Preparing the Way (John 1:19-28)

John the Baptist by Ivan Filichev, 1992

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (New International Version)

John was not the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. John’s life was devoted to preparing people and pointing them to Jesus. You and I are not the Messiah; Jesus is. You and I are to devote are lives to preparing people and pointing them to Jesus.

John the Baptist had a way of communicating that didn’t exactly win friends; but he sure influenced a lot of people. (Matthew 3:1-12) 

Considering that John lived in seclusion, dressed weird, and ate different food, it’s not a stretch to see how people might dismiss him as a kook and move on. Yet, there’s no evidence that people viewed John that way. 

Instead, John the Baptist had an effective ministry. I suggest that’s because John didn’t seek his own gain, wasn’t trying to build a big following, but understood that he was to point to the coming Christ. 

John believed judgment was imminent, so he put all his efforts into getting people to realize the wrath of God was real and coming soon.

The kingdom of God cannot be entered by forcefully pushing the door in; we enter God’s kingdom through the humility of confession and repentance. The way to the Nativity goes through John the Baptist and his message of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3)

We are, like John, to make a straight and level way for folks to come to Jesus. That’s going to require some change on our part. But if we’re stuck in our ways, that makes it really hard to make a level path to Jesus.

There’s all sorts of ways we get stuck. We might be mired in a destructive habit because we think we need it to keep going; we may get cemented into rehearsing all the past dumb decisions we made, and so, cannot move forward; or we might become fastened in an unhealthy relationship and see no way to move. 

If we are stuck long enough, we blandly accept this as a new normal, then go about our daily lives with a “meh” kind of attitude; not too low, not too high, but just “meh.”

All this sticky stuff – the patterns, behaviors, activities and habits which trap us – keep us in an immovable bondage. And we might become so used to “meh” that we are cut off from the source that would get us un-stuck.

The reason people didn’t dismiss John as some creepy clown is that he offered them something better than their sticky situations. 

Awareness of our real selves and our true condition brings hope – because God will not leave us stuck. The Lord will turn us into free people, delivered from the stickiness, to live fully for the coming King. God doesn’t give up on us, so we do not need to settle for a “meh” existence.

It can be scary, looking squarely at our sins, habits, memories, and emotions because they might keep us on the flypaper of death. We may feel overwhelmed and think there is hope for other people, but not me. Or, conversely, we might think that everyone else has a problem except me. 

Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Christ will shake things up. He’ll unstick people and free them from narrow thinking and a lack of self-awareness.

The season of Advent means that the time of the Lord’s coming is near. Therefore, preparation for the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas, is of primary importance. And the best way of preparing for Christmas Day is to repent and believe that the kingdom of God is near (as opposed to far away). 

God has come near to us in the person of Jesus; and that makes all the difference. 

It’s hard to admit we’re stuck. Yet, if many are honest, their relationship with God and/or the Church is nothing more than a shoulder shrugging “meh.”

There are two ways to deal with being stuck in guilt and shame: either justify it or confess it. 

Denying, minimizing, or excusing sin leads to separation from God – whereas confession leads to connecting with God. 

John the Baptist’s message is this: Get ready because Jesus is coming! Through the grace of repentance and faith there is hope – the hope of stopping all the petty games we play to hide our sin and hide the fact we are really super-glued to our idols. Our hope is in being cleansed from our impurities and ready for God to be with us in the person of Jesus.

God unsticks us so we can bear good fruit that is in keeping with repentance. Our lives need to be congruent between what we profess and how we live. Outward religious observance, although important, is not the way into the kingdom. And confession without genuine change is not repentance – it’s just confession. 

The God who came to his people in Jesus will one day unveil his kingdom in all its glory. We need to get ready for that day. There are roads that need straightening; fires that need to be lit in order to burn away the rubbish and brush in the path; dead trees that need to be cut down; there are people who need to repent because the kingdom of God is near.

