Dec 03

John’s ministry, our mission – a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

From Luke, Chapter 1

76 [Zechariah prophesies], “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Jennifer had hit rock bottom. No longer able to balance the demands of parenthood with her drug and alcohol addiction, her daughter Katie was removed from her home and placed in care with Intermountain’s Providence Home in Kalispell. Jennifer’s world came crashing down, and she was faced with a decision. She could continue walking into the darkness of her addictions and never see her daughter again, or she could turn towards the light, fight her addiction and restore her family. Intermountain was providing her that light, a ray of hope. Would she respond? [NOTE: This story first appeared in the 2011 Annual Report Issue of Fine Gold, and Jennifer and the story of Devin that follows are both for illustrative purposes. Jennifer has asked that we not use her last name, while the names and genders of the children have been altered in order to protect their privacy.]

Little Devin also found himself in a hopeless and dark place. His 20th placement had just failed. Another couple who said they would love him unconditionally had broken his trust… again. The cycle of pain, acting out, and rejection had left him feeling unlovable, unwanted, and a burden to those he secretly, desperately wanted connection and intimacy with in a parent-child relationship.

Where is God in all of this? Where is a voice of hope and healing and restoration? Who will help those who feel a sense of hopelessness this morning… is there a light that will shine into their darkness?

Today’s Gospel passage highlights a prophetic word by Zechariah, once struck mute by the Lord for not believing a message of hope. The one stuck in unbelief at what God might do now spills forth praise and tells forth a message of restoration for all people.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Zechariah Writes John’s Name,
fresco in the Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Firenze

Zechariah describes his infant son, John, as one who will be “the prophet of the Most High.” A prophet (prophḗtēs) declares the mind (message) of God, which sometimes predicts the future (foretelling) – and more commonly, speaks forth His message for a particular situation. A prophḗtēs (“a prophet”) then is someone inspired by God to foretell or tell-forth the Word of God. God’s Word, in this prophesy, is that darkness and despair will NOT have the final say. Hope is coming!

Now, something has changed between the first advent, and this time where we wait the second advent… Christ has already come! Our forth-telling and fore-telling come from a place of absolute assurance that God is already here… we don’t bring God with us when we enter into a conversation, embark on a new venture, or seek to bring help and healing to a child experiencing brokenness in relationships, unable to achieve the intimacy they so desperately long for…

God’s light is already in that place, because the Christ-child has come… God is with us, Immanuel, and now there is no going back! There are no God-forsaken places nor God-forsaken people. No one is beyond the reach of redemption because God has reached out to us in Jesus Christ. John would be the first to make that clearly known. That would be his ministry. But it doesn’t stop there!

I believe that in this passage we can see our own charge… our own calling.

This deserves our full attention! This is the SO WHAT of the advent. In identifying our own purpose, our own calling, we can truly enter into the Kingdom work of Jesus Christ. We can miss it if we are too busy, too distracted, or uninterested. This is why it matters that we focus on the Christ-child and set aside the consumer frenzy that Christmas has become in our society.

What do we see here in these few short verses?

  • Like John we can bring “knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
  • Like John, we are to reflect the tenderness of God that comes from breaking dawn which gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” AND…
  • Like John, we can share a hope that our feet can be guided in to the way of peace.

First, it cannot be ignored that God’s salvation is always contingent on the free will he has given us. Because we have free will, it is our responsibility to respond to the offer of salvation by repentance from anything other that God’s way for doing things. We can miss what God is doing if we assume we already know how he is going to show up. God’s way is rarely OUR way, or the way we would choose in our limited perspective and understanding.

NEED PROOF? Consider…

How is it possible that God—GOD!—could be born in a cave-barn in backwoods Bethlehem? This is not the residence of a King! Certainly the sights, sounds, and smells we would associate with a coronation would not first—or ever, perhaps?—be the musky smell of damp hay, the braying of donkey, the pungent aroma of animal droppings?

But certainly… we have learned this lesson. We are not as foolish on this side of the cross! We know better. Certainly, when God is active in a situation and is moving in a church and society, we know what to expect! Health and prosperity, the American dream. Every member of the church happy in their mansion complete with a two- or three-car garage. We know God is present in our lives because our children are happy and healthy, our marriages strong, our budgets robust… There are smiles on our faces, and worries far from us!

But wait… is that our experience? That God only moves and blesses in places of affluence and wholeness?

Does not the same Lord that came inconspicuously in to our world amid taunts of illegitimacy an impropriety work in our brokenness? If it is indeed the sick who need a doctor and not the healthy, why are we so eager to cover over our sin-sickness? Why are we so tempted to leave out of our forth-telling of this glorious advent story the real good news that people need to hear… that we have a knowledge of salvation for God’s creation that comes through the forgiveness of sin! We don’t have to clean ourselves up before we come to God… NO! God has come to us. This leads us into our second point…

Not only can we bring “knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins” like John, we have an opportunity to reflect the tenderness of God that comes with the dawning of Christ’s light into our world!

