The Gift is For Us
The Gift is For Us
Today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of Luke sounds like a who’s, who of the ancient world. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, the high priests, Annas and Caiphas and all those other names we have a hard time pronouncing. And when these people came to town you would role out the red carpet. We complain about Hampton Roads traffic. But in the ancient world roads were not well maintained .So when someone important came to town they would repair the roads. So that is what Isaiah is referring to that someone important is coming to town. And while Luke is grounding his narrative is a particular time and place he is also saying that the word of God didn’t come to these important political and religious figures. Instead, the word came to someone most people hadn’t heard of, John the Son of Zechariah. Who is John son of Zechariah?
We know from the scriptures that he is Jesus’ cousin. Elizabeth is Mary’s sister. He was the product of a miraculous birth. Zechariah and Elizabeth were beyond child bearing age when the Angel came to Zechariah and said they would have a son named John.
We are told a lot about the miraculous nature of John’s birth. But we are not told a lot about John himself. We know a little about how he dressed from Mark and Matthew. He wore clothing fashioned from camel’s hair, wore a leather belt around his waist. We know a little about his diet. He ate wild honey (Mark 1:6). Luke tells us that after John was born, “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” (Luke 1: 80)
For thirty years or so it seems that God said nothing and just let John hang out in the desert. And perhaps that is how many of us feel in our relationship with God. There are moments when we feel like God is speaking to us. But for the most part it feels like he has left us wandering in the desert. But I think during this season for advent John is preparing us for some good news.
The Good News: When we receive God’s Gift of the Word we will hear him speak to us who He is and who we are in Him. God’s Gift of the Word is given to us in three ways.
- The Bible
- Power filled moments
First, we see that God gives us the gift of his word through the Bible. We as Christians believe that if you want to know God, you should first not expect supernatural experiences, though those happen, you should first not look at the birds and the bees, though the glory of God is revealed in nature. Christians have different theories as to how the Bible came to be inspired, we all believe it is the primary way that God reveals his character to us. We don’t know exactly what God said to John to cause him to end his self imposed isolation. But the text implies that it had something to do with the Isaiah chapter 40. “A voice cries in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This scripture was written by the prophet Isaiah in a time that was both similar and different than John’s time. The book of Isaiah tells of how God’s people are being oppressed by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empire. But God had a plan to deliver his people through the reign of the Persian King Cyrus. John lived in a time when God’s people were being oppressed by the Romans. The Holy Spirit inspired him to use this scripture in a different way than it had been used before. But the King who would deliver God’s people was not an earthly King. It was his only begotten Son Jesus Christ.
A common experience of many Christians of God’s Gift of the Word, is the Holy Spirit highlighting or illuminating a particular passage to them during a particular time in their life. The Apostle Paul was an educated man. He knew the original circumstances the scriptures were written in. But he tells us in Romans chapter 15 that the Holy Spirit can apply the scriptures in new ways as a gift to us. Here is what Paul says about the scriptures, “ For whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The spirit can use all scripture to encourage us so that we may endure the struggles of life. This is why we have the prayer of illumination before the preaching of the Word in the Presbyterian Church. Because we believe that the Spirit of the living God can give us new gifts through his written word.
Second, we see that God’s Word is revealed through God’s Providence. The book of Genesis tells us that God spoke and everything we see, and everything we can’t see, came into being. We as human beings often say things and nothing happens. God’s Words are so powerful that all of creation came into being when God spoke. But providence isn’t just the idea that God spoke the universe into existence, and then left us in the wilderness to fend for ourselves. Providence says that God’s hand is actively guiding his people through history. One of the most profound images of providence that the Bible gives us is that of the Shepherd. If you think about it sheep are pretty baaad at taking directions. This week I saw a video of a sheep who dug himself into a hole in the ground. The shepherd had to pull him out by his hind legs and pull him out of the hole until he was able to walk again. And sometimes that is how we feel in our lives. Our shepherd has to pull us out of the hole. But the good thing about being a sheep is you don’t always need to know where you are going. You just have to know the character of the shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep and trust him to lead us to greener pastures. Most of the time we want God to draw us a map. But he wants to lead us step by step like a shepherd.
