The Barrel
2nd Sunday in Advent
December 10, 2000
The Lost Messages of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
The Rev. John H. Pavelko
The sermon is still being written but here is a very rough draft

Lost messages
On Sunday December 17, 1903, a young woman received a telegram from her two brothers who were vacationing in North Caroline, "First sustained flight today fifty-nine seconds. Hope to be home by Christmas." In her excitement and joy, she rushed down to the local newspaper and gave the telegram to the editor. The next day in bold letters, the headline read, "Popular Local Bicycle Merchants To Be Home for Holiday." 
We should probably grant that newspaper editor a certain degree of latitude for misunderstanding the message. After all, he was a good friend to Orville and Wilbur Wright and no one had ever flown an airplane before, although many had tried. However, if he had only asked the sister a few questions, Dayton OH would not have missed one of the most important events of the century.i
In the age of email some of us may have forgotten the importance of the telegram at the turn of the last century, so let me give you the gist of some real live conversations that took place between tech support and some inexperienced computer users
Customer: "You've got to fix my computer. I urgently need to print a document, but the computer won't boot properly."
Tech Support: "What does it say?"
Customer: "Something about an error and non-system disk."
Tech Support: "Look at your machine. Is there a floppy inside?"
Customer: "No, but there's a sticker saying there's an Intel inside.
"
Tech Support: "Just call us back if there's a problem. We're open 24 hours."
Customer: "Is that Eastern time?"

Tech Support: "I need you to right-click on the Open Desktop."
Customer: "Ok."
Tech Support: "Did you get a pop-up menu?"
Customer: "No."
Tech Support: "Ok. Right click again. Do you see a pop-up menu?"
Customer: "No."
Tech Support: "Ok, sir. Can you tell me what you have done up until
this point?"
Customer: "Sure, you told me to write 'click' and I wrote 'click'."ii
 The message of Advent is future, not past
It is easy to lose the real meaning of a message regardless of the century or the messages or our technological ignorance. We even lose the meaning of the message in the Church. I think that the season of Advent is a prime time for lost messages. Now before you jump to conclusions, this sermon is a lamentation over the commercialization of Christmas. Several years ago I heard a quote from William Barclay that changed my views on gift buying. The Presbyterian theologian wrote
"If the result of commercialism is no worse than to make a husband give a gift to his wife, and a father a gift to his child, and to enable us all to be extravagantly generous for once, then there could be much worse things."iii
While I do agree that the holidays are much too commercialized, that is not the point of this message.
Today's message is on the lost messages of Advent not Christmas, although the two seasons have become so blurred together that they can scarcely be differentiated. The word Advent means coming. We prepare to celebrate the coming of our Lord, future not past. The season of Advent is supposed to be a time when we look ahead to prepare for the return of our Lord. That is why I like our closing song, "Soon and Very Soon." It is not a Christmas song; it is an Advent song. A song looks ahead to the second coming of our Lord.
Yet, most of the of our Advent activities-the songs we sing, the decorations with which we adorn our sanctuary and the sermons we usually hear focus on the coming of Christ at Bethlehem, an event from the past. Our celebrations preserve the memory of history and the traditions of bygone days. 
While persevering and celebrating are important, we must be careful that we do not dwell in the past. President Harry Truman once said that people who lived in the past reminded him of a popular toy called the Floogie Bird. It was a wooden bird that had a small label around its neck that read, "I fly backwards, I do not care where I'm going. I just want to see where I've been."iv For President Truman those types of people wanted to avoid the present. They wanted to live in the safety of the past. 
I wonder what would happen if we brought our Advent celebrations more into the present. I tried to do that by rewriting the Scripture lessons. Were you surprised to hear the names of politicians who you recognized? How uncomfortable did you feel?
The present requires responsibility and action. The past can be reshaped and re-envisioned to conform to our biases and prejudices. The challenges and problems of the present call us to action. They demand a response. The memories of the past make no such claims.
 

  and honSeveral things happen when we focus on the past with our Advent celebrations. One of them is that we tend to distance ourselves from the event. We do not have to personalize an historical event.
However, Advent is the season in which we are to prepare the future coming of Christ. The past is to be held remembered as we look into the future. 

