December 16, 2018
We’ve been following the hymn ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ through this season of Advent, and today’s focus is on the third stanza, where ‘love’s pure light’ radiantly beams forth at the ‘dawn of redeeming grace.’ Love and redemption go hand in hand. We call it ‘grace.’
Here’s a great definition of grace: love we don’t deserve and can never earn.
Redeeming grace is that un-earn-able love that saves us. It saves us from our sin, our darkness, and the eternal separation from God that our brokenness deserves. This is the grace that saves us from ourselves.
This season of Advent also begins the Year of Luke – in the coming year, we will take most of our gospel readings from Luke’s account. The first two chapters have introduced this story of Jesus’ life and work.
We’ve met a young girl named Mary, and her relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are expecting a child in their old age. We’ve met the angel Gabriel, who has told Mary she will become the mother of God’s Son, while Elizabeth’s son will be a prophetic voice that goes before Messiah into the world. Now that the characters have been introduced to us, Luke settles in to tell the story, and it begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” (Luke 3:1-6)
John gives us a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He points us back to the words of Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets. He comes from the wilderness, he calls sinners to repentance, and he proclaims the Word of the Lord with power.
But John points us forward to the New Testament, too. That long list of rulers Luke gives us? John isn’t joining their illustrious line – he’s standing up to it. John’s message is in direct opposition to Roman oppression and the legalism of the Jewish high priests. Yet, John doesn’t go to Rome or Jerusalem to confront these established rulers. He stays out in the wilderness, the place where God has met his people throughout history.
Michal Beth Dinkler writes, “This is a hopeful and necessary message for us today. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine our world as a desert. Scarcity, isolation, hunger, and violence seem to rule the day. The pain and injustice around us can make us wonder whether God is at work in this wilderness. But Luke suggests that the wilderness is precisely where God provides what we need, so that we can now be the ones “crying out …, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
The world does seem dark these days. There is so much antagonism, so much conflict, so much anger. Yet, this is where God calls us to be heralds of good news.
As I was paging through the hymnal the other day, I realized there are some really good Christmas hymns that we don’t sing very often. In our efforts to reach people who might not have a church background, most of the Christmas carols we sing on Christmas Eve are the ones we’re pretty sure everyone already knows.
But that means we miss out on some of those songs that challenge us. And sometimes, I think, that means we miss out on being that voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote just such a hymn in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. His wife had recently died, and his son had been critically wounded in the war. Longfellow wrote from a sense of despair. His words have been on my heart lately, so I was astonished yesterday to see that the Seedbed Daily Text also referenced this hymn in its daily online devotional. Are you familiar with it?
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace of earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Matt LeRoy writes, “Christians are strange people. In the midst of tragedy we often find ourselves reaching for a song. Not in naive denial. But as an act of defiance. A protest against the way things are. A prophetic and poetic vision of how they could be, should be, will be. Advent teaches us to sing in the dark. With the stubborn hope that the Light is on the way.”
That’s what John the Baptist was doing. He was pushing back the darkness with the defiant, stubborn hope that the Light was on the way. John’s call to repentance is much more than an invitation to express regret for our wrongs.
In the Old Testament, when God’s prophets called the people to repent, it was usually in order to avoid punishment or hardship. Repentance was hardly ever connected to forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament.
Yet here is John, preaching the need for a change of mind and heart, for an inner transformation that shows up in fruitful living. John’s call to repentance is a call to transformation, and that transformation is directly connected to the forgiveness of sins.
And here’s an interesting detail: the word translated here as forgiveness also means “release.” It’s the same word Jesus will use in chapter four to state his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me … to proclaim release to the captives and … to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).
This kind of release from our sins doesn’t undo them. But it does cut us loose from them. It unbinds us from our sin. This forgiveness, this release from sin that goes hand in hand with our repentance paves the way for a life lived in God’s grace.
This is the good news, my friends. In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. In Jesus Christ, you can be released from your sin. It no longer has any power over you. In Jesus Christ, you are redeemed by God’s grace – that unmerited love you can never earn, but God pours out on you. This is the dawn of redeeming grace.
 Michal Beth Dinkler, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3894
 Matt LeRoy, https://www.seedbed.com/a-borrowed-song-protagonist/
 Word Biblical Commentary-NT, vol. 35A, p. 143.
 Judith Jones, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2702