Hope, Preparation, and Salvation
The Rev. Garfield Wu
December 9, 2018
Have you received the emergency broadcast system text through your phone and heard the alarm around the city a couple ago.
I thought of this when I thought of the role of John the Baptist in the Advent drama. John was assigned by God the task of alerting the people of Israel that the Messiah was on his way. Some listened and some did not.
We think of John the Baptist as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. How appropriate such a view is for this second Sunday of Advent for without Christ the world is indeed a wilderness. Without Christ, the world is a prisoner of war camp and we are enslaved by the power of sin. Without Christ, this is a cold, dark meaningless world.
In a book named the Witch and the Wardrobe, a little girl Lucy was trapped into a palace by a witch called the White Witch. She was told “It’s she who makes here always winter, “Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”
It is a wonderful description of a world without Christ: “Always winter and never Christmas . . .”
Go back today’s gospel “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar . . .,” says the Gospel of Luke, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wildness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book . . . of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
John’s message was a word of warning, but ultimately it was a word of hope. Repent . . . our salvation is at hand. John’s task was to prepare the world for the coming of the Christ. Today we read his words with joy as we prepare our hearts for the Christmas season and all it means to our faith. John’s first message was simple. It is hope.
Let me share a story of hope with you.
Ernest Gordon, at one time chaplain at Yale University, wrote a book called Through the River of the Kwai, which shared his experience as a prisoner in that camp. It is a story of utter degradation and desolation.
Gordon says that when the young soldiers in that camp realized that they were going to be there for a while, they began to have Bible studies and to pray diligently that they would be delivered from their circumstances much as Israel prayed for deliverance from Rome. He said that, at first, their praying for deliverance was shallow and superficial. They railed against God for letting them be in that situation. As time went on, however, something happened and their railing against God disappeared. They began to move toward a more mature faith. They began to pray about their relations with one another. No longer was it “Why, God?” but it was “How should we act, God?”
Gordon said the most spiritual moment of that experience was Christmas 1944 right before the end of world war two. Out of deference to the holiday, the men were not given work detail that day and were given a bit more food. He said that as they moved around the prison yard, they sensed that things were somehow different. In one of the barracks (basically a thatched hut with a dirt floor and open sides where the men slept), one soldier began to sing a Christmas carol. It was echoed over the infirmary where men were dying. Then all around the camp, the men began to sing, and those who could, those who were ambulatory, came to the parade field and sat there in a great circle. Gordon said, “God touched us that day.”
He called it the most sacred event that he had ever been involved with. No preaching, nothing of the usual church things, just men united by their common misery, singing of God being with them and God’s sovereignty. And he said, “We were touched by God.”
In a sense those soldiers experienced the coming of the Messiah to their prisoner of war camp there in Burma. They experienced a momentary shining of light into their darkness. Let me ask this question, have you ever experienced that sometime when you had a difficult time in your life. You had gotten to a point where you were about to give up, but suddenly you felt the touch of God in the same way those soldiers experienced God’s touch? During the advent season, please do reflect the moments when God presented in your life. That is part of what Christmas is all about. It’s not really about glitter and expensive gifts. It’s about people in all kinds of circumstances experiencing God’s presence. John’s message, first of all, is a message of hope. The Messiah is coming.
John’s second message is prepare the way. In the words of Isaiah, he was the “voice of one calling in the wildness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Now how do we prepare for the coming of the Messiah? We do so first by repenting. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Beginning with the seventh verse of this same chapter John speaks very explicitly about ways people are to prepare. The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same. Tax collectors were told not to collect any more than they are required to. Soldiers are told not to extort money and not to falsely accuse people. People needed to prepare their hearts and their lives to receive the Messiah through repentance, for his was not a kingdom of the flesh, but of the spirit.
John warned the people of Israel that the Messiah was coming. John wanted the people to repent and be baptized because he wanted them to experience the richness and the joy of that coming. Remember how Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”? God wants to break into our lives and fill us with His love, but without our willingness to repent, God is kept out.
Let me share another story with you, see how spirit worked in our world. There was a little girl named Stephanie who was orphaned after both of her parents died. With no other relatives to care for her, she was put into foster care. Eventually she came to live with the Weavers. Mrs. Weaver found Stephanie sullen, withdrawn, and uncommunicative. She asked to see her records. The first foster family wrote, “Stephanie is a quiet, shy girl.” The second family wrote, “She obeys, but she doesn’t participate much in the family.” Mrs. Weaver doubted if Stephanie would be with them long; she seemed so unreceptive. Still, she decided to keep Stephanie through the Christmas holiday and then talk to her social worker about a transfer to another home.
At Christmas, the Weavers exchanged a number of lovely presents, including gifts for Stephanie. Then Stephanie handed Mrs. Weaver a brown paper sack with a rough drawing of a Christmas scene on it. Mrs. Weaver opened it to find a rhinestone necklace with a couple of stones missing and a little bottle of perfume, half empty. Compared with all those well-packed and good Christmas gifts, or the gifts fit for the Christmas. It was an awkward moment, what would you do in that situation. Mrs. Weaver reflected that she wasn’t sure how would she respond at the moment, but she thought about Christmas God touched her at the moment, She gave a warm hug to Stephanie, and put on the necklace and dabbed perfume behind her ear. Stephanie looked her eyes with tears and said, “Mom’s necklace looks good on you. You smell good like she did too.” Mrs. Weaver’s heart melted. She vowed to renew her efforts to love Stephanie, and she succeeded! By the following Christmas, Stephanie had become her lovely and happy daughter in home.
God seeks to break into our dark worlds, just as Mrs. Weaver sought to break into Stephanie’s. One way we can help that happen is through repentance. John’s message was, “The Messiah is coming, prepare the way for him through baptism and repentance.
The third message John sent to us is: When we’ve repented and been baptized, we will be ready for God’s salvation. “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
Salvation is what the Christmas story is all about. God enters the manger of Bethlehem in order to save God’s people from their sins. When we receive that grace, that peace, that love then we are empowered to live new lives.
Here is another story happened in Kansas City years ago. During the Christmas season, someone started a tradition simply known as the “Secret Santa.” Every Christmas, this “Secret Santa” seeks out people who are down and out, and he quietly slips them an envelope with a brand new $100 bill slipped inside. The recipients are usually astonished at this unmerited act of generosity.
A few years ago, someone tracked down this “Secret Santa” and asked him, “Why do you do this?” The man replied how life had blessed him with an extremely successful business venture. But this was not always the case. He was an out‑of‑work salesman who was reduced to living out of his car. One morning he had not eaten for two days. He was incredibly hungry, so hungry that he walked into a restaurant to order breakfast with no intent of paying for it. He couldn’t! He had no money, but he was so hungry.
As he hungrily ate his breakfast, he wondered how he was going to pay for this meal, or how he was going to get out of the restaurant. When the bill came, he fumbled around in his pockets pretending to have lost his wallet. The owner of the restaurant had already sized him up and knew he didn’t have the money.
The owner came around the counter, approached the man, and bent down as if to pick up something. The owner said to the man, “Well, looks like you dropped this $20 bill.” Now the man had enough to pay for breakfast and a little more to keep for the road. He never forgot this totally undeserved act of generosity and goodness. He now gives to others as someone once gave to him.
This Advent season we need to reflect on the entire Christ event.
Christ came into the world to save us from the power of sin, he brings hope to us. The Messiah is coming. Receive and Welcome Jesus into our heart, Repent and be baptized. Then we will surely see God’s salvation.
Remember the three message John sent to us, hope, preparation and salvation.
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.