Today's Scripture lessons mentions two men who were bold enough and courageous enough to look into the future.

The name actually means "my messenger." We all know of parents who have branded their children with unusual names but I doubt whether this prophet's parents actually inflicted their son with this name. I cannot imagine a parents when asked by their relatives and friends, "What is the child's name?", answering "My messenger." More likely, the disciples of this prophet collected the pronouncements of this unknown prophet and complied them under this pseudonym to emphasis that the prophet's words were not his own but came from the mouth of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
The prophet probably appeared in Israel about 450 BC. The exiles had returned and rebuilt the Temple but they still had unfulfilled dreams and unrealized expectations. The nation was in a state of spiritual malaise. They were wondering whether God truly loved them. They questioned whether they were still God's chosen people. They needed a message of encouragement and hope. They needed to be reminded of God's love and mercy.
Throughout the book, the prophet tells that people that God has withheld his blessing because of their insincere worship. They do not offer their sacrifices with heart felt devotion and reverence. They showed disrespect toward God by offering second rate animals and at times not even gathering to worship. God has withheld his blessings because they have withheld their devotion. He warns them that God will indeed appear in their presence but he will come to cleanse them and to purify their hearts.
The prophet does an interesting play on words to introduce his warning.
"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.

Malachi, whose name means messenger, announces the coming of a messenger who will prepare the way for yet another messenger. One certainly begins to anticipate a message from all these messengers. The message finally comes in the hymn of Zechariah.
A New Word for an Old World
Pascal's Penesses - we avoid living in the present
Truman - Floogie Bird I fly backwards to see where I have been
 The message of Advent requires us to change
 The message of Advent 
 The Messenger and the Message
The song is a response to the birth of his son John. Zechariah, you may recall. was an old man well past the age when he could expect to bear a son. He had served faithfully in the Temple all his life. He had only one regret,-the Lord had never blessed him with children. But then one day an angel appeared while he was being faithful to his calling and told him about the miracle. Elizabeth would bear and son and he would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hears of the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the just.
Zechariah did not believe the angel at first and needed a sign. So the angel obliged and Zechariah lost his voice. In silence, the old priest waited for the promised son. Finally, the day arrived and after long months of dumbness, Zechariah is given his voice allowing him to sing a hymn of praise. It is not an ordinary hymn, but one with exceptional rich insight and heart felt gratitude. The song begins with the word, "blessed." From the Latin Translation it was been called since early times, "Benedictus" It resembles the prophetic writings of the OT prophets. v
The salvation of God's people is the theme of the hymn. It tells of a God who in mercy brings salvation to his people. He utters praise to God who after so many centuries has again visited his people and revealed himself in saving acts. The priest undoubtedly thought in terms of a political liberation of Israel but he also includes words that convey a spiritual liberation from the powers of guilt and sin. This was the message that the messenger was to announce. And the messenger was to be his son. He was the one who was to go before the Lord and prepare the way.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 
This message of salvation is still the message that must precede any celebration of the birth of Christ. Yet, I am afraid that the true message of salvation or the true message of Christmas is often lost through misinterpretation, misunderstanding, mispronouncement and misrepresentation. Let us consider how this may occur.
 The Lost Messages of Christmas
Implied in meaning of salvation is the message of catastrophe. Both Malachi and Zechariah would have easily understood this. They lived in times of foreign rule, when their country was dominated, controlled, and manipulated by another nation. They could not truly enjoy their freedom. The religious and political leaders always had to be careful of what they did and what they said. However, as servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, Malachi, and Zechariah could see that the catastrophe extended beyond the political affairs of the nations.
The world had fallen into a spiritual catastrophe and every man and women was suffering under the effects of the fall. The catastrophe was caused by a simple act of disobedience that attempted to circumvent or displace God. Now all parts of creation have been jarred out of their harmonious original and are in discord.
The transparent complementarily of male and female is darkened into rivalry and accusation. The cool evening conversation between God and humans is distorted into furtive evasions. The "fit" between heaven and earth, between creation and creature and Creator, is dislocated: form no longer matches function, result no longer flows from purpose. Instead their is pain, travail, sweat, death.
But this message gets lost in the drumbeat of optimism. The popular belief is that however bad things seem from time to tome, there is no catastrophe. Things will get better if we maintain a positive spirit. They point to the beauty displayed in the world, to the isolated and infrequent acts of kindness and compassion. To admit the reality of the catastrophe would require dealing with God. Anything is preferable to that. So the world edits the evidence and manipulates the data. They reduce their expectations to a comfortable level so that the chaos and confusion can be maintained at manageable levels.
However, each day I read about events that remind me that something is wrong. This week I received an email asking for prayer for a friend's daughter. The little girl developed a rare bacterial condition and was fighting for her life. However, even if she lives the MDs are uncertain as to whether she will ever have the use of her legs. As I prayed I wondered aloud why? Why should a little girl have to suffer such a traumatic illness. Little girls are supposed to be decorating Christmas trees in December not lying in a hospital bed.
Latter I read on the Reuters new service about a couple who had been arrested for sacrificing their three children in a bizarre ritual that they believed would bring them wealth and prosperity. They led police to the grizzly graves that held the bodies of their own children.
Nothing is exempt from the catastrophe. Nothing is innocent in the catastrophe. Heaven and earth are implicated. Bacteria foul the bloodstream sickening sinner and saint....And human beings, created in "the image of God" discover within themselves, often in shocked horror, a "heart desperately wicked." vi
But the true message of Christmas is a message of our need for salvation from the chaos
Humanity is not doomed to live in this catastrophe. There is a God who saves and this God is coming to
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

