By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 27, 2020
Luke 2:22–40 (ESV)
22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 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. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” 36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
Many in the church lament about the secularization of Christmas. I agree that often it seems that way. I want to remind us all that Christmas is more than a day; it is a season. Christmas begins on Christmas day and it extends through the New Year until Epiphany, which is January 6th. This season is often regarded as the twelve days of Christmas.
The Church has gotten out of the habit of remembering these twelve days, especially in America where much of our religious heritage stems from Puritan perspectives. And Quakers are not much better. Both traditions removed the celebration of Holy Days from observance and the richness of the holidays seems to be lost. It would almost come as a surprise to many of us that Christmas was not a recognized federal holiday until 1870. And it became important because of immigrants coming to America from the Netherlands. These immigrants brought from their homeland the story of Sinterklaas, which became the subject of the poem The Night Before Christmas, which was published in 1823. We lament that Christmas has become secularized but in America it has always been secular, because for so long we lost the grounding of the season.
We cram all the significance of the season into one day when the message is so great that the ancient Church used twelve days to tell and celebrate the story. And if you ask me, Christmas is too important to celebrate in one day. The theological reality of God coming to live among mankind, is too great to limit to a one day. Emmanuel, God with us is something that should be celebrated not just on December 25th, but all through the dark days of winter.
I have thought about this for the past few years. I have wondered listened to people express their concerns of keeping Christ in Christmas, when the history of our nation for so long actually had laws preventing the celebration of Christmas. I have thought about it, and the past few years I have made up my own tradition of reading or listening to the classic Dickinson novel A Christmas Carol, because I find that many that seek to keep Christ in Christmas approach the season not with joy but with the attitude of Scrooge saying Bah humbug. And I also have coupled the reading of the Classic novel with the reading of the gospel accounts and have contemplated the attitudes together. What is the spirit of Christmas?
One might say that this is a simple question, but I want us to really think about it. We might quickly respond by saying it is the celebration of the birth of Christ and we would not be wrong. But if we were to ask an additional question, why is that important? The answer usually tends to go toward Good Friday, we celebrate the birth of Christ because Christ died for our sins. Do not get me wrong, this is important because Christ did die for our sins, but there is so much more to the story. There is thirty-three years of life lived, and those years are not lived in vain.
Jesus was born! The creator of the universe was born as a human infant and lived to adulthood. God wrapped himself in humanity, he became human to live with us. Within a family, a community, a nation, and a culture. Jesus lived, and lives forever more.
Jesus has experiences just as we have. He has childhood memories and humorous stories to share around the table of celebration. Yet we so often limit the story to he was born, he grew up, and he died…oh and he rose again. We limit the story, and we limit the power of the story. Jesus lived, and we live.
Today’s passage is important to us because it expands the story. It shows us that Jesus lived within a family, a community, and a culture. He was born into a family just like every human child. He was born into a community and culture that had rituals and traditions surrounding the rearing of children.
Mary and Joseph go to the temple, to offer sacrifices for purification and to present him to the Lord, as required in the Law. The purification was not for Jesus, but for Mary. The law stated that a woman was unclean for forty days after giving birth and could not touch any holy object during that time. We might think that this is a bit derogatory, but I want us to think about it from a different perspective. I remember the early days of my sons lives. I remember how much sleep I missed and how many hours I spent pacing back and forth through the house trying to get an infant to sleep. Those forty days allowed the mother the time to focus only on the child. The law removed any requirement from her to observe any religious rite during the toughest days of an infant’s life. And when the mother’s body healed and adjusted then she could again participate in the community again. But that is only part of why they were going to the temple. The second aspect of this is law of the first born.
When the law was first given to Moses, the firstborn sons were dedicated to God. These dedicated children were to serve God as priest. But remember there was an entire tribe of Israel that was dedicated as priest, the Levites, so why did God require the firstborn sons? This tradition goes back to Exodus and the Passover. The last plague that God sent to Egypt was the death of the first born, and the blood on the doorframes of the houses of the Hebrew people protected their children from the wrath of God, but God still claimed them as his own. And Israel would have to redeem their child from service by offering of silver. The redeemed firstborn sons of Israel are then replaced by the children of the tribe of Levi in the priesthood.
