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The Birth of Jesus

A Sermon by Stuart Grant


Helping us understand the importance of Advent


As the children would say, it’s only fifteen more sleeps till Christmas!
The business world, and the community in general, are well and truly getting ready for Christmas.
Bank cards are being swiped ever more swiftly through those little machines at check-out counters. Sales managers watch with eager anticipation to see if this year’s takings will be bigger than last year’s.
Tinsel decorations are up in the main streets of towns and cities.
White bearded old gentlemen in the red suits designed for a 1920’s Coca Cola advertisement are seen at children’s parties and in toy departments.
By contrast, more than 70% of British firms will not be putting up Christmas decorations this year, especially not the religious kind, for fear of being sued by people who might be offended by them.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a cynical old killjoy; I enjoy Christmas celebrations as much as anyone.
Bu what are we celebrating?
It sometimes seems to me that Christmas has been turned into a cross between and advertisement and a fairy tale.
For Christians, it’s the birth celebration of Jesus, who became the Christ. It’s the celebration of the birth of love in a very personal way into a dark and troubled world.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re not celebrating Christmas yet! It’s too soon. It’s only the second Sunday in Advent.
I suspect, however, if you were to ask the average person in the street what Advent is, you’d get a puzzled look. They’d probably have only the vaguest idea, if any. Come to think of it, not so many years ago, most Methodists wouldn’t have known much about Advent. We’ve only got used to a Christian calendar, following the various seasons of the church’s year, since the ecumenical movement began to spread its influence.
Advent is a time of preparation, of anticipation. It’s the time when we get ready to celebrate the birth of Christ.
We compress our season of preparation into four weeks. For our ancestors in the faith, in ancient Israel, the season of preparation stretched out over many generations, as they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah (Christ), who would save them from their oppressors. The final stage of this preparation was ushered in with the appearance of John the Baptiser, Jesus’ cousin.
Hear now how Luke the Gospel writer records John’s appearance.
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, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
(Luke 3: 1 – 6 New Revised Standard Version)
Several things strike me about this passage.
First, the difficult names! Congratulations to our scripture reader in this morning’s service.
Some of the names may sound curious to our ears, but they are nevertheless significant, if mostly obscure.
It’s typical of Luke that he wants to set his Good News story in history. It’s as if he wants to say: this is no made up story; it really happened at such and such a time.
So we have this line up of “eminent persons” of the time; though a better description might be, “a rogues’ gallery of political and religious clout”.
Let’s have a look at them.
First, there’s the Roman Emperor, Tiberius. He was the most powerful man in the world at that time, and by all reports a very nasty piece of work. His name was a byword for cruelty, perversion, and paranoia.
Then there was Pontius Pilate. We know about him from the stories of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in the four Gospels. There, he comes across as a vacillating, indecisive character. But secular history of the time paints a rather different picture. He was so harsh and cruel in his role as Governor of Judea that he was dismissed from his post. He had no respect for the religious sensitivities of the Jews. Quite a number of them were killed by his orders.
Next comes Herod. This was not the wicked, scheming King Herod of the birth stories, but another member of the same family. He doesn’t sound like someone you’d like to invite to dinner. He’s described as a dilettante. He played along with the Romans, who were happy to use him.
Then there was Philip, a son of Herod the Great by Cleopatra. He appears to have been refreshingly different from the others in the line up. He’s described as approachable. He was praised for his gentleness and love of justice. He used to carry a judgment seat with him on his journeys and was ready to hear people’s complaints.
And Lysanias? The only Lysanias we know anything about died in 36 BC, so unless there was another man of the same name, Luke seems to have made a mistake here.
Annas and Caiaphas were father in law and son in law. We know about them from the crucifixion stories. They were the religious power brokers in Jerusalem.
So Luke is telling us: in the coming of the Good News we are dealing not with fairy tale characters, but with real flesh and blood people. They were the movers and shakers of their time. And although they didn’t know it, something was about to happen that would move and shake the world:
“The word of God came to John the Son of Zechariah in the wilderness”; or better said, “The Word of God happened to John in the wilderness.
The Advent, the coming of Jesus, is announced at a particular time and place in history, by John, the Baptist, in the wilderness.
The Wilderness: that’s another thing that strikes me. The wilderness, the desert, - was often a place of miracles and divine revelation, - a place of hard earned insight, of hope and vision.
Out of his wilderness experience John came preaching a clear and distinct message. As Luke records it, he quotes some words of the prophet Isaiah who had lived more than 400 years before him and gave hope to the Jewish exiles living at that time as captives in Babylon.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”
Isaiah’s words gave the promise of an actual, physical return home, out of exile.
John the Baptist took these same words and applied them in a personal sense to human lives, human spirits.
He called on the people who flocked to hear him, to turn their lives around, to turn back to God, to make the crooked paths of their lives straight and the rough places in their lives smooth.
And he did a very effective job. His fame spread. He had many followers. It is even reported that in the early church his name was used as a character reference for Jesus!
When Jesus finally came on the scene, John had prepared the way for him very thoroughly. Some of John’s followers were among the first to respond to Jesus. John’s preparation for Jesus had been very effective.
But what about our preparation?
Thinking back to what I said earlier, it is so easy to let Christmas happen without really getting ready for it in any meaningful way. We let all the stuff that’s been added to and heaped on Christmas almost obliterate its true meaning and importance.
What could be a holy and life changing time just passes us by, if we let it.
So, on a personal level, we might ask ourselves:
- How do we prepare the way of the Lord in our time – this Advent?
- Are there crooked things in our lives that need to be straightened out?
- Are there rough places that are crying out to be made plain?
Advent, and Christmas, are times of joy – when we can really celebrate our faith. But we may have some work to do by way of preparation.
- It’s summed up in that awkward and often unpopular word: repentance –
“John went into the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”
John spoke personally and directly to the people of his time. They responded and came out to him in crowds! And his words speak directly and personally to us, if we will listen to them and take them on board.
Another thing that strikes me about this passage of scripture is this: -
We would not be giving these verses their full meaning and effect, if we see them as applying only to our individual lives and our individual spiritual well-being.
Luke’s thoughts take us much further than that. He has a much broader vision.
Remember how Luke is so concerned to place the Advent of Jesus in real life, among real historical figures – political heavies of the day.
And remember the final words of our scripture passage:
“And all flesh shall see the salvation of our God”.
What we see here is Luke taking an exciting broad view. He sees beyond individual salvation. He hopes for peace, for justice, in a troubled world.
As I was preparing for this sermon, the military coup in Fiji was headline news. I don’t pretend to have more than a very basic understanding of the current political situation in Fiji, but it seems to me that our Gospel reading would provide a telling text for a Fijian preacher today,( - the line-up of the powers, the call to make the crooked straight and the rough places smooth).
What the world needs now, as it needed then – has always needed, - are women and men who are prepared to be changed by the same powerful word of God that happened to John the Baptist.
- Women and men who are prepared to be agents of change, for good.
For most of us this will happen in little ways; for some, it will happen in much bigger ways. Each according to their ability.
So, let’s try not to be dazzled by all the stuff that ignores the season of Advent; that threatens to smother the real Christmas.
Let the Word of God happen to us; Let the Christ be born in us.





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