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Advent 2C RCL December 6, 2015

Baruch 5:1-9
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Our opening reading takes place in the time of the Babylonian Exile. Jerusalem has been devastated. Many people have been deported. The temple is in ruins. Jerusalem is addressed in this passage. She is in mourning because of this terrible defeat and destruction. The prophet calls her to “take off the garments of sorrow and put on forever the beauty  of the glory from God.” The exiles, her children, are going to come home in safety. God’s mercy and righteousness will fill the land.

Our psalm this morning is Canticle 16, the Song of Zechariah. Let us think about the story of Zechariah for a moment. Zechariah was a faithful priest in the temple of the Lord. He was married to Elizabeth. They had no children, and they were “getting on in years,” as the NRSV says.

One day, Zechariah is serving at the altar and offering the incense when suddenly something very strange happens. There is an angel standing on the right hand side of the altar. Zechariah is terrified. The angel tells him that Elizabeth is going to have a son and that Zechariah is to name him John, meaning “God is gracious.”

The angel goes on to say that John is going to be a prophet who will bring many people to God. Zechariah asks how this can happen, since he and Elizabeth are old, and the angel Gabriel assures him that  this is indeed going to happen. From that day until after John is born, Zechariah is unable to speak. Our canticle for today is the prophecy which Zechariah utters after John was named.

Now we have two powerful bursts of light and hope in the face of darkness and despair: against all odds, the exiles return and John is born.

Let us look at our next reading. Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison.  The community in Philippi was the first church Paul had founded on European soil. They have supported him throughout his ministry, and he thanks God for them every day. They pray for him, and he prays for them. They have a close relationship because they are members and ministers together in the Body of Christ. There is an abundance of love between Paul and these people, and they are looking forward to the day when Jesus will come to complete his shalom. They call the time of his second coming the “day of Jesus Christ.”

What does Paul pray for these wonderful people and for us? He prays that our “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best….” Paul is praying that, in all the love God showers on us, God will help us to determine what is best. God will help us sort out our priorities. God will help us focus on the things that are most important and not focus on things that are less important. God will help us to get into harmony with the values of God’s kingdom.

In our gospel, we focus on one of the great Advent figures: John the Baptist. Luke makes sure that we know exactly when John’s ministry took place. He names all the worldly rulers; he names the high priests. And then Luke tells us what is really important: the word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness. Far, far away from all this worldly power and empire, out in the wilderness where God can speak to us, the wilderness where the people of God journeyed for forty years from slavery into freedom, the wilderness where priorities become clear, where there are no distractions. John comes to us. He calls us to repent. He calls us to prepare the way of the Lord. He calls us to do whatever we need to do to get our lives in order so that we can follow our Lord into freedom and wholeness.

John is quoting the prophet Isaiah (40:3-5) when he calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, and John calls us to the vision of God’s shalom in an earlier chapter of Isaiah: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the failing together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 6, 7a,9.} Peace comes to the world. Former enemies live together in harmony. All creatures and humans and the whole creation can grow and flourish as they should.

How can we prepare the way of the Lord? Some of us work to protect our environment, That is one way of helping God preserve and restore this beautiful creation. Some of us help children and young people to move from abusive homes into safer settings. Some of us work to help people who are trying to free themselves from domestic violence. Some of us work to help people recover from addictions. We have recently sent an offering to help refugees who are fleeing from terrorist attacks. These are all ways to help God build God’s kingdom of peace.

This past Wednesday, fourteen people were killed and twenty-one people were injured when a husband and wife opened fire on a group of people at a holiday gathering in San Bernardino, California. Once again, we are horrified. I ask your prayers for those who were hurt and killed, and for their families. I also ask your prayers for our leaders, local, state, and national, and for all of us, that we may follow God’s leading in finding ways to bring peace rather than violence.

The prayer of St. Paul for us today is that God will help us to determine what is best. Syed Farook went to the mosque and prayed every day. The morning service was at 4 AM. The leader of the mosque said that Syed was quiet and appeared to take his faith very seriously. He also said that a person would have to be crazy to murder people as Farook did. Muslim leaders have condemned this horrible act and are offering prayers and support to the families and loved ones. All of the major religions of the world, including Islam, are religions of peace.

What is God calling us to do—or not do— in this tragic situation? What actions will help to stop this tragic repetition of mass killings?  Several observers have said that we are in danger of becoming so numb to this violence that we might accept it as the “new normal.” I hope and pray that we will not do that.

What actions and attitudes can we take in order to help God to build a world of peace instead of this world of increasing violence and bloodshed? I do not pretend to have an answer. I do think that we are called to ask God for guidance in deep and intense prayer, as individuals, as faith communities, as a nation, and as a world community.

In spite of almost impossible odds, the exiles came home; Elizabeth and Zechariah had a son, who is now leading us to prepare the way of the Lord. Even now, our Lord is quietly building his shalom. Even now, in the face of this horror.

O God our Creator, O Jesus our Redeemer, O Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove, lead us, we pray. Give us the grace to be agents of your peace and healing. We pray in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

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