This seemingly small portion of scripture gives us a great deal of information. It shows us the dedication and faith of the parents, and it shows the connection of Jesus to the very beginning of the story of Israel. But there is more to this passage. The family goes to the temple to offer these sacrifices. Sacrifices that not only show the dedication of the family, but also their social standing. The offering of two doves shows us that the holy family was not wealthy, but poor. Jesus lived in a family that struggled. Again, we need to know this. We need to know that Jesus’ family faced the same issues that we often face. There was scandal surrounding Jesus, to the point that Joseph considered divorcing Mary, and the fact that he did not divorce Mary not only cast some shame on Mary but also Joseph. And to make it all worse they had to go to the temple and offer doves instead of a lamb. Jesus was one of us. He was ordinary by worldly standards.
While the family was waiting to offer these ordinary and humble sacrifices, they are greeted by two people, two witnesses or prophets. I think this is interesting because so much of our end time theology speaks about two witnesses, and because we often neglect the fullness of Christmas, we might be missing the richness of this passage in the greater story. The first witness is a man by the name of Simeon. This man was a devout and righteous man. And scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit rested on him and revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. I want us to just think about that for a moment. The Spirit of God revealed to him that he would see the Messiah, and this man had been living his entire life waiting for that day. I wonder how many times he had walked to the temple and sat in the courts looking for this to be fulfilled? How many people did he speak to, and how many times did he go home in despair? But that morning he goes to the temple, and he sees this young family enter the courts. He watches as Joseph goes through the coins in his purse attempting to make sure he has enough to redeem the child and purchase the doves for purification.
Imagine standing there, watching this family. This poor family from Galilee. The traders laugh at the accent they speak with, and the elites look down on them as they bypass the pens containing the lambs and move toward the cages holding the birds. You are told that you will see the Lord’s Messiah, the anticipated King and suddenly you are drawn to this ordinary family.
There is another person observing this family, a prophetess named Anna. This woman is an interesting character, we are told that she is the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, and that she was married young and lived with her husband seven years and had been a widow since. We are not sure exactly how old she was because the translation could mean she had been a widow for eighty-four years or that she was eighty-four. Some scholars believe that she was one hundred and five years old. She is of the tribe of Asher. This is significant because Asher means happy. This tribe was considered happy, and wealthy because they settled in the most profitable parts of the promised lands. She is presumably from wealth yet she has only known tragedy. She devoted her life to prayer and fasting. She had spent her entire life praying at the temple, and people respected her because of her devotion. It is not common for a woman to bear the name prophet yet from the beginning of the Church that is what we know her as. She sees this family come into the courts and she begins to praise God.
Mary and Joseph are ordinary people. They struggle to even make the proper sacrifices, and we know this because of what is recorded. Yet these two witnesses see the hope where no one else does. Do we see God in the ordinary? Are we able to see the hand of God at work even through our struggles?
I mentioned that I have begun a tradition of reading or listening to the classic novel A Christmas Carol the past few years. In that story Scrooge struggles to see the point of Christmas merriment. He looks at the world and he see struggle. He sees only the need to make more money or fade into insignificance. It is only when he is visited by the three Christmas Spirits that he begins to understand the reality of the season. And it is only through the revelation of the spirits that he become human.
Simeon and Anna have waited many years for that moment. Everyday hundreds of thousands of people could be milling around the courts. Thousands of bodies moving around and yet these two witnesses saw through them all and directed their attention to one ordinary family with an ordinary child. This story should give us hope.
Imagine Simeon looking at all the people and questioning the revelations that the Spirit gave him. How could he possibly see the Messiah in such a multitude? Imagine the many years of Anna’s tragic life? Imagine going from the happy bliss of wealthy marriage to the tragic poverty of widowhood and spending eighty-four years praying for the redemption of Jerusalem. Eighty-four years of prayer, and we struggle with a few moments of silence.
Imagine how hopeless these two witnesses might have felt. Day after day, year after year waiting. Then all at once you are drawn to a struggling family. You wonder why? You expect a king, and your attention is drawn to a baby. And in an instant your heart is filled with hope and praise.
The Christmas season is about finding hope. It is seeing light in the darkness. It is about God using the unexpected to bring about something glorious. Shepherds in the fields, wise men from foreign lands, a poor virgin and a scandalized groom, a riches to rags widow, and a righteous man who claimed he would not die until he saw the Messiah. To look at this story from a worldly perspective, we would laugh. There is nothing here that would point to any world changing event, but God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary. God uses our weaknesses and our struggles to his glory. Will we see the hope? Will we see the wonder? Will we see that of God in the ordinary?