The third way God reveals his word to us, which is less than the first two but still happens, is power filled moments or miracles. We see this in the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. John was born to a couple long beyond child bearing age. Jesus was born to Mary, in a virgin birth. Especially, in Mary’s case very people knew that she had experienced a miracle. Most folks had to take her word for it. I believe miracles are not to convince people that God exist. They are instead to encourage people who believe God is real. We can create an atmosphere of faith where miracles happen every so often.
Thinking about God’s Word in the scriptures, in providence, and in miracles reminded me of something that happened to me in 2011. It began on December 4th, 2011 and ended on December 11, 2011
December 4th, 2011 was a Sunday. I had graduated seminary and a church internship. I was attending a church in Richmond, Virginia called East End Fellowship, as I interviewed across the country with churches. I attended a prayer service before the main service to ask for prayer for a job interview in Modesto, California, the following Sunday.
Of course some people if they were outgoing prayers would pray that I would get the job. Other more reserved people prayed “if it be God’s will I would get the job”. But this woman simply said out of nowhere, “ I feel God has a message for you when you go out to California”. My immediate thought was, “Is the message that I get the job?” I flew out to the interview on December 9th, 2011. I would have landed in California around the same time I am preaching this sermon.
Nothing unusual happened the first day I was there. Nothing happened the second day. That Sunday I preached a sermon and I thought it went well. Click here to view part I of the sermon. Click here to view part two of the sermon.
Afterwards I greeted people at the church I was preaching at. While I was greeting people a young man came up to me. He was eighteen maybe nineteen years old. I will always remember the words he said to me. “I have a message for you.” “From who?” I asked. “From God,” he replied. I would have thought he was out of his mind if it had not been for the woman in Virginia who said God had a message for me in that state. These two people were thousands of miles apart. They had no way of knowing each other. In that moment I felt a great fear come upon me. It was as if the universe opened up and I could feel the eyes of the LORD staring at my heart. “What did God say to you?” I asked with a great deal of hesitation. He replied,
“He said something like don’t be afraid of your weakness because it is your strength.” This was my favorite scripture 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Scholars have debated for hundreds of years what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. And we will probably never know. But perhaps the Spirit had him right this to encourage us. To know that in our weakness the power of Christ can rest upon us. And what I have struggled with all of my life is as a child I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I am not wired exactly the same up here. Most of you who know me probably already know that. And I have struggled with that all of my life. And that kid had no way of knowing that.
And isn’t that what we need? It is good to have a beautiful worship space, and new carpet, and heat god willing, but what we really need is the power of Christ to rest upon us in our weakness.
I didn’t end up getting that job. And I was really disappointed and confused at the time. His word had come to in in all three ways that I have described, in one of the most profound moments of my life, and yet I didn’t get the job. I didn’t get what I had so desperately hoped for. Why did the Lord have me travel thousands of miles to have a teenager say this one word to me? I have worked at two churches since then and several other jobs and the Lord never sent someone to say, “ I have a message for you work here.” So why did the Lord speak in this way?
I think John Calvin, the theologian whom this church is named after gives a partial answer. He is famous for saying in his Institutes on the Christian religion the following, “ Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”
It strikes me that the little description of what we have of John the Baptist during his time in the wilderness is not about the things he did, it is about who he was, he was simply, “strong in spirit.” In the wilderness John learned more about God and he learned more about himself. As I reflect on my time in the wilderness, God strengthened me. And perhaps God doesn’t tell us where we are going because he wants us to trust who he is, a shepherd, and maybe God gave me that word in California so you all would trust him as a shepherd. Because I am here today because a 19 year old young man chose to trust the Lord. And I don’t know how that happened. I can’t tell how that is going to happen for you, but I knew that he knew, who God was, and who he was in God. And we know who God is and who we are in Him we can trust the Lord.
For he says he is Emmanuel. In our wilderness he is God with us. He tells us what his name is. As the prophet Isaiah said, For, “unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And though wise men cross continents to bring him earthly treasures he has given unto us the greater gift of his Word in the scriptures, his Word guiding our lives, his Word bringing awe upon us. His Word is a Gift. And that gift isn’t just meant for professionals like me. It is meant for all of you. That gift isn’t against us. The gift is for us.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.