Scripture: Luke 1:68-79
If you were here last week, you will know the great relief it was to be able to sing together again. As lovely as the voices of our soloists and choir have been over the last 2 years, there is something special about congregational singing. It doesn’t matter if you sing flat or sharp, loud or softly, combined it creates a sacred chorus, it was truly a joy to behold.
Singing is in many ways the universal language, you do not need to understand the words of a song to necessarily understand its message. We can sing when we are full of joy, we can sing when we are angry or upset, we can sing when we are sad, we can sing when we need to focus or prepare ourselves, we can sing because we want to be silly.
Singing and songs play really important parts in our Scripture too. Whether it is the victory songs of Miriam and Moses after the crossing of the Red Sea, the songs of David and others that we have recorded in our Psalms, the romantic and even sensual Song of Songs, the lament songs of Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations through to the songs of adoration sung by the heavenly chorus in the book of Revelation – Songs abound in scripture. Singing matters so to speak.
Singing matters in this season of Advent too – and I don’t just mean because we finally get to sing again after such a long journey through the desert devoid of singing that the pandemic created.
Over the seasons of Advent and Christmastide, we are treated to several of Scripture’s songs: the song of Zechariah, the song of Mary, the Angelic song at Jesus’ birth and the songs of Simeon and Anna. Each of these songs points to different aspects of the truth of the Gospel and the way that God’s people responded to the coming Messiah that we celebrate on Christmas Day. Over the next few weeks stretching past Christmas, we will read and sing these songs, we will sing with Zechariah and Mary, we will join the angel chorus and rejoice with Simeon and Anna.
Today we read/sang the song of Zechariah – the song is sung by Zechariah at the birth of his son John. Zechariah’s song is a song of exuberance and joy – especially since these were Zechariah’s first words after nine months of silence after he had doubted that God would bless him and Elizabeth with a child in their old age.
This is also a song all about preparation: preparation for a visitor, preparation for a person and events that will change everything.
Zechariah’s song begins:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,”
At the birth of his son, Zechariah realizes, there is a greater visitor on the way, God is coming to visit his people.
Advent and Christmastide have typically been a time of visitors. Whether you are going to be visiting a friend or family, there is one simple truth: Visitors take a lot of preparation.
There’s the cleaning and tidying to be done, shopping for food to be completed and most likely cooking and baking to finish before they arrive. If your guests are staying long term there are plans to be made, additional visits to other families – you name it, you have to prepare it. Decorations need to be put up, stockings hung and trees trimmed. We do a lot of preparation this time of year.
As Christians this Advent we are waiting for a far more important visitor, a visitor that Zechariah and God’s people were waiting for. God is visiting the world, God is ready to visit with all of his mercy, all of his grace and all of his healing. But are we ready to receive him the right way? What are we doing to prepare a place for God in the busyness of our lives this Advent and Christmastide?
We put a lot of thought and energy and time into our preparations for our visitors during Advent, but how much time and effort do we devote to the coming of the great visitor, the visitor without whom there would be no holiday in the first place?
If you believe in Jesus and consider yourself a follower, you might think it odd to consider Jesus a visitor – after all, he lives in your heart and you have become rather comfortable with him, just as you might with one of your family.
But this Advent, we are reminded that he is a visitor. He was a visitor from his heavenly dwelling when he came as a babe in Mary’s womb. He is a visitor now when we come to this table (even though it is his table) and break bread and wine, He is a visitor when we encounter him in the faces of those we love and serve. And He will be a visitor when he comes again in all his glory, to renew the earth and the heavens and bring about God’s everlasting reign.
Since God in Jesus is a visitor into our lives and this world, we need to think about how we prepare for him.
Over the centuries the church has gradually allowed the season of Advent to become all about Joy at the expense of any talk of penitence and judgement – elements which are clearly at the heart of what it means to prepare for Jesus’ coming. It may be easy for you to sing ‘Joy to the World, the Lord has Come’ on Christmas Eve/Morning but for many people, there is no joy in the Christian message – there is no joy in calling Jesus Lord, in following him as a teacher and claiming him as a saviour.
And if we’re honest, without preparation the story of Jesus can be difficult for us too – if we haven’t grappled with the reality of our sin and brokenness then there isn’t much joy to be found in a Saviour who comes to rescue us from that very same sin and brokenness. After all what good is a saviour if we don’t think we need to save if we think that we’re just fine – thank you very much!
That’s why John the Baptist and his message of repentance and forgiveness is an essential part of every Gospel account that we have. Only Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ birth, but John the Baptist and his message can be found in every account – there is something necessary about John’s call to repentance
Zechariah’s song gives us a glimpse of how we might do that.
When Zechariah sang the song we heard this morning, he sang it to his 8-day old son, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, who would grow up to prepare the way for Jesus and his message of hope and salvation.
Filled with the Holy Spirit Zechariah sang:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins”
John the Baptist was not going to grow up to bring salvation to the world, he wasn’t the Messiah but Zechariah knew that instead, John would bring knowledge of salvation, he would point people to the salvation that God was working in Jesus Christ. And the way that he would point the way to Jesus was to offer people his baptism for the forgiveness of sins – he would call them to repentance and a new life walking in God’s ways. John’s purpose in life would be to call the people to an awareness of their disobedience and brokenness and return to the right relationship with God.
John and Zechariah’s song’s purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus, to till the soil so that Jesus could plant the seed of God’s Kingdom in our hearts and the word. John would be the one to do the hard work of plowing the soil to get ready for Jesus. John’s role was to break the hard dry soil of the people of Israel’s soul so that they could be ready for the good news of Jesus Christ and the truth of God’s goodness and mercy.
If Jesus is the divine visitor, then John was the one God sent to prepare his people for that visit. Because God and John knew that how Jesus would be received would depend on people’s situation. If the people were eager to hear the good news that God’s forgiveness was available to them, then they would be glad to hear the message Jesus was coming to preach. But if they weren’t eager and believed that they didn’t have a problem with sin, then Jesus would be at best annoyance and at worst a problem needing to be dealt with.
Unfortunately, we all too often want to celebrate the coming of Jesus without letting John the Baptist’s message warn us and prepare us. Most of us wouldn’t dare let Christmas guests arrive at our house without the preparation of cleaning, baking, decorating or shopping, but we are often more than willing to let Jesus visit us without letting John the Baptist metaphorically clean house for us.
Advent is our time to welcome John the Baptist and his message of preparation and warning into our lives. Advent is the time to sing with Zechariah of God’s salvation that has come in Jesus and the repentance and forgiveness that John pointed towards as the means of preparation.
Advent is our time not just to get ready for the joy of Christmas and welcoming Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, but also to take stock of our spiritual lives, to take stock of the obstacles in our lives that keep us from truly following Jesus. Advent is the time to accept our brokenness and sinfulness and to repent and accept God’s forgiveness and mercy in our lives. Advent is the time for us to prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus, not just as a babe in Bethlehem, but also in our lives, at the table in the breaking of bread and the cup of wine and in the people we serve and care for.
Think of Advent as a gift – a gift of time to pause and take stock of your life of discipleship. Advent is a gift of time to look at your life and find ways you can follow Jesus more and more, to prepare to welcome Jesus as our visitor. Jesus is coming: he’s coming today as we share bread and wine, he’s coming in the stranger we welcome into our lives, he’s coming in glory to bring about God’s Kingdom. And the question is: are you ready? Are you ready for him to come into your life? Are you ready?
As a community of faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit together we can begin to answer yes to this question. Let us take the time to prepare, and sing the songs of Advent with our forefathers.
Let us pray.