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Take Jesus Home 4

There is so much more to the biblical Christmas story than we sometimes pay attention to. Yes, there is the birth of Jesus. But there is also the birth of John the Baptist. John’s birth is closely intertwined with the birth of Jesus. In fact, there is more attention given to John’s birth in Luke’s Gospel than to Jesus’ birth.

And John’s life and ministry was essential to Jesus’ life and ministry.

John was the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth. All three of these people are major characters in the story of the coming of Christ.

When Elizabeth’s baby was born people asked, “What is this child going to be?” They asked this because Zechariah, who was a priest, had been visited by an angel in the Temple and he came out unable to speak. God took away his ability to speak because of his lack of belief that Elizabeth, his wife, was going to conceive though she was getting on in years. The couple didn’t name the child after his father but named their son John, and Zechariah’s ability to speak was restored

Did you know any of this was part of Christmas? “What is this child going to be?” indeed. What’s in store? Keep an eye on this child named John. It says “the Lord’s hand was with him.”

When Zechariah regains his ability to speak it says he is filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the things the Holy Spirit does is help us to speak about God. And so Zechariah prophesies. Some people call this Zechariah’s song.

Prophecy isn’t just speaking about the future. Prophecy is whenever the word of the Lord is spoken. A prophetic word can interpret the present time or a past time just as much as speak to a future time. Prophecy is a word of the Lord, from the Lord, spoken by someone under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah praises the Lord. He blesses the Lord for the redemption that is coming in, what he says is, the “horn of salvation”. The “horn of salvation” is reference to Jesus as the coming Messiah. This type of horn spoken of is the horn from the head of an animal. In ancient times, the horns on an ox or bull were considered the power of that animal, so the horn became a symbol of power. Iron horns on the helmet of a king symbolized victory in a war. In the book of Daniel, the symbol of a horn is used for kings and refers to specific rulers over time.[1] So, a horn meant strength.

Zechariah’s words speak of a ruler, a king of strength who will come from the line of King David. This ruler will be a “horn of salvation”, saving Israel from their enemies and from all who hate them.

But then his song – his prophecy - shifts to his son, John, who has just been born. Zechariah says that John will be a prophet of the Most High who will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. That way will be prepared by giving people “the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”

Everyone wants to fix the structures in our world. We’re tired of the wars, of the injustice, and of divisions. It’s true, there are political, military and social enemies. But they are not the ultimate enemies. All of this comes from the sin within each of us and the alienation it causes between us and God. Sin is our greatest enemy. People experience so much inner pain, alienation, despair, anger, resentment, confusion because we are broken.

There are tremendous wrongs in the structures of our society and in our world. There is poverty, racism, and oppression. And every one of these are the result of the problem in the human heart. Jesus was not concerned just with outward structures. He was concerned with the entire person and then entire communities. “No point putting the world right if the people are still broken.”[2]

We often point the finger at our boss, our spouse, the government, that neighbor, that group or authority as the cause of our problems. They can be. But there is something deeper that needs to be addressed. There are things in our hearts that we have to be honest about.

Thomas Merton wrote, “We never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to [be aggressive] and [our] hypocrisy.”[3]

Before there can be a right relationship between people and people, there must be a right relationship between people and God. The sin which creates a barrier between us and God must be repented of and removed.[4]

When John grew up and began to preach, we are told he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

John was the fulfillment of what Isaiah, another prophet, preached centuries before:

“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.’”[5] In other words, the obstacles have to be removed. John came to make things level and smooth so that people could receive Jesus.

When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s boy began to preach in the Judean wilderness, he called people a “brood of vipers.” John said that those who were coming to him were like snakes coming out of the brush trying to escape a fire. If I preached that…?? He said if they really want to change that it should show in their lives. If there isn’t any change they will be like trees cut down and thrown into the fire.

People heard John the Baptist. They were convicted, and they asked, “What should we do?” “What type of change do we need to make?”

John brought it right down to everyday living. He said if you have two coats share with anyone who doesn’t have one. If you have food and see someone who doesn’t, share your food with them. He told the tax collectors to stop cheating. He told the soldiers in the Roman army to stop extorting and bullying people.

Let’s ask ourselves – do we have coats we don’t need? Do you have food to share? Because there are people who don’t have a coat, and there are people who are hungry.

In other words, the sins that block the way between people and God are things like greed, or gluttony – which is having more than we need. The things that block the coming of Christ to us are selfishness, and hoarding. The sins from which we need to repent are dishonesty, power-games, and manipulation.

The big thing that was blocking me from fully coming to Jesus some years ago was hypocrisy. In my late teen years I wore one face on Sundays and to my church youth group, and another face at school, and another face to this circle of friends, and another face to that circle of people. I was a hypocrite. It wasn’t until I owned up to that that Jesus Christ became truly Lord of my life. Not just a little slice of it but Lord of my life.

Each of us have things that we need to ask God to help us repent of so that we can receive him fully.

John will eventually be put into a prison and killed for confronting King Herod. John told King Herod that it was wrong of Herod to marry his brother’s wife. In other words, inappropriate relationships are not OK. There are certain moral and ethical standards that God holds all people to, even kings.

