Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
December 10, 2000
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
(Part 2 of 6 in the sermon series, "The Birth of Faith")
Last week, this Advent/Christmas sermon series began with "Wake Up!" in which I posed that before we are able to do anything in our walk of faith, we must first wake-up! We must become aware that we are alive, open to the possibility of faith and then and only then, do we begin to experience faith being born. Today, we look at crying out - experiencing faith in the wilderness of our lives.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
It was a beautiful summer day in the Adirondack Mountains of New York as Stephen began to load his hiking pack. For years he had taken one week each summer to hike the mountain trails of his Adirondack's alone. It was a therapeutic and spiritual experience for him. I had asked if he was ever concerned about being alone and he answered, "It fulfills a deep need I have for silence." Enough said!
This day was like so many others before, a mix of clouds and sun and breathtaking views. By midday, it appeared as though the wind and the weather were changing. Nevertheless, he hiked on. By the afternoon, the sun was gone and the rolling clouds indicated the impending presence of rain. But, what he hadn't prepared for was the lightening which accompanied the storm. He was high in the mountains when he heard the roll of thunder. He knew he needed to get to lower ground. He began to descend, although footing was somewhat treacherous because of the foundation of light stones, mud, and rain. Down, down, down he went as the sound and the fury drew closer. The it happened. A bolt of lightening hit the tree right beside him. In a fraction of a second, the electricity shot threw the pine, flew out of the tree and hit the highest part of Stephen's metal backpack frame. It shot through him and out his steel-toed boot. He laid in the muddy stream of water face down having survived a lightening strike!
Now six weeks later, recalling the story, we sat in our apartment just south of the Yale Divinity School campus. Stephen, my seminary roommate, showed me the holes ripped from his backpack, his clothes, his own neck and back, and the hole blown through the right toe of his hiking boot and the red mark on his big toe. He continued, "As I was falling, I literally saw in a moment, my whole life flashing before my eyes. And the last scene I remember seeing was the face of my son, Benjamin. In that split second, I knew I had to live for Benjamin! And I cried out to God with all that was within me, `NO-O-O!'"
He lay there in the mud for God knows, how long. (His watch had stopped - as I recall). And then, he awakened. Though aware of his body, he felt paralyzed. He began to drag himself down the trail inch by inch. After what seemed like hours, he was able to make it to the highway, where he was picked up by a Good Samaritan (I love New Yorkers!), who drove him to the nearest hospital. There he began his miraculous and full recovery. But, through it all, he attributes his survival to that one moment of crying out to God for life, for mercy, for Benjamin.
"A voice of one crying in the wilderness . . . " Isaiah 40:3-5 begins and Luke 3:4-6 echoes, "Prepare the way of the Lord." John the Baptist, like Isaiah, like Stephen identifies with the wilderness cry of faith. John exits the wilderness and enters his ministry and the an new epoch of salvation history by crying out the words of Isaiah. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah 40:3, the way of the Lord is to be prepared in the (desert) wilderness, but the way of the Lord is not confined to the desert wilderness.
The image of a desert prophet's call to prepare for the salvation of God recalls the exodus and the desert journey of the people, Israel. It also recalls the preaching of Elijah - you remember the great prophet of old who was carried by God into the heavens in a cloud. Although Mark and Matthew's Gospel describe John's appearance as "like Elijah," Luke does not. He does not identify John directly with Elijah because he is not to be too closely identified with Elijah. As you remember, Jesus is seen as Elijah-like. In fact, Luke makes no reference in this chapter 3 to Malachi 3:1 (ie. He himself being the messenger sent by God to prepare the way) because he wants the focus on the One who he is delivering the Kingdom of God - Jesus the Christ -- the One in whom "all flesh shall see the Salvation of God!"
Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, shifts the focus of his proclamation onto the Baptist's preaching, social witness, and general call to repentance and a reformed life. And Luke expands John's audience from Scribes and Pharisees to all the people - who like snakes scurrying to escape the spreading fire, John's listeners are portrayed as running to escape the wrath of God! John's message - again echoing the prophets, Isaiah and Malachi (in 7:27) - is one which involves a baptism of repentance, a turning, and a change of heart and mind. And all of this must be spoken and heard before the Day of the Lord. And with John the Baptist, the Age of the Prophets draws to a close. And the people are warned and prepared for a Baptism of the Holy Spirit and the irruption of the Kingdom of God (7:28).