We must clear the road so that Jesus has a way into our hearts. 

Just as law enforcement and the secret service are serious about making presidential motorcades free of obstacles and having a clear road to the destination, so we need to ensure that we are doing all we can to pave the way for Christ’s coming. 

This is no time for a spiritually milquetoast deadpan “meh” kind of life; this is the day to clear the way for Jesus. Now is the time to prepare for Christ’s coming. 

And the proper preparation for the Lord’s return is with admitting our stickiness and asking God to unstick us from the sin that so easily entraps us on the devil’s flypaper. 

The kingdom of God belongs to those who prepare the way and produce good fruit in keeping with repentance. 

Maranatha. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Take the Path of Peace (Zechariah 1:1-17)

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Zechariah, Sistine Chapel, Rome

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:

“The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (New International Version)

God hulking-out isn’t something you want to see repeated, insisted the prophet.

Zechariah directed his message to the Jews returning from their exile in Babylon. He reminded them that their parents and forebears had been called to repent and return to the Lord. They didn’t. Hence, the Babylonian exile. Big hint from the prophet to the people: Don’t ever do that again. Things will get angry, large, and green if you do.

Zechariah’s generation was being given a chance: To live into God’s covenant and law; to hold fast onto their identity as God’s people.

The people listened to the prophet. They expressed their repentance and a desire to turn from past evil ways and embrace the ways of the Lord. And the returning exiles also acknowledged and accepted God’s judgment. The returning exiles understood that, as a people, they deserve the consequences to centuries of neglecting justice, mercy, and humility.

Every generation of believers must learn from the past. Not only do they need to receive the teachings and traditions of those who went before them, but each generation must also struggle with how to put that teaching and tradition into practice.

The past needs to be squarely faced and deliberately pulled into the present. That is the way a genuine hope is born, giving direction for the future. In other words, old words and ways from the past need new experiences in the present; only by doing this will there be guidance.

Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, CEB)

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes the first of eight night visions from the prophet Zechariah. The gist of the first prophetic oracle is a message of assurance and comfort: God will restore. The Lord will renew.

Divine intervention is about to happen in the rebuilding of the temple – a physical example of the spiritual reality that is happening. Just as the ancient temple was being restored for new generations of worshipers, so the people were being renewed to be an example of piety and fidelity to God for millennia to come.

Peace and prosperity will again be realized.

Throughout Scripture, trees are a symbol of a thriving and flourishing life. The myrtle tree is a sign of God’s promise to bring new life, branching out to spread into the next generations. Like all trees, the myrtle needs plenty of moisture when young. Yet, it is distinctive in that the myrtle tree can tolerate drought, grow despite limited soil, and remain hardy when it becomes mature.

Your anger lasts a little while,
but your kindness lasts
    for a lifetime.
At night we may cry,
but when morning comes
    we will celebrate. (Psalm 30:5, CEV)

“Tolerate,” “grow,” and “remain” are anything but passive words. People are more than mere observers. “Repent” and “return” and “renew” are verbs. There is a great deal of activity to do. A divine/human cooperation needs to occur. On God’s end, even the angels get involved in the action. What’s happening here is both heavenly and earthly business.

Relational dynamics between God and God’s people are to be a dialogue and not a one-sided monologue. The Lord and the present generation are to demonstrate for future peoples how peace is actually realized and enjoyed.

The Vision of Zechariah, by Unknown artist, c.1300 C.E., Sicily

Like all biblical visions, Zechariah’s is not readily understandable. Nobody is sure about what the symbolism is behind the vision’s horses. Yet, I’ll venture to say that it’s the colors which are significant: red is the color of action; brown is a color of stability and fertility; and white represents purity and holiness. Red, brown, and white mixed together creates a beige color.

Beige is an earthy and dependable color. It’s an inherently welcoming and calming color, offering warmth and symbolizing harmony and comfort. Together, with the horses we have a representation of strength, stability, and structure. They are signs of peace and rest, of God’s shalom.

