A Reading from the Book of Baruch (5:1-9)
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.” Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so thatIsraelmay walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shadedIsraelat God’s command. For God will leadIsraelwith joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
The Song of Zechariah – Luke 1: 68-79
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians (1:3-11)
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (3:1-6)
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 out 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.’”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
That was quite a solemn and impressive beginning to a gospel reading: “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.” That formal and imposing opening sentence is one reason that scripture scholars tend to see these words, coming at the beginning of the third chapter of the gospel according to Luke, as the original opening of that version of the Good News. The first two chapters, with their traditional Advent and Christmas stories about John’s and Jesus’ births, were probably added at a later editorial stage. For other New Testament authors as well, the story of Jesus begins with the story of John the Baptist and his unique ministry to Israel. And that ministry starts with the word of God coming to John in the wilderness.
But if we step back some, so that we can get a wider point of view, we find that John’s ministry may be the beginning of the story of Jesus, but it is not the beginning of a much larger story: the entire story of God and of God’s relationship with all God’s creatures. That epic narrative began at creation; it reached a high point at the time of John and of Jesus; and it will attain its culmination only when God brings all things to their completion in the fullness of the kingdom. That story is one that spans, not just thirty-some years, but billions of years.
Seen within that context, the ministry of John signals the beginning of a key narrative, a definitive narrative; but it is one that takes place at a very specific location right in the middle of that much larger story. It takes place at a time in between that story’s beginning and its end. And it was at that specific place, at that specific moment, that the word of God came to John in the wilderness; and, from that moment on, nothing would ever be the same.
Isn’t it at that point, at a very specific time and location, in the time-in-between, that Advent takes place? The last part of our Advent season will focus on God’s coming in the birth of Jesus, some 2000 years ago. The first part of the season, its opening, directs our attention toward God’s ultimate coming at the end of time. The rest of Advent takes place in the time-in-between those two key events. And accordingly, our gospel readings on this Sunday each year introduce us anew to John the Baptist: a figure for the time-in-between.
Come to think of it, isn’t that time-in-between the place where we live all the time? Doesn’t our entire life take place at a particular time and place, located somewhere between Jesus’ birth, which heralded the beginning of God’s reign, and the end of all things, which will bring that reign to its completion? And if so, might not the word of God be coming to us, just as it came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness of Judea long ago? Might not the word of God be coming to us, as God’s prophets, as those sent to speak on behalf of God, in our time? Might it not be coming to us in the wilderness of our lives?
I wonder how we could write an opening story for a current coming of God. “In the fourth year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when John Kasich was governor of Ohio, and Gary Leitzell mayor of Dayton, when Katherine Jefferts Schorri was Presiding Bishop, and Thomas Breidenthal Bishop of Southern Ohio, the word of God came to the people of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in the wilderness of early 21st-century America.”
And that word said what? What is God saying to us and to our world today? What is God’s word calling us to do in our time and place? Those are the key questions for us during this season of Advent.
Advent is a time of waiting, of preparation, of anticipation. But Advent is also a time of listening: of listening for God’s word coming to us at this time and in this place.
Listening to God’s word is a dangerous thing to do. It sometimes calls us to change our priorities: to change in a major and significant way. It sometimes calls us to give: to give more generously, more than we want to. It sometimes calls us to face struggles: struggles that can impact our entire lives. Just think of John the Baptist and what listening to the word of God cost him. Are we willing to take that chance? Are we willing to listen?
Early last month, our Vestry decided to take that chance. We spent a Saturday morning trying to listen: trying to discern together what God is calling us as a parish to be and to do during the year and years ahead. What we did was actually an Advent exercise – we were just a few weeks ahead of time. We started with the proposed Diocesan Objective for 2013-2015, one which our Diocesan Convention formally approved the following week, along with its five Mission Priorities. That objective states that we will “Form and transform disciples of all ages to know Jesus and put the Gospel story into action.”
That’s a very serious commitment, but one that lies at the heart of our role as disciples of Jesus. How are we going to do that? How are we going to “form and transform disciples of all ages to know Jesus and put the Gospel story into action.”? That objective with all its implications was one that was set down neither just by the Bishop nor just by the top leadership of the diocese. It developed over the course of nearly three years from the input of hundreds of people from throughout Southern Ohio. And it will take the entire diocese to accomplish that objective.
In the same way, neither I nor the rest of the Vestry with me can enable St. Mark’s Church to pursue and, to a significant extent, accomplish that objective in our life and ministry. It will take all of us to do that. It will take all of us, with our diverse talents and the gifts of our creativity, to explore ways that we can “form and transform disciples of all ages,” both those of us who are already part of this parish and those outside this parish to whom we have been sent. And it will take all of us, with our diverse talents and the gifts of our creativity, to discern new ways to “put the Gospel story into action” in the year and years to come.
Here are some questions for you to consider prayerfully and thoughtfully, so that you can provide ideas to our Vestry. What can we together do to help you develop into more faithful disciples of Jesus over this coming year? How can we together more effectively put the Gospel story into action?
Are there other forms of prayer, of Bible study, of shared conversation that would help you? If so, what are they, and when and where would you be willing to participate in them?
Are there other ways of taking the church out to those who are not members of it instead of just waiting for them to come to us? How can we do that, and how can you help?
Are there new forms of communications that we could utilize in reaching new people and, whether they ever become members of this parish or not, help them in their journey toward God?
In short, what is the word of God that is coming to us today just as it came to John the Baptist in the wilderness nearly two millennia ago? That is the central question of Advent. In fact, that is the central message of our lives.