November 27, 2016 – Make ready a people prepared for the Lord

Advent 1 November 27, 2016    Psalm 62, Isaiah 40:1-5, Matthew 1:1-11,

Luke 1:5-25          Make ready a people prepared for the Lord

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Getting a cough last Sunday actually turned out to be a good thing. It pushed me to get  home after church and take a long nap… Then get a really good long night of sleep. Then continue resting, several more days… catching-up on my reading and quiet time…Staying off-line much more than usual… And with all this slowing down, resting, and regenerating… I felt almost reborn by the time we got to Thanksgiving Day…

And as a side-effect of this extra rest, I’ve been reflecting on the state of my life… Realizing, to oversimplify in the interests of time, how, when I was younger I used to thrive on adventure… Now I find more satisfaction chilling out with family, church, and community…Trying to help God help people…

I still love some kinds of adventure – especially adventures in nature (going to the outer cape to spend times with seals and seabirds comes to mind)… I still love fishing adventures… Though my fishing adventures are shorter and less frequent than they used to be… My family’s a much higher priority now than before I was married and Rohi was born… And I shouldn’t be surprised, but yes, I have changed quite a bit over the years…

Which must be why I sympathize more now with Zechariah the priest who is getting on in years. When I was younger and less patient, I was often critical of my elders if they seemed afraid to take a risk or try something new. I might even make fun of Zechariah for not being ready when angel Gabriel comes calling in the inner temple, bringing good news of answered prayers.

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! Good news! That boy child you’ve been asking for is on the way…”

I might have thought it was funny once upon a time that poor Zechariah, who as a priest of Israel knows the stories of Abraham and Sarah and other childless couples who have children later in life… Yet he isn’t quite able to believe when the angel says “now it’s your turn.”  “How can this be?” Zechariah says… “I’m an old man and my wife’s no spring chicken.”

And the angel Gabriel replies “I stand in the presence of God. I’m here bringing you the good news you’ve been asking for. And then some! But you can’t believe it… So, my good man, it’s going to be a long and very quiet time-out for you. You’ll be struck dumb, mute, unable to murmur a syllable…Till all I’ve said comes true… But be very sure – all I’ve told you about your child will come true…

And when Zechariah comes out from the inner sanctuary of the temple people can tell he’s had a vision… He’s utterly unable to speak… obviously thoroughly destabilized… and…

We’d probably be a little shaky too, if we spoke face-to-face with a mighty angel…(Remembering–) Biblical angels seldom bear much resemblance to the angels of popular imagination and Hallmark greeting cards. Real angels tend to generate genuine fear. The first thing biblical angels usually say (the angel equivalent of reading a suspect their rights –)  is “Don’t be afraid…”

Which seldom seems to do the trick. There’s apparently something about an angel’s appearance that tends to shock one out of one’s socks…

And after reading and pondering all the bible’s stories of those who encounter angels (most of whom are afraid at first) – and recalling some of my own failures of readiness… I’m now much less critical of Zechariah’s initial fear and trembling upon seeing the angel and hearing good news… (and…)

Even beyond the angel’s appearance, there’s also the matter of the angel’s message… Which, to be sure, is good news – the child Zack and his wife have been praying for will be coming soon…

But there’s also the troublesome job description of this child:

First, ‘he’ll bring joy to you and your wife and to many.’ (Which sounds all good. No problem…. But then…we also hear– ) ‘He’ll turn the hearts of parents to their children…’ (Which sounds good also – but –  Aren’t the hearts of parents usually turned to their children naturally from the get-go? Or – might this be a commentary on a deeper alienation between generations?) And now we hear –

‘He’ll turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous…Which sounds more difficult, perhaps pretty risky… And most of all now we hear –

His mission will be to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord…” The one to be born will be doing the work the prophet Isaiah proclaims – “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord… Make straight in the desert a highway for our God…” Which sounds good, except –

If one is resistant to new life – it can be a scary thing to have to make ready for a whole new mission in life… And even though this mission is for his son – not directly for him, perhaps Zechariah, who is, as he says, getting on in years – gets fearful now, thinking about the possibilities of his son’s rather huge mission completely taking over the lives of his parents also…

