Fiona Barnard, 6 December 2015
Potholes and parades
(Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-6)
“Coming: ready or not!” My heart always used to do a little nervous somersault when Current Best Friend had counted to 100 – always far too fast in my opinion – and was coming to find me. I had never quite worked out the perfect hiding place. I was never too sure where I would best escape detection: behind the pantry door? or under the bed in the spare room? or among the musty coats in the wardrobe? Oh dear, indecision and a nervous disposition always made hide-and-seek my least favourite childhood game. The anticipation of discovery was agony. I much preferred to be the seeker than the one who was found.
Now for you hard-working, conscientious students, my sorry tale of infantile dread must pale into insignificance as exams loom over this week’s horizon. Where has this revision week gone? Will you manage to cover all necessary bases? Will that topic that you just have not been able to master pop up to haunt you from an unfriendly exam paper? “Coming, ready or not”: that clarion call may be sending shivers down your spine.
Take it from me, from one who has done exams and survived: there is life beyond question papers. There are things coming, whether you are ready or not, which are fun and exciting, delicious and beautiful. And even with the exams, it may be that your worst fears turn out to be insubstantial shadows. The apocalyptic scenario you envisage may never materialise. You find that you are asked about your very favourite equation. You revise the American war of independence instead of the Napoleonic wars, and it is George Washington who winks at you from the sheet. The geography or psychology test may, after all, deliver a pleasant surprise. Even as you pull together a semester’s worth of knowledge, lights may go on in your mind as the material unexpectedly makes sense, as the strands of information come together all of a sudden, as you discover a relevance, a connection, you never noted before.
“Coming, ready or not”: this is the message of the hopeful words of both our readings from Luke’s gospel this morning. They bounce onto history’s stage at a time of darkness and dread. It was a time when pleasant surprises were few and far between. Roman rule had brought fear and oppression to the Jewish people – the latest in a long line of foreign invasions and occupations. A sense of despair and sorrow lay like a dark soggy blanket on a nation mostly resigned to a situation that showed no sign of changing and a God who had long seemed silent.
The setting of our first text is a private domestic scene. The elderly Zechariah gazes down at his miracle baby John. He declares that the Lord God is sending a saviour to rescue his people from their enemies. And that John will prepare the way.
You might expect an announcement of such national significance to come from the leaders in a temple or a palace in an official first century bulletin. But no, it comes from a naming ceremony in a humble nursery, proclaimed by a geriatric father.
Zechariah’s personal longing for a son and his longing for political freedom meet in a sudden burst of recognition: God has come, God is coming, God will come. Years of tears, years of prayer, years of quiet trust converge in this moment of jubilant outburst: “God has kept his ancient promise to Abraham, to king David, to the prophets. God has provided a saviour. God will rescue us from our enemies. John, my new-born, you are the sign that God is on the move. Light is dawning on our darkness. You are the herald of all we wish for and so much more. God is coming, ready or not. And you will help us get ready.”
But when God comes, he will arrive with bags of surprises. Zechariah’s song gives a tantalising hint of it. It starts out like a nationalistic, military battle cry. Listen to the words of Zechariah again:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”
These words echo the cries of freedom fighters across the world. We hear them all the time – emblazoned on social media and internet videos – rescue from oppressors, defeat of enemies: now we can get rid of those who hate us, who treat us badly, who have no right to be in our land, who take advantage of our misery. Now we have a leader – we have the arms – we have the organisation to defeat our foes. Our cause is just. God is on our side.
But then Zechariah’s song evolves into something unexpected – a stunning vision of forgiveness and holiness, righteousness and peace. Listen again to his lullaby over John:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Do you notice the surprise in Zechariah’s prophesy? Salvation dawns not through brutal force, but in the tender mercy of our God – in the birth of John which foreshadows a more significant birth a little later of his cousin Jesus. I love the way the huge story of God’s salvation finds its home in the poignant story of elderly parents in the corner of a weary empire.
The setting of our second text is an inhospitable desert. The bouncing baby John has become a wild hairy prophet calling out God’s words in a sweltering wilderness. He is fulfilling his father’s prophesy, proclaiming the imminent arrival of the long awaited saviour: “God is coming, ready or not!”
For John, preparation is not about amassing arms or training for battle. It is about clearing away the rubble that litters our lives. It’s about filling in the potholes that trip us up – pride, selfishness and lovelessness. John urges a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His message is about an inner renewal that reaches from individuals to a broken society and transforms it. John insists that divine forgiveness, right living, mercy and peace are far more powerful in a suffering world than the sword. God’s coming is what the oppressed Jewish people desperately hope for to deliver them from their enemies. Instead, they are challenged to turn their lives around. They think they are ready, but they are not. They want God to come – but most have no idea it is going to be like this. It is a surprise – but that is typical of a God who will not be domesticated by our own agendas.
Interestingly, this evening in my own church, 2 women, one in her 30s and another in her 50s are being baptised (alas, not in the Kinness Burn!). They are declaring that God’s salvation in Christ has turned their lives around. The old Bible story has come bang up to date for them, and they are determining to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives. Both have suffered major health issues this year – life has been a challenge in diferent ways – but they have experienced the tender mercy of the Lord and they are full of praise.
Let the tender mercy of our God in Christ surprise you this week – in the library, in the exam hall, in your bed at night. May you experience his peace when the darkness of dread threatens to overwhelm you. May you know his forgiveness in the things that trouble you and trouble others. Get those potholes filled; smooth the rough paths that make you slip and fall. (Believe you me, I have a great aversion to potholes ever since I hit one at the bottom of Bridge Street and came flying off my bicycle.) God came that first Christmas. And he can come afresh to you – or even for the first time: if you prepare, if you wait for him, if you listen for his voice. In the carols, in the Bible readings, in prayer. Even amid disappointment and despair, his coming can bring you light as it did to Zechariah of old.
As a child, I lived in Brazil. One of the high points of the cultural calendar was the carnival: my oh my – the Brazilians know how to party. Rich and poor, all shapes and sizes, all creeds and classes would fill the street with colour and song. Vibrant images, flashing lights, joyful dance, a community illuminated by sheer joy and delight at life and living. Of course, I was never allowed to watch at first hand because I was too young and should be in bed (after all, there was school in the morning). But thinking of it now, I reckon it was all the wrong way round. It was the parade before the penance of lent, the party before the passion of Christ. The feast was followed by the fasting. I think God’s salvation calls for celebration, not because soon it will be time to be serious, but because his coming changes everything. It sorts us from the inside out.
This advent, join the procession that welcomes Jesus. Let him remind you afresh of his coming for you in Christ, coming ready or not.
Fill in the potholes and join the parade of God’s salvation.