Sermon from Advent II: John to the Church

 John to the Church

Advent II; December 9, 2018

Luke 3:1-6

To the reader: The "new reality" referred to at the beginning is the letter we all received this week from our Associate Pastor that she has decided to move on. Please pray for her as she discerns God's call to her.

On the Second Sunday of Advent we almost always look at John the Baptizer. This year, given our congregation's new reality, I asked myself what John would say to the Church. Of course, anything I say to you this morning also has to faithfully bring good news to those with us who are not part of our congregation. Given all that, what would John say to the Church?

I'm afraid that he would not be as sympathetic as I would like. The Prophet Isaiah of Babylon said, "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God" (Isaiah 40:1) but John's message is full of fire and fury: "Repent! Straighten up! Prepare the way of the Lord!" His preaching sounds like what the Prophet Malachi said: the messenger who prepares the way "is like a refiner's fire" (Malachi 3:1-2). John certainly has more fire than comfort to his words.

But those who are sad that Pastor Sara is leaving us need comfort, not fire, right now. So I'll come back to what John says to the Church in a few minutes, and first deal with something more symbolic. When the other Gospels introduce John, they jump right in: John appeared in the wilderness, preaching repentance, baptizing, and so forth. But Luke starts out by telling us who was Emperor and who was Governor and who ruled not only Judea and Galilee but the territories around them. What's the point? The point is to remind us that John was a real person who lived in a real place at a particular time in history. No matter how hard we try to look at the big picture, the ways of God come to us in particular places at particular times.

Last Sunday I struggled to remind you of what is temporary and what is eternal. But the reality is that you and I know eternity in particular moments of time. So, as you are sad, if you cannot find any comfort from John the Baptizer, I ask you to remember gratefully the ways Pastor Sara offered you comfort. She was present for so many at painful, difficult times and times of grief; her words brought laughter and consolation and hope. Like Malachi and Isaiah and John and all of us, her presence has been but a moment in time, but for many her presence has been a moment that has touched what is eternal. John doesn't say that to us, but Luke hints at it by the way he starts talking about John.

Two other things that help me this week; I hope they help you. One is the words of today's anthem (Ruth Elaine Schram, "Like a Rose," 1996); they echo the words of the prophets but seem particularly appropriate for a snowy, sad Sunday in Omaha:

   When the winter is dreary, and the trees are all bare,

   When our spirits are weary, and filled with despair,

   We will long for a new day when a warmer wind blows,

   Where the blooms are appearing, and the desert will blossom like a rose.

   In the wilderness, streams will break forth,

   And all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

   Then blind eyes will see Him, and deaf ears will hear!

   The lame and the cripple will leap like the deer.

   O, how we are longing; our hope ever grows for the day of His coming

   When the desert will blossom like a rose.

   In the wilderness, streams will break forth,

   And all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

   And the desert will blossom like a rose.

The second thing that helps is something from Father Levenson's homily at President Bush's funeral on Wednesday. He talked about the gathering of family and friends during the President's final days, and gave us a beautiful, humble picture: the former Secretary of State, James Baker, rubbing the President's feet. When we think of the power wielded by a President and a Secretary of State, I am deeply moved by the simple human reality of two old friends, one rubbing the other's feet. Eternity comes to us in moments of time.

What Father Levenson did with that picture, however, takes us to the main thing that John the Baptizer will say to the Church. The Rector talked about Secretary Baker rubbing the President's feet, and said it took him to the Upper Room, where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The preacher saw not only the love and faithfulness of an old friend, but he saw the presence of Jesus Christ in that room.

The main message in John's preaching was, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" The Messiah is coming; be ready for him. "Don't look at me, look for the One who is coming." So while John himself may not give us much comfort in our sadness, he will tell us to give thanks for the ways you have known Jesus Christ through the ministry of Pastor Sara. Remember that her work, and my work, are not about ourselves nor even about you: our work is about Jesus Christ.

I have seen the tears of many of you this week; as I sat with one of you I said something that I wish to repeat to all of you. Every minister is temporary; Jesus Christ is eternal. Yes, you will miss Pastor Sara; you are doubtless remembering other pastors you have had and whom you miss. Your sadness is right and appropriate. John reminds you and me that the most important thing about a pastor is that we point you toward Jesus Christ. So remember that every minister is temporary, but Jesus Christ is eternal.

We come to the Lord's Table today and you miss seeing her standing here. I think I speak for John the Baptizer when I ask you not to look at who is not here, nor at who is here, but look to the One who is the Host and who is the Guest and who is the Meal: to Jesus Christ. In your hearts and minds, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

Sermon for Advent III: Always?
Sermon for Advent I - December 2


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