Christmas is more than a day; it is a season. It is a season where we celebrate God doing great things through ordinary people. It is a season where we can look beyond our struggles and celebrate the hope in the future. Let us seek like Simeon and pray like Anna. Let us not give up hope and long for the glory of God. Let us look beyond the ordinary around us and see the extraordinary in God. Merry Christmas!
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 13, 2020
Luke 1:46–55 (ESV)
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
As we approach Christmas, we remember the familiar stories and songs. We have memories of past celebrations and parties with family and friends. We have so much invested in this holiday, but how much of it really centers on our faith?
I am not saying that our celebrations are not good by any means. I love the celebrations, and to be honest I think we need to give ourselves excuses to celebrate more often. Celebration is a healthy spiritual disciple when we keep them in the proper perspective. What I mean is that while we celebrate do, we keep the story in focus. Do we take the time to contemplate the awe of the story, as well as the sacrifice?
Today we read the song or prayer that has become known as the Magnificat. This is Mary’s song of praise that she recites to her relative Elizabeth, who happens to be the mother of John the Baptist.
When the angel visited Mary, one of the signs that was provided to her was that her relative Elizabeth was with child even in her old age. Mary had known Elizabeth and it was well known that she had not had a child. Children in ancient cultures were especially important, it might be the most important aspect of ancient families. Today we might consider that statement to be offensive in some degrees, but we must keep in mind the environment of the culture.
In ancient cultures life was much different than today. There are some similarities but overall life was more dangerous and physical. Culture developed around the family because the family was the community. It was the family that provided security. It was the family that provided the means of life. It was the family that cared for the young, the sick, and the elderly. There were no other options except the family especially in rural agricultural areas.
We can look at the Old Testament laws devoted to family and consider them to be patriarchal but I encourage you to look at these from the perspective of survival instead of power. Most of the laws were put in place to protect the integrity of the family and to ensure that all involved would have their basic need provided for. Some of these laws when read from our current cultural context seem outrageous. I would never follow them, but I am looking at the law from our current context. Why do I bring this up, why is it important? The laws surrounding marriage and the family are right in the center of the Christmas story.
Elizabeth was barren for most of her adult life. In ancient times this was one of the worst situations for a woman to face, because the family needed children. In ancient cultures there was not social security, Medicare, or nursing homes these social programs we have today were all provided through the children bore to the family. People did not work for a couple of decades and retire, instead they took on their family’s trade, they worked with their family in the fields or various skilled labor, and when they could no longer work, they relied on the generosity of their children to provide for their basic needs. This usually worked out because families lived in multigenerational homes. It was not uncommon for grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, children, and cousins to all live in a collective structure sharing a common cooking space. There would usually be rooms for the nuclear family units, but most would live in a complex that housed extended family.
When Elizabeth was found to be barren, she could not contribute to the next generation. This had the potential of causing hardship to them in their old age as well as to their closer relatives. Others would have to work more to provide for them. The ability to bear a child was important to those ancient cultures, and it was the leading cause of divorce. I agree that it is harsh, but we must remember that they had much more to consider. It is not just your future but also the future of the extended family, the future of your business, and your farm. Without children the future becomes bleak, and pressures from outside become even greater.
The thing is Zachariah did not divorce his wife Elizabeth. He and his family loved this woman to such a degree that they embraced the challenge of life without children together. They may have felt the burden but they decided that they were better with Elizabeth than without. This was a great burden to carry, and it took eminence faith in all involved. They all had to trust that God would provide for their needs in the present and the future. When Mary was told that Elizabeth was with child in her advanced years, it was a sign that God was providing just as they had hoped. It also told Mary that the child that she was proclaimed to bear would be as God said it would be.
Let us now look at Mary for a moment. It is often difficult for us to really grasp the story fully. So much has changed in the dynamics of families since ancient times. Mary was a young, betrothed girl. Tradition tells us that she would have been just over the age of twelve. In our minds she was a child, not a woman, and again we need to understand that the cultural dynamics differ. Women married at younger ages than they do today, and men were usually older. This occurred because men needed to prove that they could provide for their future wife, and women were younger generally to ensure that they would be able to bear children.
