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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 3:1-6

Would you be ready?

Three Predictions

Prophet Jack positions himself on a downtown street corner in Seattle everyday to give his predictions about the up and coming sports events to anyone who will drop some loose change in his cup. With a theatrical flair, he thrusts his arms into the air bends backward and gazes into the sky. He pauses a moment and then says, “I see and I say.” The accuracy of his predictions has made him such a celebrity in Seattle that the station manager of KQMO assigns Lanie Kerrigan to do a human interest story on him.

Lanie is a rising star who is waiting and hoping to be hired by a national network. Lanie has devoted a great deal of time and attention to sculpturing herself as perfectly as her bleached blond hair. She labors in a gym for hours to keep muscles firm and the cellulite at bay. She has a handsome and famous boyfriend who plays for the Seattle Mariners. But Lanie's fast track to success is interrupted by Prophet Jack who predicts three things during their interview—the Seahawks would beat the Denver Broncos 16-13, it would hail the next day and that Lanie would not get the promotion because she would be dead in seven days. Lanie does not take the prophecies seriously until the first two come true.

Prophet Jack is a pretty good representation of the Old Testament prophets. They were not sent by God just to predict future events. Their calling was to interpret the significance of coming events to provoke people to return to a life of obedience. They were more “They do more "forth-telling" about the present than "fore-telling" about the future, more prognosis than prediction.” God does not stand on the sidelines of the universe wringing his hands in despair, idly watching his people flounder. He is the “hound of heaven.” He takes an active role in sending people to encourage his people not to despair, or to warn them when they have wandered away from his commandments.

Biblical Prophets

The first prophecy was uttered by God when he warned Adam and Eve that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would surely die. Abraham was the first person to ever be called a prophet although he never made any predictions. The prophet institution was really shaped by Moses who was called a prophet without peer. After Moses God raised up both men and women to the prophetic office Deborah (Judges 4:4), Nathan, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Nehemiah (6:14), Isaiah, Ezekiel, Obidiah, and others. Speaking for God, Jeremiah reminded the people that God was actively at work through these men and women. “From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets” (Jeremiah 7:25). 

The last of the OT prophets, Malachi, appeared about 100 years after the exiles returned from their Babylonian captivity. After Malachi, the prophetic voice was silent for 450 years until John appeared in the desert. Luke wants us to know that John's appearance was a historical reality not a fabricated myth. He identifies both the political and religious leaders of the day.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—

After naming the political leaders, Luke then notes the religious.

during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas

By doing this, Luke not only gives us the historical setting but he also tells us that the prophet word does not come through the political or religious establishment.

It did not come from someone dressed in fashionable clothes who lived in an expensive palace, ... Nor from a business board room, university laboratory, ski lodge or power lunch.

The word of the Lord came from a man who had renounced the privileges of his family. It came from a man who had renounced the comfort of the high society. It came from a man who renounced the safety and security of Jerusalem. As with Prophet Jack, the word of the Lord came from an unlikely person. It came from a man who was willing to deliver an unpopular message with zealot-like passion and conviction.

Luke tells us that John's message was rather simple. He called the people to repentance. The underlying Greek word for repentance conveys the idea of a radical change of both our thoughts and behavior. It requires more than just saying “I'm sorry.”

Several years ago Phil Collins, drummer and singer, released a song Something Happened on the Way to Heaven, in which he sang

We had a life, we had a love,
But you don't know what you've got 'til you lose it
Well that was then and this is now
And I want you back
How many times do I have to say I'm sorry

John the Baptist would say tell him that it is not about saying your sorry but showing your sorry by your actions.