So he freezes up in the angel’s presence… and clams up…. For the next nine months…

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Zechariah’s long silence has been on my mind this week…. As I’ve stepped back from all but the most necessary work tasks for several days…

But this week’s mostly pretty quiet rest has been reminding me… The more I spend time with God in prayer… reading scripture… in worship and congregational life…

The more I hear the biblical word “fear” translating more as awe… as in awe and wonder… and reverence and worship…

And the more time I spend hanging out with our biblical ancestors in faith… like Zechariah and Elizabeth, the more I feel… maybe just a little envious of Zechariah’s sentence… to nine months of solitude and silence…

Someday, I bet, Zechariah looks back on this time with God… time with his wife Elizabeth and baby John in her womb… as a time of wonderful blessings… A time when his son’s mission does in fact also become his own mission in life… much more clearly and certainly… A mission that turns out to be awesome, not fearsome.

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And the angel’s word that comes to us again is “Do not be afraid…”

Do not be afraid to open our hearts, our minds, our lives together to God’s word…

Which will be fulfilled in its season…

Last Thursday (here/in Cataumet) as we celebrated Thanksgiving Day, preparing a feast and partaking of it together… The Holy Spirit was quietly but powerfully present… guiding us through all our time together…

Our annual Thanksgiving community dinner is always a blessing… But usually people come in, eat, and go out again…Then others come, sit and eat, and leave again… Usually we serve a more or less continuous series of meals…

But this year almost everyone who came sat and stayed till the end… Those who had never been before usually sat by themselves at first… But soon others were sitting with them… Soon our conversations were including everyone around us… Strangers soon were no longer strangers… As we listened to each other’s stories…

One young woman, urged on by her mother and friends, stood up and began singing Amazing Grace… On the second verse many joined in… A little later she sang a song from I think Phantom of the Opera… We listened… And several of us invited her to sing with either of our church choirs…

Stories were shared… Hopes, dreams,  and life journeys connected… All without human words of instruction… Only an opening prayer and short quotations on themes of gratitude and thanksgiving… to set the tone for our conversations…

Though there was, yes, of course, considerable preparation… Someone (Tom Spence) got the original vision for our Thanksgiving Community Dinner eight years ago. Every year since, a community of people shares in the work of preparation… Picking up foods… Preparing foods… Cutting squash, mashing potatoes… Making green bean casserole, corn bread, corn meal muffins, appetizers, desserts… Setting up tables… Preparing to serve… Praying, singing We Gather Together…Making one another welcome… and…

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Much the same way, now, we enter again into the season of Advent, the blessed time of preparation for Christ’s birth…

Much like we give thanks to God every day but also set aside a particular day to give special thanks… So we prepare for Christ’s birth in and among us every day, but especially in this season… Learning again, reminded again, as God speaks again through the words of scripture…

Psalm 62 reminding us to take time to wait in silence for God, our hope, who alone is our rock and our salvation… Our fortress in whom we shall not be shaken.

In Matthew’s gospel we hear again the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham… Reminding us Jesus is Son of God and Son of Man… Fulfilling and continuing the story of the people of God… And here we are, still  preparing the way for his kingdom… Already here, and yet to come in fullness on earth as it is in heaven…

With the prophet Isaiah we hear again – as a voice cries out in the wilderness of this world – “Prepare the way of the Lord…” (Prepare the way of the Lord… Prepare the way of the Lord… And all people will see… the salvation of our God…)

And Luke’s gospel reminds us – our task, like that of John the Baptist before us, indeed like Jesus himself – is to make ready a people prepared for the Lord our God… (and…)

Making ready a people prepared for God… begins with preparing ourselves…

Taking time to wait for God… Time listening… to hear God’s word anew…

Time together, speaking to each other gently and prayerfully…

Listening for God’s voice… in the sounds of human voices…

Listening for God’s voice in the sound of holy silence…

In which the sounds of new life stirring… may be heard…

Prepare the way of the Lord…

Make ready the people of God….

Thanks be to God. Amen.