But once again the message becomes distorted. Moralists contend that by generously applying acts of well-intentioned goodwill to the slagheaps of injustice, wickedness, and corruption, the world will be gradually put in the right. Technologists believe that by vigorously applying scientific intelligence to the problems of poverty, pollution and neurosis the problems of the world will gradually decrease and a utopia will be born. Both will acknowledge the dangerous problems of our society but both believe that these problems can be overcome.
I suppose some would accuse me of being ungracious for my lack of enthusiasm for either approach. After all, these people are doing something. But the biblical record informs me that these good actions are ignoring or circumventing or even denying God.
Their efforts to live well, to help others and improve the world are fueled by a determination, conscious or unconscious to keep God out of who they are and what they are doing....This... is so pervasive, advertises itself so attractively and chalks up so many awards, honors and achievements, that it is difficult not to be impressed and then in the general euphoria, to go along with it.vii
Once I become enthralled by the power of this age I deny my need for a savior. Zechariah song brings me back to the realization that I cannot rescue myself from the catastrophe. I cannot save myself from the chaos. My salvation must come from the hands of another. 
The true message of Christmas is a message that a savior comes to bring salvation.
The message of salvation, the message of a savior. The message of Christmas is a rather simple one, but people will do anything to avoid, distort or diffuse it  so that they will not have to deal with the author of the message.
So God promises to send a messenger to keep us always dealing with the message. This was John's task. He was to prepare the way by teaching the people about their salvation through the forgiveness of sin. He was to keep them honest before the catastrophe. To remind them that they were living in a catastrophe and that their only hope of salvation was from a Savior.

i Glendon Harris, "Getting the message for Christmas", Pulpit Resource, Vol. 10, No. 4, 34.
ii GCFL December 8, 2000, received from [avni] Funny-Files list
iii William Barclay in "Daily Celebration," quote in Christianity Today-Vol. 38, #14
iv Harry Truman quoted by Sermon Illustrations. Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/past_living_in.htm. 
v Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary of the Gospel of Luke, NIC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 92.
vi Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, (HarperCollins: San Francisco, 1990), p153.
vii Ibid. 154.
The Lost Messages Of Advent Page 6:6

Crossroads Presbyterian Church
Walled Lake MI
December 10, 2000 The Rev. John H. Pavelko

 


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1445 Welch Road
Walled Lake MI 48390

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