by Scott Hoezee
As a general rule, I am quite wary of sermons or speeches in which the preacher or speaker begins by giving a Webster's Dictionary definition of a word--in my experience, folks who need a dictionary to find something to say often end up having very little to say! Nevertheless, on this one occasion, I'll take the risk of opening this sermon with a little Webster's definition of the word "visit." But the reason I'm doing so is because of the quite humorous way this word is laid out in the dictionary: "visit" is assigned three meanings, the second of which is "to stay with someone as a guest." But the very next meaning is "to afflict or trouble"! And as many of us know too well, sometimes those two senses of the word "visit" have a funny way of overlapping!
Someone once said that visits always bring pleasure because even if the arrival of a certain visitor didn't make you happy, his departure will! The comedic pianist Victor Borge also touched on this topic when he once noted that the mythic figure of Santa Claus has the right idea: you should visit people just once a year. And, of course, a long-standing staple of other comedians is that long list of jokes about receiving a visit from your mother-in-law!
But all joking aside, we know that although visits can be, and often are, very casual matters, sometimes visits become vastly more meaningful. Sadly, those of us who are younger and altogether too busy sometimes complain about how much time someone's visit took out of our hectic schedule. As I noted in a sermon on the stewardship of time last September, our Elders regularly lament at Consistory meetings how difficult it is these days to set up family visits because you can scarcely find a time anymore when an entire family is home. But for others of us, visits are precious, and we can scarcely get enough of them. Just watch the way an older person's eyes light up when she tells you about the visit she got yesterday from a grandson or how wonderful it was that Pastor Bob took time to drop in for a visit. For some of us, a visit can be the difference between a good day and a bad one.
Sometimes whether we view a visit as welcome or unwelcome depends on who the visitor is: there are some people you always enjoy seeing and others whose visit you could do without frankly. But other times our assessment of a given visit is colored not by the visitor but by our situation. For instance, think back to when you were in elementary school. Suppose one day after school you were told by your mother that the principal just called and would be stopping by that evening after supper. How would you react?
Well, if you knew that you were in trouble because of something that happened at school that day, this visit would make you very anxious very fast. But if you knew that you recently entered a national competition on behalf of your school, you might become very excited at the thought that perhaps you had won, and the principal was coming over to make the big announcement in person. In both scenarios, the visitor would be the same person. But your situation would determine whether this person's visit would be lovely or ugly.
By now, however, you may be wondering why I'm talking about this seeing as our passage from Luke 1 never once mentions the word "visit." But that's true of only the English translation. In the original Greek of Zechariah's song, a very interesting word meaning "to visit" crops up twice, first in verse 68 and then again in verse 78. Zechariah is singing about a divine visit of momentous proportion--a visit his son, John, will prepare the world to receive in the right way. The Greek word he uses is loaded with grace. This same word was used at other times to describe the way someone might visit a lonely person or a widow in distress. This is a healing kind of visit, in other words. This is a type of visit motivated by an awareness that someone is hurting, and so you want to see if you can help.
God is visiting this world with a deep-seated desire to help. But are we ready to receive this visit in the right way? Because no matter how well-motivated a given visit may be, the person receiving it needs to be in the right frame of mind. Eight-and-a-half years ago when I first came to Calvin Church, I spent my first month here visiting as many of our elderly members as I could. Mostly I was warmly received. But I remember the reaction of one lady, who died many years ago now. When I knocked on her door at Raybrook, she quickly opened it but then suspiciously said, "Yes?" "Hi," I said, "I'm Rev. Scott Hoezee, the new pastor at Calvin Church, and I just wanted to drop in to say 'Hello.'" "Well," she snapped, "now you've said it and goodbye to you," and she slammed the door in my face! (You should know that weeks later, after Rev. Kiekover chided her for this, she did apologize to me, though she assured me "I had my reasons!")
No matter who the visitor is, you need to be ready to receive him or her the right way. Now on one level, perhaps much of this seems desperately mundane. But think about it: of all the time during December that you spend preparing to pay visits to other people or to receive visits when guests come into your home, when was the last time you thought of Jesus himself as a kind of visitor from the outside? We devote long hours during Advent to preparing for the visits of others: we bake cookies, wash the sheets on the guest bed, purchase presents for those out-of-town grandchildren who will be coming for a visit. But how much thought or time or energy do we devote to that one Visitor, without whom there would be no holiday in the first place?
