Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from December 5, 2021
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist is undoubtedly one of the most curious and enigmatic figures in all of scripture. We do not know a great deal about him, but we do know that the evangelists who wrote the gospels took John’s work very seriously and gave him a prominent role in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
What we learn about John is fairly consistent from one gospel to the other, and is fully evident in the Gospel according to St. Luke. In fact, Luke tells us more about John than any other gospel narrative.
Only in Luke do we learn that John was the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth; who turns out to be, coincidentally, the cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. At John’s birth, his father Zechariah uttered a prophesy proclaiming that his son would be called prophet of the Most High. His child would herald the coming of the Messiah who would bring salvation and forgiveness of sins.
After John’s birth we really hear nothing more of him, until he emerges from the wilderness preaching a baptism for forgiveness of sins. Scripture tells us the multitudes came out from Jerusalem to hear him speak, but they received an unlikely welcome. He denounces them as a brood of vipers and calls upon them to repent their sins and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
As the people debated the identity of John and his mission, Jesus appears and also asks to be baptized. John tells the people he saw the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus and that Jesus is the long awaited Son of God. The last thing we hear of John is that he is imprisoned by Herod who at the request of his wife, Herodias, has John executed.
From the beginning of his life to his death, one theme is raised up again and again by both the Biblical narrative and John himself. His role is to announce the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the voice crying in the wilderness who proclaims the coming of the salvation of God.
Traditionally, on this the second Sunday of Advent, the person and ministry and message of John the Baptist are proclaimed to challenge us to renew a our baptismal vows and open our lives to the coming of Jesus Christ.
If we were to summarize the life of John or distill the essence of his message, the one word that occur again and again is that of prepare. John came to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. Today, we use John to cause us to prepare our lives for the coming of Christ.
This theme of preparation works itself out in many ways. In the Lutheran church it is our custom to remember and recognize the contribution of many individuals to work of the church. On December 11th, the life of Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, a nineteenth century missionary to India is recalled. Now most of us would respond this information by saying Lars Olsen who?
Obviously Lars Olsen Skefsrud is not a familiar name among those remembered as saints of the church, but his life story is an interesting one. He was born in Norway in 1840. At the age of 19 he robbed a bank and was sent to prison. In prison he began to read religious books. Visits with a pastor who came to the prison revived Skefsrud’s desire to become a pastor. Eventually, he was released from prison, went back to school, was ordained and became a missionary in northern India. There among the Santal people, he helped them develop a written language and translated the gospels, the catechism and hymns into the Santal tongue. The Christian community he founded in India continues to flourish.
Today we mention the name of Lars Olsen Skefsrud for one particular reason. He is the epitome of some one who took very seriously what it means to be a John the Baptist in his own place and time. That is, he repented, sought forgiveness for himself and turned around his personal life, just as John calls us to do. Secondly, he took up the ministry and prepared the way for others to come to Christ, as John did.
Now a question must be asked. And that question is, how do we respond to the call of John for repentance and preparation to receive the Christ. Most of us would probably respond in one of two ways. First, we would say that we have already received Christ; so why should we prepare. Or, secondly, we might think the coming of Christ requires no real preparation in any event. Can’t we just believe and let it go at that?
My response to these two question will come from an unusual source. I once read a book titled, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, by Twyla Tharp. Tharp is one of America’s greatest dance choreographers. She lives and work in New York City, though her dance company has performed with ballet troupes around the world.
In her book Tharp addresses the issue of what to do when you find yourself at a creative dead end and in a rut. Now on the surface of things a choreographer addressing the problem of a creative dead end may seem far removed from John the Baptist and his call for us to prepare for the coming of Christ.
I would argue, however, that hitting the wall creatively, and being in a spiritually rut have certain important similarities. In both cases, we are called to respond and change, whether we cannot or will not. In her book Tharp talks about the need for preparation. Tharp says it is obvious a dancer needs preparation. She said, “I don’t know any virtuoso who would take the stage without preparation and practice.” The same can be said for Christian discipleship.
Sometimes as Christians we think we can lay off the practice of our faith for weeks or months or years at a time, and then come back find our spiritual self as we left it. Today, John the Baptist reminds that the spiritual side of our is like the physical side. We need to exercise both. John the Baptist calls you back to your spiritual preparation this Advent. He calls you to think deeply about your life and to repent and change your ways that Christ will be welcomed. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.