John’s role was to prepare the way for the Lord. Jesus doesn’t just come. It apparently takes preparation. And part of that preparation is looking at ourselves with honesty, acknowledging those things in our lives that are not right, and coming before God with that. The Lord can’t come to a life full of self-justification, pride, and presumption.

John comes to point out people’s sins so that they can be forgiven. Really his pointing out what is wrong is a gift.

I wonder how much time we spend in “sin-management” instead of living in the great gift of the forgiveness of sins? We justify and rationalize instead of merely bowing down before the Lord, laying our broken pieces before him and asking him to remove it all from us.

Back in Isaiah we here another “prepare the way” sermon. Isaiah says this,

“Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.

“For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”[6]

To be contrite is to feel remorse, to be sorry, and regretful. God comes to those who are like this. Not to the excuse-makers, the blamers, or the self-justifiers. He comes to those of us who are just sick to death about some of the things we have done, and some of the things we have left undone.

If we want to see the salvation of God then paths that are crooked need to be straightened out, and roads that are rough need to be smoothed out. Then the mercy and healing that happens through forgiveness can come. Those burdens that crush and cripple us are removed and we are able to stand up straight.

Remember that younger son in the parable Jesus told that we call the parable of the Prodigal Son? It says after he had lost everything and was in that pigsty feeding the swine, he became just sick to death about his life. It says, he came to his senses, admitted he had sinned against his father and against God, and didn’t think we was worthy any longer to be called a son.

I t was then that he returned home. We expect the father in the parable to discipline him, give him a good talking to, and maybe even a beating to come his way. But instead of having to recite the speech he had prepared about how unworthy he was, he was greeted by a compassionate father who ran to him, embraced him and kissed him.

We have been given the gift of forgiveness of sins. There is a Father who wants us home. We’ve been given the gift of a clean slate with God. The gift was given when the One John prepared the way for came to this earth, showed us who God is, and died on a cross. He wants us to know our sins are forgiven.

The famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger said one time that if he could convince people their sins were forgiven, seventy-five percent of the patients in psychiatric wards would walk out the next day.

The forgiveness of sins is the very heart of the Christian message.

We need to know that if we come to Christ our wrongs will not be counted against us. We need to know that as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgressions from us.[7] We need to know the new covenant the Lord said he would make with his people when he said: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.[8] We need to hold to and practice the promise that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins…”[9]

But sometimes we don’t feel forgiven do we? We still have that memory of what we did. Or we are pretty sure we have used up all our forgiveness tokens and that God doesn’t want to hear one more “forgive me” prayer. And so we still carry some spiritual anxiety. We still trust that maybe we can make it up to God on our own. Or we just carry around a lot of guilt.

Did God mean what he said when he said he forgives us and remembers our sins no more? Can we trust what he has said? Did Christ give up his eternal glory with the Father and become one of us, suffer, die and rise only so that a gulf remained between us and this God who loves us so?

God didn’t come in Jesus Christ because everything was good, bright and lovely in the world. He came because we were lost, broken, and without hope. We rebelled, and said “no” to God’s way. But he didn’t give up on us. He came searching for us. God came in Jesus Christ to forgive.

We’re hearing about forgiveness today in terms of monetary debts. We are hearing about student loan forgiveness. The government will forgive the loans that students took out in order to get an education. For many people this is tens of thousands of dollars. It will not have to be paid back. It will be forgiven. Same with PPP loans which were given to businesses during the harshest days of COVID.

This forgiveness means you don’t have to pay. Forgiveness of sins means you don’t have to pay. We are in debt to God and it is a debt we can’t dig ourself out of. Our debt is paid by Jesus Christ and we receive forgiveness.

Zechariah sings about his son and how he will prepare the way of the Lord by giving people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. That is right at the heart of what we celebrate this week. God came in the flesh so that we can know peace with God. He came to reconcile us to him and to rescue us from the greatest enemy which is often ourselves.

Forgiveness is removal. We give it to God and he deals with it.

I can’t do anything about other people’s hearts, but I can do something about my own heart.

Let the valleys of our lives be filled, and the mountains made low so that our lives are level. Let crooked roads be made straight and the rough ways be smooth so that we all see and know the salvation of our God as it comes in Jesus the Christ, our Lord. That may take some excavation work. Sit before the Lord and ask God to help you see what needs correction.

He will pour out his grace and mercy upon you. We give room for God to bring his light. We receive the gift of Jesus. And we take him home.

Prayer: Our Glorious God, thank you that even in all that is lost and uneven in us, you do not leave us. Thank you that in your mercy you do not forsake us. We celebrate Jesus Christ, through whom we have forgiveness of sins. We prepare the way of our hearts for him. For your love, your mercy, and your rescue of us we praise you. Amen.

[1] See Daniel 7-8 [2] N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p.70 [3] New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 115-116 [4] Savior of the World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel, Michael Wilcock, p.37 [5] Luke 3:4-6 [6] Isaiah 57:14-17 [7] Psalm 103:12 [8] Jeremiah 31:34 [9] I John 1:9

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