Thursday, December 10, 2009

Looking For Salvation

Looking for Salvation
Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79; 3:1-6[1]
I believe I mentioned last week that I’m not a big fan of the way we “celebrate Christmas.” One of the things I dislike about it is “the search.” You know, the search for the right present—just the right present. I know, I know—that’s what many of you like the most about Christmas. But I have another confession to make—I’m not a big fan of shopping. (I wonder if all these confessions are going to cause a scandal!) I cannot tell a lie—I don’t like having to go looking for something—especially in a store! I do my looking in the comfort of my home on my laptop over the internet. I compare prices, find what seems to be the best price, and then I buy it. So I’m not a big fan of the whole shopping thing at Christmas.
But, as you may have guessed, I am a big fan of Advent. I love the whole package of Advent—songs of longing, lighting candles, sprigs of greenery here and there. I especially like Advent because it is a time for reminding ourselves that we live by promises—which means we live by faith and hope. In a very real sense, then, Advent is a time for—well, for looking![2] I know, I know—it’s incredibly ironic. One of the things I dislike most about the Christmas season is looking for presents, but one of the things I like most about Advent is looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises. I would like to make at least a feeble attempt to argue that looking for redemption is a whole different thing from looking for presents. (I hope you noticed that I did use the word feeble!)
Zechariah was a man who was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise. He lived his life in faith and hope—faith in the promises made to the ancestors and hope that God would be faithful to fulfill them. And when his son was born and his tongue was loosed, Zechariah sang a song of praise to God for fulfilling those promises. The specific way in which Zachariah saw this promise fulfilled was in the birth of his son John as a messenger to “prepare the way for the Lord.”
Now I dare say that when we think of John the Baptist, we probably don’t think of promises of salvation. In the lesson from Malachi, we see a similar promise, but from the way it’s worded it would seem that it is not really a promise but a warning. The Lord’s messenger will come as a refiner’s fire and as a launderer’s soap to purge the people and make them pure. It is an image of judgment that one wouldn’t really be looking for.
But in Zechariah’s song there is a different emphasis— in the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah saw the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem Israel.[3] In a very real sense, Zechariah was looking forward to redemption, mercy, salvation, and forgiveness. In Zechariah’s song, the messenger of the coming Lord will bring “knowledge of salvation … by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:77). The messenger will effect “the dawn from on high” through the “tender mercy of our God” that will bring light to those who are in darkness as well as “straightening their feet” into the way of peace (Lk. 1:78-79).
Now if you’re confused, don’t feel bad. We don’t normally think of judgment in connection with salvation. Usually those two concepts are seen as diametrically opposed. So how is it that the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord is a messenger of judgment and a messenger of salvation? Well, I think we have to remember that God’s judgment was always intended to lead to salvation.[4] And so Zechariah sees the birth of his son John as the messenger who will “prepare the way for the Lord” in terms of the promise that the Lord’s coming will set things right. While that does imply a sense of purification and correction, the ultimate goal is to create peace and freedom for “all the families of the earth” and ultimately for all creation. Zechariah was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.
The season of Advent is a time for looking—a time of looking for the salvation promised long ago. But I would remind you that “looking” is something that requires your full attention. Looking is the active part of waiting. During Advent, we look forward in hope to the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6).[5] We look for the promise that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5).[6] We look for God to fulfill the hope that “The valley of the shadow of death will be filled; it will be lifted up. The mountains of struggle, pain and poverty will be made low.”[7] Advent is a time for living in faith and hope, like Zechariah—faith in the promises of salvation made long ago and hope that God will be faithful to fulfill them. It is the season for looking!

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/6/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: He says that our faith is about “a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness,” which puts us in the mode of looking.
[3] Luke calls the promise “the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham” (Lk. 1:73). As you may remember, that oath included blessing all the families of the earth (cf. Gen. 12:3).
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:56: The “righteousness” that John the Baptist preached was what Karl Barth called God’s “rectifying and hence redeeming righteousness.” He adds that the voice the one crying in the wilderness “is the voice of a messenger of salvation rather than catastrophe.”
[5] Cf. Isa. 11:10; 52:10; see Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77, 80, 83, 86, 93, 100, 135. Cf. Barth, Dogmatics 4.1:31.
[6] Walter Brueggemann, “Expository Article: Luke 3:1-4,” Interpretation 30 (Oct 1976): 409. He says, “The glory finally to be shown is not some religious epiphany. It is the power of liberation, born by this poor man turned loose in history.”
[7] Elizabeth Myer Boulton, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century (Dec. 1, 2009):21

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