“Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.” This line from the scribe Baruch, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, makes me think of that song I taught you this fall “Arise, shine, for the light of Christ and the Glory of the Lord shall come upon you”. It’s the perfect setting for our Advent celebrations. Last week we read that Jesus told his followers to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” and this week there is more of that sense of urgency about the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Just this week in Bible Study we read the song of Zechariah. And in our little group we talked about the importance of this song. That after nine months of stunned silence (you have to remember, Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel’s message that Elizabeth would be pregnant), his first words are words of celebration. I almost expect exclamation points at the end of the first line “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.” Arise, O Jerusalem, Blessed be God, we are free! But this song of celebration is also one of prophecy…in it he is commissioning his son John, “God’s Gift”, to be the prophet of the Messiah. John will be the one to prepare the way of the one who will “shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace”. Arise, shine for the light of Christ and the Glory of the Lord shall come upon you.
And it is the adult John that we encounter in the Gospel. The John who has gone out into the wilderness, who is said to have eaten locusts and honey, is proclaiming a new baptism and a new way of understanding the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately for us, the ones who determine the lectionary reading cut the reading a bit short, stopping at verse 6. But if we were to read this part in its entirety (to verse 18), we would have learned a lot more about John’s prophecy. So I will just take a moment to share it with you:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
I know when I first read this, that line “You brood of vipers” hit me in the pit of my stomach. Who are the brood? The religious leaders, the tax collectors, those who have participated in the oppression of others…it includes me, and perhaps some of you. And yet, even though we might find ourselves among the brood of vipers, there is still good news in his prophecy. When asked “What then should we do?” John tells them how to participate in the coming Kingdom of God…give to others, provide for the hungry, don’t take more than you need, live honestly.
For a long time I always thought the Gospel quoted Isaiah as saying “Prepare the way for the Lord”. But it doesn’t. I actually says “Prepare the way of the Lord”. And so until recently, I thought John was the one saying “get ready, Jesus is coming”…prepare for the Lord. But now I’m starting to understand that what John was really saying was “get ready, live as if the Kingdom of God is now”. So how do we prepare the way of the Lord? We give to others, we provide for the hungry, we don’t take more than we need, we live honestly. We stand up and raise our heads. Arise, shine, for the light of Christ and the Glory of the Lord shall come upon you.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.