Mary is told that she, a young girl just becoming a woman in a biological sense, that she is going to bear a child. I want you to close your eyes and just imagine that scene for a moment. We are talking not of a senior in high school, but a seventh grader. She was just beginning to learn what it means to be a woman at this point. How do you explain to a child the concepts of having a child, and how do you explain that she is going to have one when everything you would have said involves a husband and wife?
Imagine, this child sitting there talking to an angel. Imagine the confusion and the fear that would be coursing through her. And this is serious business. There are strict guidelines in the Torah for family life. It is a serious offense for a betrothed woman to be found with child before the marriage. Without getting into detail, the wedding feast and celebration continued until the marriage was consummated. In many cases there was a tent that the couple would go into for this and the entire family was waiting outside while the couple enjoyed their first moments alone. And this time could be tense. If it could be proven that the woman was not a virgin the family would be required to pay the groom’s family and the marriage would be ended immediately. And if there was a wrongful accusation then the groom’s family would be required to pay double what the bride’s family would have paid and the marriage could never end in divorce, even if there were other circumstances that would arise. That whole idea is something that is foreign to me, something that I could not imagine in today’s culture, but it was the reality of that day. But there is more to the law. Adultery was a capital offense in ancient Israel, meaning not only would there be financial burdens for the family but people could lose their lives.
According to the story, we know that an angel visited Joseph as well. Joseph was warned in a dream what was happening with his future wife, and he initially took it hard. His first response was to file for divorce. This was well within his rights because for a betrothed woman to be pregnant without his knowledge points to infidelity, but we also see something interesting. We are told that he wants to divorce her quietly. This means that he believed the story to some degree. He knew and loved Mary and did not believe that she would have been unfaithful, so he did not want to publicly denounce the marriage because that would only lead to one end. Mary would have been publicly humiliated, her family would have been forced to pay Joseph a fee of fifty shekels, and Mary would have been stoned to death.
All of this is weighing on the shoulders of these families. Everyone involved is carrying a portion of this burden and it is a burden because their community would not be aware of what God was doing and could only observe what had transpired through observation. Elizabeth endured a life of being baren and then in her advanced years she finds herself pregnant. Mary a mere child just learning what it means to be a woman, is told she is going to bear a son even though she has not been married. Joseph knows that there will be questions, and he struggles with accepting the situation. But what is the response?
Mary sings a song of praise. I want us all to close our eyes once again and think about the fear and the uncertainty that Mary would be facing in this moment. She has just been told that she was pregnant, and she rushes to Elizabeth. Anyone in her family or Joseph’s could in any moment call for a trial yet she sings.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Mary, a child, at that moment is facing a situation she did not desire. She is facing a trial she did not ask for. Her future, once filled with hope, is now filled with some uncertainty. But even in that uncertainty she clings to the even greater hope. She does not focus on the things beyond her control, instead she focuses on what God can do.
My soul magnifies the Lord. The soul is the complete human life according to Dallas Willard. It is everything we are and the community around us. When Mary begins this song she says, my soul magnifies. She is professing in her mind and bodily actions that she will follow God no matter what life may bring her way. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. If the soul is our totality of existence, the spirit is the core of who we are. Mary states that her spirit rejoices in God her savior. This points to an intimacy and knowledge of God that goes beyond religion. She knows that God is working in and through her and that He is with her every step of the way.
And the second sentence is what blows my mind. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed. This child, this twelve-year-old little girl, understands that she will face some of the harshest ridicule a human will ever have to endure. She might even face death for the life God has called her to, yet she knows that if things proceed as God has promised she will have participated in the greatest story ever told and everyone in all of history will find hope and inspiration in her life.
We all face trials in our life. When we face these trials, we have a choice to make. We can grumble or we can praise. We can focus on the discomfort that we currently experience or we can look beyond into what might be if we boldly proceed through life in faith.
This is what advent is about. It is to remind us of the trails we experience and the hope that comes to those that endure to the end.