Spiritual wholeness, moral integrity, relational harmony, and settled peace don’t just magically happen. 

For the Christian, peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus. (Colossians 1:20)

Peace must be both passively received and actively pursued. (Ephesians 4:3)

Practices of peace need to be engrafted into our lives so that we might daily experience it. (Romans 14:13-15:7)

The name “Zechariah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. 

The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health – a place of peace and rest.

The happiest, fully rested, and most peaceful people and nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

To find joy and happiness in life is to find peace and rest. And peace is something to be shared, to be passed onto others.

“The peace of Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Such ritual words and practices are reminders of continually returning to the Lord and finding simplicity and satisfaction in Jesus.

In observing and celebrating the Lord’s Table, we find our penultimate remembrance of how peace was achieved, as well as our supreme participation in the triune God.

Perhaps, then, peace and prosperity will extend their tree-like branches over the earth and into the next generations.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ. – a Navajo Prayer

Isaiah 5:1-7 – A Parable of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

 I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (New International Version)

God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.

The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.

It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.

God builds. God gives. God sustains…. And God destructs. God takes away. God ends what he begins.

The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.

The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. The cries and anguished responses of the needy were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.

The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.

Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)

If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.

If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.

Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.

Believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.

This is the way.

It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)

May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.

Merciful Father, we pray that violence will be overcome by the power of love; that opposition and division give way to reconciliation; and that the desire for power and control be transformed into the desire for forgiveness, justice, and peace.

May peace be in our hearts so that they are open to the action of your divine grace.

May all humanity – especially the poor, the needy, the least among us, and the lost – feel the warmth of your steadfast love and the love of your people toward them.

May the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control be our breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and may your divine abundance of mercy and justice be scattered throughout our city, our nation, and our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of your Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Hosea 6:1-10 – “I Want Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
As at Adam, they have broken the covenant;
    they were unfaithful to me there.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    stained with footprints of blood.
As marauders lie in ambush for a victim,
    so do bands of priests;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    carrying out their wicked schemes.
I have seen a horrible thing in Israel:
    There Ephraim is given to prostitution,
    Israel is defiled. (New International Version)

My favorite word in all of Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word חסד (“chesed” pronounced in English “kes-ed).  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth and import. 

So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as:

  • Goodness (American Standard Version)
  • Faithful love (Common English Bible)
  • Loyalty (God’s Word Translation)
  • Constant love (Good News Translation)
  • Mercy (King James Version)
  • Love that lasts (The Message)
  • Faithfulness (New English Translation)
  • Loving-kindness (New Life Version)
  • Steadfast love (New Revised Standard Version)

Chesed is God’s committed, gracious, and loving covenant loyalty to people. The Lord’s very attributes are sheer Love.

Since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward one another. In other words, because God is merciful and kind, we, as people created in God’s image, are to be marked with this same character in all we do. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God is calling and wooing wayward people to return to a life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not sending the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner. Instead, the Lord is committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants from people is not simply to go through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor.

Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity. The Lord is deeply grieved when people whore after other gods to meet their needs for love and belonging. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ.

The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions.

Mercy, in Christianity, finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.

But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13, CEB)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities, Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing something that is not right to do on the day of rest—a holy day.”

Jesus asked them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his men were hungry? Haven’t you read how he went into the house of God and ate  the bread of the presence? He and his men had no right to eat those loaves. Only the priests have that right. Or haven’t you read in Moses’ Teachings that on the day of rest—a holy day, the priests in the temple do things they shouldn’t on the day of rest yet remain innocent? I can guarantee that something  greater than the temple is here. If you had known what ‘I want mercy, not sacrifices’ means, you would not have condemned innocent people. (Matthew 12:2-7, GW)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear.

Grace and love reconnects the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment; it’s mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life.

God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace. 

May the result of our return to the Lord be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One. Amen.