John the Baptist cries out in a time and place that is politically unstable and economically uncertain. The Roman Empire holds down Palestine with a political and militaristic boot on its neck. The poverty of the general population and discord within the religious and political powers-that-be in First Century Palestine is so extreme that you can taste it. John's cry from the wilderness to repent and turn around addresses the extremes of power and poverty and "all flesh" in between. For we must remember, God's concern is for the salvation of all flesh - but God's plan of how to redeem all flesh - varies according to need. For the poor, there is a need to be lifted up. For the powerful, the need is to be humbled, we are told (Luke 1:68ff). The leveling experience is both spiritual and economic - for those who suffer economically, justice will prevail. For those who are economically well-healed, a spiritual revival and transformation is in order as the economy of scale is born out.
In Letters and Papers from Prison, a collection of his writings published after his execution in a Nazi prison camp, theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of the Christian life:
The Christian must therefore must really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a `secular' life, and thereby share in God's suffering . . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in any particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, a saint) on the basis of some method or other, rather it means to be (human) - not a type of (human), but the man (or woman) that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the secular life. That is the metanoia (the transformation), not in the first place thinking of one's own needs, problems, sins and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up in the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isaiah 53. (D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Macmillian Press, New York, 1975, p. 361f).
And what is the call of Isaiah 53? That the Messiah enters into the suffering of our lives to save us. The Christian life is essentially a matter of metanoia, not method. We cannot merely take five steps (or six or 2000) to enter God's salvation plan. Rather, we must actually experience conversion, or spiritual rebirth, meaning the reorientation of our lives so that we no longer live in conformity to the values and powers of the world, but become part of God's transforming purpose by entering into the suffering of God's world. Now, this will take a lifetime. Guarantee it!
As Christians, our salvation is connected to a one time experience (the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ), but our salvation is experienced as a lifetime connection to growth in this suffering and rising Christ. The history of Christian faith demonstrates that a faithful Church always suffers with those who suffer and rejoices with those who are rising in new life. And a faithful church is, simply stated, the community of faithful individual Christians.
As my friend Stephen lay on the muddy mountain path dangling between life and death, his wilderness cry was heard. Have you cried out in the anguish of your faith struggles? Perhaps not as dramatically as Stephen, but have you found yourself dangling between life and death, caught in the complex web of pain and suffering? Have you cried out to God for help? Have you cried out of your wilderness to have Christ intervene and help you? I have.
There have been times in my life when I cried out for myself. "Why O God? Why this? Why me? Why now? Why?" But, more often, I have cried out for others whose suffering seems painful in extreme. Some have been riddled with cancer or fighting AIDS. Others have experienced the loss of loved ones or the loss of meaning for their lives. Others have been youth who have been struggling with issues of self-identity and purpose for their lives. Still others have been homeless poor, unemployed or underemployed, or international refugees, persons battling varieties of mentally illness, or persons facing sudden and tragic disabling illnesses or accidents. Still others have been those who are suffering from the effects of aging or feeling the pain of sheer loneliness. And others have been wounded physically and psychologically from verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. "Why, O God?" I have cried! "Why?"
It has most often been true that in crying out to God clarification has come. And most often, the clarity comes back not in an answer to "why?", but in affect, an answer to how, and when and where. How, when and where in my life and in the lives of others.
How might I stand again or How might I (or we) be present to others? When will I have the courage to move forward or When is the right time for me (or Us) to take action? Where can I go to receive the help that I need in any given situation or Where can I (or we) make a difference in the midst of the suffering of another? The clarification that returns from crying out is often a clarification of values and purpose for my life and in essence for the Christian experience itself.
Is there ever a right time to cry out to God? No, but when the time is right, you will know it and you should not run from it. For in the crying out you will come to experience that a critical step of growth in the faith birthing process. Because, not only do you discover that God is present in the divine image of others, but you come to know the divine presence of God being born in you. There is a voice crying in the wilderness, "prepare!" Amen.
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