We struggle to apply those words for several reasons. First we are very adept at focusing on the easy stuff. We normally focus on the sins that are easy to change. I made the mistake of listing among my New Year's Eve resolutions that I was going to decrease how much TV that I watched because the programming had become so laced with morals and values that were counter to Jesus' teaching. I believe that TV, radio and even novels can have a dramatic influences on attitudes, beliefs and behavior. However, my attempt to eliminate impure thoughts was really not that difficult. The Wenatchee Valley did not have any TV antennas so the signals from Spokane and Seattle were quite weak. Even on a good day watching TV was more like listening to radio. We also only had a 13” TV so even if I rented a movie it was really not that enjoyable to watch. The bottom line was that my most flagrant sin was not wasting my time watching TV.

Another reason we are not very good at repenting is we focus on our personal preferences. The person who has a distaste for whiskey requires everyone to be a teetotaler. The one who hates meats advocates for a vegan lifestyle. And the cyclist denounces gas guzzling SUVs. This has always been a problem for the church. A major section of the book of Corinthians is devoted to this matter. The issue revolved around eating meat that had been previously used in the local pagan temples. Only a portion of the animal would be destroyed by the sacrifice so the temple priests would sell the remains of the animal in the market. The Jews would not eat animals that had been previously used in a pagan sacrifice. This did not trouble the Greek converts. This became quite a problem in churches that had both Jews and non-Jews. Both were tempted to accuse the other breaking the commands.

John does not give his disciples a great deal of direction on how to deal with such issues. Later in the chapter he personalizes his instruction. He tells them that the man who has two shirts to share one with the man who has none, and the person who has food to share should with the person who is hungry. He also tells a tax collector to collect no more than the required assessment and a solider to stop bullying and to be satisfied with their pay. These admonitions may be obvious to us but were actually quite radical. Tax collectors amassed great wealth by overcharging and soldiers supplemented their income by plundering defenseless citizens even in times of peace. However, a more militant faction in Israel would have insisted that both the tax collector and the soldier resign from their positions even if threatened with imprisonment. Anything less would have been considered collaborating with the enemy.

The absence of a precise prescription, however, allows us to apply John's call to repentance to our own unique setting. Each generation of new believers is called to examine their lives in light of God's word. The prophets voice is constantly challenging the status quo. Social norms and mores must constantly be examined and reexamined to ensure that they align with the teachings of Scripture. The same admonition applies to our personal lives because John's message reminds us that we should never assume that obedience to the teachings of Christ. We should never be satisfied with our current efforts to live the Christian life.

We also fail to adequately express our repentance because we are so focused on living in the present that we lose sight of the eternal consequences of our actions. Since we do not have a prophet telling us that we only have a seven days to live we think that we have more than enough time to change our behavior, to reorder our priorities, to make amends for our past transgressions.

Repentance is never an easy process but when given serious attention it can have stunning results as seen in the life of Nelson Mandela. In 1964 Mandela was convicted of plotting acts of sabotage against the apartheid government of South Africa. He never denied his crimes of treason. At the time of his conviction he did not offer a public apology. He concluded that the only way to end white supremacy in South Africa was through violent means. Mandela spent the next 27 years in prison. For the next three years he sought to end the racist regime through negotiations. At times he would become impatient and pull out of the process. After the assassination of a key black leader and the looming threat of nation-wide violence erupting, Mandela concluded that peaceful negotiations were the only way forward. Speaking to the entire nation he said:

Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. ...Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.

While some violence followed, the peace process resumed and a final agreement was reached. On the one year anniversary of Chris Hani's assassination, open democratic elections were held in South Africa. Two years later Mandela encouraged black South Africans to support the previously hated national rugby team the Springboks. After the Springboks won an epic final over New Zealand, Mandela presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, wearing a Springbok shirt with Pienaar's own number 6 on the back.

Mandela could have let hatred of his white oppressors fester in his soul. He could have refused to offer forgiveness. He could have continued his campaign of violence as a tactic of revenge for 27 years of imprisonment but he did not. He choose to repent and change and by his actions he united a nation that had suffered centuries of racial hatred and bigotry..

I wonder what we could accomplish if we took heed of the words of John and spent time celebrating the coming of our Lord by repenting of our past.

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