As I have reflected this week on my life, this is what I have seen. In all the years that I remember there has not been one Christmas that I have not had joy. I have lived forty-one years. In those years I know that there have been financial hardships where members of my family did not know how they were going to make it through the year. Yet in that time of hardship there was still joy. Even during the years where the pangs of grief due to the loss of my sister were still new, there was joy. We had joy because there is hope in Christ. The struggles we face right now will pass and God can and will use that struggle for greater good. Because of that hope we can say with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” We can say with the Psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Mary sings with her relative Elizabeth; they sing because they know that God is good. They know that God is working to bring about the salvation of their people and the entire world. And they know that they are a part of that plan. Mary sings as she faces an uncertain future, because she knows that God will through her faith bring glory to Himself. She sings because she knows that God knows her name, and her spirit rejoices in that. She sings.
As we face our struggles, and the uncertainties of our lives, how will we respond? When we face the anxieties of an uncertain future and a path forward that seems to be shrouded in fog, how will we proceed? When we experience stresses at work, at home, even within our ministry and within our community how will we respond? Mary sang, will you sing with her? Mary rejoiced; will you rejoice with her? There is nothing in our lives that God cannot redeem. There is nothing in our lives that God cannot use as a starting point of something magnificent. Will we have the faith to trust that God will do great things for us and his holy name. As we enter this time of communion in the manner of Friends, let us focus on Mary and her song. Let us embrace the passion and courage of this little girl who gave birth to Emmanuel. Let us honor Mary and so many like her, willing to sacrifice their lives for the name and honor of God.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 6, 2020
Mark 1:1–8 (ESV)
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John and Mark both start their gospel account with a similar theme. In the beginning. And both accounts place the beginning several years before the actual birth of Jesus. In John he takes the beginning to the very creation of the world, while Mark’s account takes it around seven hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus. I have found this to be interesting. Not only because it shows us that prophecy is at work, but because it shows that we never know what our future or the future of our decedents might be.
The oracle of Isaiah began prior to the exile to Babylon, so like most apocalyptic literature it has layers of meaning. There were layers that concerned near history as well as layers that concerned prophetic descriptions of things in the deeper future. Those areas of deeper future meaning people wrestled with just as we wrestle with apocalyptic literature today. What does this mean? How does it really apply? Or was Isaiah just some crazy loon? It was only after the exile that people began to really appreciate the prophetic utterance of Isaiah. Prior to that many disregarded him, labeling him as a lunatic. Why would they do such a thing? In their opinion things were going great. Why would we question our future when everything you look at seems to be better than you could imagine?
Things can always change. That is one of the concrete rules of life along with death and taxes, things will always change. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a curse when we are living in comfort because that can change. People have often wondered why the extremely wealthy people in this world worry about their finances. The simple fact is that things can change. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos may be some of the wealthiest people in the world, but the greatest portion of their wealth is a figment of their imagination. I say this because no matter what they want to do they cannot have instant access to their wealth. They like us all only have immediate access to what we have right here in our pockets.
Have you ever really thought of that? If the internet went down the right now even the richest people in the world would be bound just like us. I say this because we often think that thing will be better if I only had. The reality is all we need is already available to us.
Things can always change. At times, these changes are for the better and at other times we perceive that the change is a disaster. We fear change because of the uncertainty, even if we are anticipating the change, even when we are praying for the change there is an ounce of dread because we do not know what will happen.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ is one of those things filled with a holy anxiety. From the dawn of human history there were stories. Weird stories that were difficult to grasp at the time. Right in the book of Genesis we can find the first prophecy about Jesus. God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”
Imagine hearing that for the very first time. Eve had yet to have any children, and we hear about her offspring will basically be at war with serpents. Yet the wording is strange, offspring is plural but the second phrase is singular. For generations, this story was passed down and through the years everyone began to wonder what it might mean. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is shrouded in mystery.
Mark takes us to the era of the kingdoms; exile is looming in the future and there is more mystery. A messenger will come to prepare the way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Again, let us consider this from a perspective of those that might have first heard this. A messenger will come to prepare the way. This part is not that mysterious there have been judges, prophets, and priest throughout the history of the people of Israel. All these people were messengers placed in a particular time and place to lead the people in the ways of the Lord. The part that is intriguing to me is the phrase the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
The wilderness is a place of mystery and chaos. It is a place of danger. The wilderness is the areas of land that are not suited for agriculture, so it is barren, untamed, and isolated. The ancient people of Israel were agrarian. They were used to rural settings, but there were still places you just did not go. Those places were the wilderness.