But perhaps this still seems off-the-mark to you. You might point out, for instance, that the reason we don't think of Jesus as a visitor is because he is a resident in our hearts all the time. When your wife comes home from work each evening or when your children get off the school bus, you don't see them as visitors because they live in that house. So also with our Lord: for those of us who believe in him all the time anyway, it's difficult to view Jesus on a par with Aunt Millie from California who visits just once a year.
And true enough there is something to that line of thought. Nevertheless, this morning I want to suggest that seeing Jesus as a kind of holy Visitor might help us cut through the layers of familiar holiday routine so that we can get back to the core of Advent. Because too often we forget the biblical idea that the incarnation of God's only Son was a kind of invasion of this world.
I mentioned earlier that the dictionary reminds us that "visit" can mean a guest in your house but "visit" can also mean inflicting trouble. Those of you who remember the language of the King James Version of the Bible know that you could often read verses about God's "visiting the iniquity" of evil people and of God's "visiting the transgressions of the wicked with punishment." When Jesus paid his ultimate visit to this world, that dual meaning of "visit" was very much on display: depending on who a given person was and how he or she received Jesus, the Lord's visit could result in either great joy or great sorrow.
Yet over the centuries even the church has allowed the message of Advent to become mostly about joy at the expense of any talk of judgment. In Zechariah's song there is a lot of talk about salvation but there is also some talk about punishment for God's enemies. We may sing "Joy the world, the Lord is come," but we need to face up to the fact that there are any number of people in this world who actually find no joy at all in the Christian message. They hate it. And they don't want this Jesus to be called their "Lord" in any sense.
That's why all four gospels talk about John the Baptist and his fiery message of repentance. As we noted last week, two of the four gospels do not mention Jesus' birth at all. But Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all recognized that no gospel would be complete without John the Baptist. A gospel may skip Christmas but it may not skip John. Why? Because as Zechariah knew already when John was just eight days old, John was going to be the necessary advance man to get the world ready to receive Jesus.
If Jesus was the one who would plant the mustard seed of the kingdom into the soil of this world, then John was to be the one who did the hard work of plowing the soil to get ready for that planting. John would be the one who would sink down his plow blade into human hearts that were the spiritual equivalent of a parched field whose dirt had long ago hardened into something resembling concrete. If Jesus was God's divine Visitor to this world, then John was the one who was sent to prepare the way.
Because God knew and John the Baptist knew that as with my analogy earlier about a visit from the school principal, so with the visit of God's Son: how the visit would be received would very much depend on people's situation. If they were eager to hear the good news that God's tender mercies were available to forgive their sins, then they'd be glad to hear just that message from the lips of Jesus. But if people didn't think they had a problem with sin, then the visit of God's Son would be merely annoying and a waste of their time.
As we have noted together in past years, the Advent Season in our Christian tradition is only one-half about what happened in Bethlehem long ago. The other half of Advent focuses on the next time Jesus visits this planet in person when he comes again to judge the living and the dead. Those of us who regularly attend the evening service say that line from the Apostles' Creed every week: "He will come again to judge the living and the dead." Yet I'd dare say that precious few of us spend much time during December associating that second coming in judgment with anything having to do with Christmas!
What the world, and sadly also the Church, too often tries to celebrate is the arrival of God's Son in our world yet without letting John the Baptist come first. None of us wants any Christmas guests to show up at our homes before we've prepared for the visit by cleaning, baking, and decorating. Yet we seem quite willing at times to let Jesus visit us without first letting John the Baptist clean house for us as God sent him to do.
Assuming that you find this line of thought a bit troubling, it seems appropriate to conclude this sermon with some ideas on how we can keep a better focus during Advent. The rest of society may or may not be a lost cause in terms of recovering the real meaning of Advent, but if the world is ever going to gain a keener insight into this, it will presumably have to start with our having just such insight ourselves. So how can we get ready?
