A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Canticle of Zechariah; Mal 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
We all know the sadness that comes from offering hope and encouragement to someone who won’t take it. Many of us also know the sadness that comes from being that someone who can’t take hope and encouragement when we need it. “Take heart” is an idiom that instructs us to be confident and comforted in difficult circumstances and conditions: to be strong and hopeful when things aren’t looking so good.
Luke tells Theophilus that he is writing his “orderly” gospel “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke’s account is the result of the “eyewitness” of the disciples and Luke’s own “careful investigation” of everything “from the beginning” (Luke 1:1-4). Faith needs to be built up, and its sure foundation needs to be kept in view.
Luke is especially concerned to expand the time period Mark accounts for, give us details and facts about events, and tell stories that reveal the fullness of the character of Jesus. He takes us back to the pregnancy of Elizabeth and narrates her encounter with the pregnant Mary; he also moves us forward, to the Ascension, and then in the Book of Acts, to the descent of the Spirit on the Church. He makes sure to fill in the historical details of the principal actors in the setting and events surrounding the Birth of the Child, and he takes us into the Temple for the ritual purification, where we meet the elderly Simeon. Luke hears the music of these events: he narrates the Magnificant, which Mary sings when she is praised by Elizabeth; the Benedictus, which John the Baptist’s father sings; the “gloria in excelsis Deo” the angels sing at the cave where the baby Jesus is delivered; and the Nunc Dimittis, sung by Simeon in the Temple. These songs are heard morning and night in daily prayer services all around the world. Luke relates the story of Jesus to all the law and the prophets that came before him and to the Church that will come after him. He is sensitive to the poor and the marginalized. All of this Luke writes, so that we, like Theophilus, might “take heart.”[i]
I think it is worth noting that the placement of the child’s birth in its historical context does indeed build up our faith. Fact checking about Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Judea, Herod, Galilee, Philip, Iturea, Traconitis, Lysanius, and Abilene – real people and places – increases our confidence about Elizabeth, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus, and most importantly the Gospel of Jesus. The historical continuity between Jesus and John the Baptist is reflective of their continuity in God’s plan of salvation. Jesus preached his Gospel hard on the heels of John the Baptist’s ministry – John announces the Kingdom and Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom. John is the last Jewish prophet before Jesus, and Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophets.
Luke 3:4-6 establishes John’s relationship with Jesus and the Jewish prophets by quoting from Isaiah 40:1-5:
Comfort, comfort my people,says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
[Hear the] voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness,
prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
Isaiah, in this song, offers comfort to Israel, whose “hard service” has come to an end; Israel’s sin “has been paid for” and the Lord approaches. Luke identifies John as the messenger who “prepares the way for the Lord.” The Baptist has a two-part message: 1) repentance, and 2) forgiveness of sins. The difficult circumstances and conditions of our lives, the hard service, arises from the short-sighted decisions we make about how to live our lives. When we do not live our lives with our creation and our end in view, we despair, and when we despair, we reject hope and encouragement; despair is the opposite of confidence. Despairing, we look at ourselves and long to be someone else. When we look instead for God, we long to be who we already are; we need only a willingness to transform our lives in light of this knowledge.
The Song of Zechariah tells us that we are blessed because God has visited us and shown us who we are. The ministry of John the Baptist brings to completion the ministry of all the prophets “who have been since the world began” and who spoke the truth about who we are in the face of the world’s longing to be other than we are. The ministry of John the Baptist is the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring us out of fear and into peace. God is about to show us his mercy and re-orientate the direction of our attention away from messes we find all too easily looking at ourselves and toward the splendor of things we discover looking at God. Baptism is a sign of the re-direction, the guidance, God gives us, in the person of His Son, and John the Baptism is the prophet who encourages us to “take heart,” for this Person is with us: “Through the tender mercy of our God: whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Zch 1:78-79). This is a lovely moment, a tender moment, a moment of remarkable simplicity: take heart! Look, see, and be.
John the Baptist’s ministry begins around 29 A.D., “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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Luke 3:1) Tiberias has been away from Rome for three years; he has settled on the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus, leader of the Praetorian Guard, to administer the Empire. Sejanus has begun his fateful attempt to take over the government by purging senators and the wealthy upper classes. The threat of trial and execution may have led Israel’s priesthood to collaborate with Pilate to prevent rebellion. When John the Baptist stirs up controversy among the Jews in Galilee regarding Herod’s marriage and proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, he is arrested, then beheaded.
John is traditionally depicted as a severe man, who subjected himself to a discipline of austerities intended to purify himself, in preparation for enduring the day of the Messiah’s coming and standing when he appears. In Malachi, endurance and the strength to stand at the Messiah’s appearance are described as a “delight,” even though “he is like a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap.” The heat of a refiner’s fire melts silver and gold, separating the metal from its impurities over a period of days, and the fuller’s soap is a strong lye used to clean clothes. We are to understand that when John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3), the repentance he preaches is not a light task, or even one suitable for all of Israel, for it must be sufficient to withstand the standards of the Messiah, when he sits “as a refiner and purifier of silver” and refines Israel’s priests – “the sons of Levi” – “like gold and silver,” when they bring to him their “offerings in righteousness.” If the righteousness is acceptable, “Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years,” Micah says, but we who know the Gospel also know that this was not to be the case: Jesus the Messiah was forced to cleanse the Temple, and the Sons of Levi conspired against him throughout his ministry.
Early Christians – the priesthood of all believers – applied the lesson of Malachi to their own experience. In the Didache, a late first century text about the length of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we read this:
“Assembling on every Sunday of the Lord, break bread and give thanks, confessing your thoughts beforehand, so that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no one engaged in a dispute with his comrade join you until they have been reconciled, lest your sacrifice be profaned. This is [the meaning] of what was said by the Lord: “to offer me a sacrifice in every place and time, because I am a great king,” says the Lord, “and my name is held in wonder among the nations.”[ii]
Like Paul in his letters, the author of the Didache is addressing a local community. The point he makes is that the church must keep itself righteous, must refine itself, by weekly confession and communion, which is a means of grace and the hope of glory. We too are called to endurance and the strength to stand “delighted at the Messiah’s appearance,” for we must never forget that the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah dwells in our hearts, and we are now the Temple of God.
Let us conclude our meditation by recalling Simeon’s Song, with its quote from the prophet Isaiah (Isa 49:6):
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Simeon is a very old man, more than two hundred years old, righteous and devout, “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” At the presentation of our Lord in the Temple, Simeon holds Jesus in his arms.
Here we see hope fulfilled (because covenant – God’s promise – is fulfilled), and we can take heart; here we see that when we look to God, our lives can be transformed, miraculously even. In Psalm 37:28, we read, “For God loves the just, and he will not forsake his faithful ones. They will be protected forever.” And in Psalm 62: 7-8, the psalmist writes:
My deliverance and glory depend on God.
God is my strong rock.
My refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O People!
Pour out your hearts before him,
for God is our refuge!
Let us therefore delight in the appearance of our God; let us take heart! Let us look away from ourselves and towards God; let us see God, and keep our eyes on Him; and let us be who he has made us to be, who we already are, even at this very moment. Let us give thanks and praise!
[i] Kaminsky, Lohr, and Reasoner, The Abingdon Introduction to the Bible, 2014, 278-284.
[ii] Didache 14:1-3, Kurt Niederwimmer, A Commentary, 1998