Our attitude toward the light reflects our hearts. Light can be either welcomed or feared. Light shines into our darkness and often reveals us as broken, wounded, imperfect. Light pokes at our wounded pride and exposes our lack.

This is why tenderness is so important. The children that come to Intermountain know their brokenness and shame so deeply that is has impaired their capacity to hope. They have been conditioned against hoping for anything other than living within an emotional and spiritual cage defined and driven by their own basic survival instincts. Dysfunction defines their norm, their expectations for the future. This is certainly true for Devin, and many others like him that I have the privilege to work with each day at our campus on South Lamborn Street. And I am not the only one engaged in this work!

Tenderly, but firmly, the staff at Intermountain shines the light of truth on the lies these children have heard externally, and that they then internally repeat to themselves… “I cannot be loved, I am damaged, worthless, unlovable. I am a mistake, nothing. I am not worth anyone’s regard or care.”

The light breaks in slowly, with constant, irrepressible love, respect… wave after wave of truth and hope…

“You are loved. You may be hurt, but you are not defined by your brokenness. You are of immeasurable worth. God does not make mistakes, and you are no one’s problem. It is not simply about what we see you becoming, it’s what we love in what we see NOW. You will always have a family at Intermountain that respects you, cares for you… loves… YOU.”

Through hugs and holdings, activation and play, therapy, the hard work of establishing boundaries and a new expectation for how relationships work, in rocking and hand-holding, through messages in the classroom and chapel times, these children hear repeatedly the tender voice of their Maker. The tenderness of light shining on their being and revealing the beauty of a child of God, made in his image, worthy of love, honor, and respect.
In this, Intermountain restores hope for children.

You, too, can carry that message of hope. In telling forth the story of redemption through the forgiveness of sin, bring the tenderness needed to shine the light with care and compassion. Ask that God draws others to the light, rather than having it drive them away.

So, we have seen and heard how we can share the knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of sins and also reflect the tenderness of God as we bring light into the darkness of those who need help, hope, and a home. But lastly, what are we to make of “our feet being guided in the way of peace?”

The peace spoken of here is the equivalent of the “shalom” peace referenced in the Old Testament. It invokes an image of wholeness, completeness.

This peace comes from the context of the Advent story, the fullness of God coming to dwell with mankind, restoring the relationship intended in Creation’s garden. Relationship is restored through Christ’s death on the cross, and his resurrection from the garden tomb. It’s a restoration of God’s intent for intimate relationship with each of us. This relationship is only possible when our sin has been atoned for, when our righteousness is secured in the transaction that takes place when we entrust our hearts and lives to the savior. Then, and only then, can we have the peace spoken of in this prophetic word!

So, then, if this is the way of peace and wholeness we are to be guided in, how does this inform us? Do we not, most of us, think of our salvation as something that occurred at a point in time? Whether or not that point of time is something we associate with the moment Christ died on the cross, or the moment, perhaps, we said a prayer, or had a certain religious experience, we cheat ourselves of the fullness of the biblical promise when we think of our peace with God being something that occurred at a fixed point in time. We cheat ourselves, because this wholeness-peace with God, this promise of the Advent season, is not a static event.

Even thinking of it as the first step on a long journey is inadequate, despite the evidence that can be found elsewhere in the Bible for the metaphor of “walking in the way” of peace. Some of this comes from our cultural mindset… we don’t walk to get places… now we drive or fly or ride. Rarely do we walk. Walking is exercise now… something prescribed by our doctors. We do it in circles or laps, but rarely with a destination in mind. So, I am not convinced this image is adequate.

So, what to make of our feet being guided in the way of peace?

Intermountain’s mission statement is beautiful in its simplicity: “Healing through healthy relationships.”
I think this mission statement, and its connection to our present subject, brings with it a suggestion of how we might consider our work as those who walk in this peace and tell forth this message of peace.

How might our concept of this way of peace change if we think about it in the context of relationship? Every relationship has a starting point… a moment of introduction. All the peace we can have with God is accomplished in the moment our sin is forgiven and we begin a relationship with God. But, just as we would never assume our work of relationship is done with someone after our initial introduction, we can think of the way of peace we walk with God as our ever deepening relationship he desires with us! Every twist, turn, mountain and valley along the way presents opportunities for healing and health through our relationship with God.

At Intermountain we walk with way of peace with every child, every hurting family, that comes to us for healing and help. Through relationships based in truth and love, we dispel the lies and dysfunction that have wreaked havoc in their lives and in their families. Devin is walking with us into the light of renewed hope. Jennifer has beaten her addictions and has her daughter home again, and is now newly married! Darkness and despair won’t triumph, not in these families.

The light of a dawning hope shines through the darkness… do you see it? The voice of one calling out in the wilderness suggests a new direction, for you, for all of us! Will we turn from our own paths and set our feet on the way of peace that leads us into healing through healthy relationships?

Who needs to hear your voice this week? To whom will you bring God’s message? How might you tell-forth with gladness the coming of the Savior? Where might you carry the tender, loving light of Christ into places where darkness and despair have taken hold?