Well, for one thing, we could maybe spend some time examining our lives and repenting of the sins we find there. In this month when we do a lot of singing about calm, bright, silent, and serene images, maybe we would do well to think about all those times this past year when our family life was very far from calm or serene. Maybe we need to be honest about those times when we lost our temper and so frightened our children and wounded our spouse. Maybe we need to remember with sorrow those times when we talked back to our parents or slammed a bedroom door in anger because we didn't get our way. I realize these are not very "Christmasy" kinds of thoughts, but that's just the problem with our world's saccharine view of Christmas: it prevents John the Baptist from pointing out the very things Jesus came to help us fix, repair, and so restore back to what God wants for us.
Similarly, perhaps Advent is a time to repent of those occasions in this past year when the church asked something of us but we said No because frankly we don't want to be so tied down on those all-important weekends when there is so much more to do than just be in church. Perhaps Advent is a time to realize that sometimes our tongues are just too sharp, and so we've complained about people and things in this congregation in cutting ways that not only failed to build up the Body of Christ but actually tore it down a bit. Perhaps Advent is a time to re-assess the pattern of our lives in terms of how our work too often drains us of so much time and energy that we have literally nothing left to give to our families.
Last Sunday morning I mentioned that for many people what constitutes a "good Christmas" is just getting through the holidays with minimal conflict. This isn't the time for confrontation--it's tough to sing the average Christmas carol through clenched teeth. Yet John the Baptist exists as the gospel's necessary Advent pre-cursor precisely to confront us, to bring us into conflict with our own selves, to clench our teeth a bit so that we just maybe can repent, can change our lives and center ourselves on the holiness of God that invaded the world when Jesus visited this planet.
Commentators note that beautiful as Zechariah's song is, in a way it provides a kind of pause--almost an interruption--in the narrative flow of Luke. After all, just look what comes next in chapter 2: the most famous version of the Christmas story! This is what we are all so eager to get to this month--indeed, the Christmas season keeps getting longer as retailers and even we ourselves begin decking things out for Christmas well before Thanksgiving even arrives. We can't wait to jump into Luke 2 to see again that manger, that baby, those shepherds, and the angels dancing in the night sky.
But Luke forces us to pause. Just before Zechariah's song, everyone was asking a question we too seldom ask in Advent: What's going on here? What does this all really mean? Zechariah's song is, in part, an answer to that question as Zechariah weaves together a rich tapestry of biblical images, including God's covenant with Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, the stories of King David as well as rich imagery like the rising sun from heaven and the path of peace. The story told in Luke 2 is beautiful, vital, and worthy of our celebration. But we won't be ready for the visit of that Christ Child until we take a cue from Luke and so pause, take time for a few deep and reflective breaths, and so ponder the message John the Baptist must bring to us first.
We didn't talk at all this morning about the rather humorous story about the naming of Zechariah and Elizabeth's baby. The social custom of the day was to name children after a parent or grandparent, and so it was quite a sensation when Elizabeth came up with the name "John" in that no one in the whole clan had ever bore that particular name. Granted, it's a lovely name meaning something like "Yahweh has shown favor," which God certainly had in giving a child to Elizabeth in her old age.
Still, acknowledging God was one thing, but following social custom was a rather more pressing matter! So the neighbors and family turn to Zechariah, who inexplicably had turned into a mute the last nine months. But they figured he could put an end to this John nonsense so that the accepted social custom could prevail. To their further astonishment, not only does Zechariah back his wife up, he no sooner does so and he finds his voice back! Clearly something quite unusual and divine was going on--something that went far beyond what was expected or socially acceptable.
All these centuries later, we need to let John shake us up, too, as God's way to get us ready for the visit of Jesus the Christ. Doing so is going to go beyond our Christmas customs and the socially acceptable ways of talking about the holiday, but if we let God's Spirit guide us in listening to John's way of preparing the way of the Lord, then when the Lord God of Israel comes, we'll be ready. Indeed, more than that, we will be standing on tip-toes as we stare out the front window of our lives, eagerly watching the front walkway for that one Advent Visitor who alone can light up our darkness and lead the way to paths of peace and wholeness. Amen.
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the Sunday of the Birth of John the Baptist
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