We still hear stories of the wilderness. Most of the Disney movies that we have grown to love are based on stories that were originally written to warn people of the wilderness. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, even the Little Mermaid and Frozen all have themes dealing with the dangers and potential rewards of venturing into those unknown wilds. It is from those deep, dark, dangerous, and somewhat frightening places a messenger will come crying out to the people of the known civilized communities to make way for the lord.
It is from the unknown places, the mysterious places, that we will find God working. Just beyond our comfort zone. Just beyond what we know is where faith is found. This is that holy anticipation of advent. With each step of the generations, there is more knowledge and more mystery. Beginning with our first parents and on through the ages, we have heard stories that are mysterious and seen wonders that we investigated. We ventured out into the unknown as we sought to discover and uncover the mystery.
I wonder, how long did the burning bush Moses encountered God at stand there burning before Moses was compelled to investigate? How many bushes did God set ablaze in the four hundred and thirty years of slavery before Moses decided to take the chance of getting close to the mysterious bush? Was it just the one or was Moses the one because he took a chance? We may never fully know.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness. Out of that mystery, out of the cloud of unknowing, out of the dark journey God is preparing a path. Will we walk it?
Last year I spoke a great deal about John the Baptist. I will not go as deep into his life as I did then, but I do want to remind you of who he was. John was the son of a priest. His father served as one of the highest-ranking priests inside the holy place within the temple. And it in this holy place where the birth of John was foretold. John was a miracle and everyone knew it. John would have been offered the greatest opportunities because everyone knew he was destined for greatness. Yet John did not choose the known path in his life, instead he went to the wilderness. Something within John caused him to look at the world around him, the world that he knows, and compelled him to seek the mystery. He went out to those isolated places, and when he returned, he presented a message that shook his nation to its foundation.
He came out of the wilderness and he began to baptize people. He proclaimed that this baptism was of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We hear this story every year, sometimes multiple times a year, but do we fully grasp the magnitude of the message? John was pulling people away from the temple, the very place his birth was proclaimed. He was saying that forgiveness was not found in that temple of stone but somewhere else. For generations forgiveness was found in a transaction, the offering of an animal in the place of an individual. John taught that forgiveness was not in that transaction but in the turning toward or returning to God. It is not a legal transaction but a change of lifestyle, which he symbolized through baptism.
We often get caught up in the ritual of baptism, we trade the transaction of the temple sacrifice for the transaction of water, but the term is derived from the dyeing of fabrics. When the fabric is plunged into the dye and becomes saturated with the liquid it is forever changed. It takes on a different color, and the fabric now has a different purpose.
John came out from the wilderness proclaiming repentance or turning from one lifestyle to another. He symbolized that change through the rite of baptism, but there is still a mystery. This compelling voice crying from the wilderness says that there is one coming after him who even he is not fit to untie the straps of his sandals. John baptizes with water, but that one will saturate with the very Spirit of God.
John said these things when worship at the temple was at its peak. People from every corner of the known world were coming to offer sacrifices at the temple dedicated to the God of Israel. John knew the temple he knew the draw and the power of that temple. He knew the comfort and peace that it offered, yet he proclaimed change. The people were already anticipating change, but the change they anticipated did not resemble the words John spoke. They were waiting for a king, a prophet, or a priest. They were not expecting a complete change in how they lived their lives.
We live in uncertain times. Change is all around us. Who would have thought last year that we would have lived through what we experienced this year? We were just beginning to learn about covid-19 around this time last year, and not one of us would have known what to expect. We have experienced a great deal of change in one year, yet here we are.
How do we face the mysteries of the future? How do we embrace change? This season we celebrate that mystery. We often forget that the advent of Jesus took everyone by surprise. Even though the people of the first century knew the prophecies, they even knew the very town he would be born in, they did not expect how God would fulfill His word. And as we wait in holy anticipation, we too look at our lives there is the revealed knowledge and clouds of unknowing. And we must choose where to walk. We must choose where to place our faith. Will we trust that God will direct our path, or will we trust in ourselves? It is those that trust God that find true life. It is those that embrace the mystery before them that discover the treasures within. It is to those that walk by faith that realize that God has been with them all along the way, even through darkness.
Let us embrace that unknown future. Let us be saturated with the very spirit of God. Let us today love God in our worship, embrace the spirit in our prayers, and live the love of Christ as we walk into that mysterious unknown ministering and encouraging those around us. What we do today may spark change in the lives of people generations from now. Will we take the chance to be a voice in the wilderness?