of peace that overcomes enmity. We need to hear and see the contrast between humanity imprisoned by sin, and God’s way of offering liberation and forgiveness of sins. These are all captured in the good news of a loving God who is committed to saving God’s creation from our destructive impulses.
The Book of Malachi is one of the Biblical voices we hear this morning. Not much is known about the prophet Malachi. The name Malachi in Hebrews simply means “My messenger”. Perhaps the purpose is to focus on the message and not on the individual.
The book Malachi reveals a world that is not much different from ours. It shows us that people have not changed much: in spite of God’s love of them, in spite of their opportunities to be God’s people, they did not live up to their calling and their potential. But the book also affirms that a loving God is still in control of the world. It demands that God’s people ought to be devoted to a Holy God. And it shows that when they fail, they, by the love of God, are given another chance.
In spite of their harsh and violent world these ancient people of faith were able to dream. They were dreaming, hoping, and waiting for a time of renewal and peace.
And as we get to the last few verses of the last book of the Christian OT, we notice a yearning, a deep longing of a time in the future when the Lord of Hosts will be worshiped, when people will be righteous, living up to their God-given purpose and potential, and when all of creation will be witnessing to God in righteousness.
And then in the last 3 verses of the last chapter of the last book of the Hebrew Bible there are references to Moses and the prophet Elijah. OT scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that these two holy men represent the Law and the Prophets. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets. Brueggemann says: “The Law asserts the requirement of obedience and the Prophets invite hope for God’s future”. And thus the Christian OT ends.
Then in the Christian NT the prophetic hope and obedience are once again revealed. The divine message in short is this: The time is here! The waiting is over! The hope that the prophets were proclaiming and people were waiting for is here. The time to flourish and to rejoice is here.
The Priest Zechariah, after the birth of his son John the Baptist, was filled with the Holy Spirit and it is telling that he speaks a prophecy.
And bear with me for it is a bit technical. Zechariah’s prophecy is the answer to the question in 1:66: “What then will this child become?” And his answer is modeled on the prophesies in the OT. “Blessed be the Lord of Israel for God has looked favorably on God’s people and redeemed them.”
Did you notice that Zechariah is saying that God has already looked favorably on God’s people? God has already redeemed them. God has shown mercy and God has remembered God’s covenant. And because God has already done this, they will serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness.
And then Zechariah’ s prophecy moves to the future role of John the Baptist in God’s plan: “….you will go before the Lord to prepare God’s way, to give knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins, the dawn will break through to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death .. and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The Greek word for “guide” literally means to point our feet in the right direction, that is in the direction of peace. The Messiah points our feet in the right direction, in the direction of peace.
So, John the Baptist’s task is to prepare the way of the Lord, and share that God will bring light to those who are in darkness and who are in the shadow of death. The Lord’s light will shine in a world where darkness and death are powerful forces. And the Lord will guide our feet into the way of peace.
The One who is to come, the Messiah is the Giver of both light and peace.
The concept of peace is of course rooted in the OT. The Hebrew word, shalom, is first of all a gift of God. It is a word that has a deeper and fuller meaning than peace. It means “well-being”, or to have real contentment, it includes the notion of stability of relationship, which means it denotes a relationship rather than a state. The concept of peace is not the mere absence of conflict or anxiety. And as God’s gift, it spills over to include peace with my enemies, but also the inner-peace in my heart, and peace with God. This is what God offers to us – shalom, peace!
The prophetic words of Zachariah are important footnotes to our history. In the midst of a violent, intolerant, and harsh world, the Biblical footnote is that God is offering humankind peace and reconciliation. In a world where we are carrying a huge burden of guilt, the Biblical footnote is that God, in Christ is washing away our sins so we could start new. In a dark, unfriendly, dangerous world, the Biblical footnote is that God brings light to a world!
We are reminded during this season of God’s liberating work in Christ. Our turbulent world, the difficult times we live in, the enmity, and the uncertainty easily dominate our thoughts and fear paralyzes us.
We are called to remember and hold onto these theological footnotes to history: Christ acts and establishes reconciliation, washes away our sins, he brings light to a dark world and, he is the one who points our feet in the direction of peace.
Today’s candle is PEACE. It is Christ who guides us towards God’s peace. Remember that this is the Lord who says that the peacemakers are called blessed. In Psalm 85 the Psalmist says: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other”. One author explains the meaning thus: “God’s disposition to save God’s people is regarded as the cause of perfect earthly peace”.
And this truth should also be viewed as a footnote to our experience: God’s disposition to save God’s people is regarded as the cause of perfect earthly peace! Never ever should we lose hope, or become despondent, or cynical about what is going on the world. Even when it seems as if human history is in a downward spiral, we should still remember God’s footnotes to human history: forgiveness of sins, salvation, mercy, light, and peace. These footnotes are meant to encourage us for God is about to restore the world to God’s intention.
And Zechariah is saying, the time is at hand. We, who have seen God’s gift of shalom in Christ, are then called to be peacemakers, our feet are directed toward peace, so we should share, pursue and work for peace.
How do you think we do? Especially during a time of fear, anxiety, intolerance, and a tendency to think dualistic about our society, that is to look at others and see “them and us”, and “we are good and they are bad”? Perhaps we could and should do better.
Perhaps we should focus on and use our energy to bring people together, and to work for everyone’s shalom, everyone’s “well-being”. We are called to share with our communities God’s gift of shalom. We, who are the recipients of God’s reconciliation, of God’s love and who have received forgiveness of sins, should share God’s gifts of reconciliation, love, and forgiveness of sins. We who have seen God’s light that shines in the darkness should be bearers of good news of life and new beginnings. We, who have read God’s footnotes to our history, should with joy bring hope and peace to the world.
Yes people of God, we live in troubled and challenging times. Historians will look back on the last couple of years and they will study how difficult it was for all of us.
But we who know the biblical footnotes, we can approach it in a different way: Yes, we live in a difficult time but this time also comes with ample opportunities. In the midst of so much fear, confusion, anger, and hostility, we have opportunities to walk towards peace for God has pointed our feet towards God’s peace. In short, the question is: will we do with the many opportunities for us to be peacemakers? Amen.
One senses the urgency of the Apostle Paul as he is writing to the Christians in Philippi. This letter is an intensely personal letter. Time and again we see outbursts of unrestrained emotion. And the chief of his emotions is JOY. Paging through his letter it soon becomes clear that the author is filled with deep joy. It is surprising that he is filled with joy and gratitude, that he seems so content and peaceful. Why? He of course is writing his letter from prison. But he has something that enables him to be joyful, grateful, and peaceful in spite of his external circumstances.
He is grateful for the church in Philippi. For he sees in them a community of grace. Christ is their magnet who draws them near to himself and to each other. Through his death and resurrection, he made them alive and gave them peace. It is a community of faith that helps and supports each other. It is also a fellowship who shares God’s love and peace to the world.
It was their life together, their love of one another, the support they provided, the shalom the had and shared that resulted in the strong growth of the congregation. They lived in such a way that people could sense the power of the Gospel. They lived as people whose sins are forgiven, as people who are grateful for their salvation, constantly aware of God’s mercy. They embraced the light of the Gospel that shines into a dark world and they were peacemakers, for they received God’s peace!
We are called to do the same! Amen