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Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Luke 3:1-6

        By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us.

        By the extravagant love of our God,
the ever-present Word will become flesh and live among us.

        By the steadfast faithfulness of our God,
the promises of old will be fulfilled for us:

That we who are poor will hear good news.
We who are imprisoned will be freed from what binds us.
We who are blind will see.
We who are oppressed will know justice.
We who don’t have two dimes to rub together or even one document to make us legal will sit under our own fig tree in our own yard at our own house in a land that welcomes us.
We who mourn will be comforted.
We who are a hundred years old will be considered young.
We who are broken will be healed.
We who are ashamed will be forgiven.
We who are lonely will know ourselves beloved.
We who live in fear will be saved from our enemies.
We who sit in darkness will see the light.
We who walk in the shadow of death will discover new life.

And we who are mired in messes of our own making,
We who are estranged from all that is good and right and true,
We who live by the gun,
We who live in danger and inequality because of the color of our skin,
We who have fled our homelands in fear for our lives and our children’s lives,
We who are rejected and threatened and killed because of who we are or who we love,
We who swear by military might,
We who weep for the future of the Earth and all who live on it,
We who are citizens of the land of us versus them,
We who are being eaten alive by our own anger,
We who are at risk of becoming what we hate,
We who worry about every little thing as well as the big things,
We who are at war with ourselves,

Well, we will be liberated.
We will be delivered.
We will be made whole.
We will see the Earth restored.
We will be at one with God and with one another.
We will find a way made out of no way.
We will be embraced, and given a robe and a ring and a party.
We will see the privileged brought down and the lowly lifted up.
We will see our swords beaten into plowshares.
We will see the wolf lie down with the lamb,
Rachel’s viewers respect Fox News watchers,
and Bernie voters listen to Trump diehards.
We will seek forgiveness of those we have wronged,
and we will offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
We will love our neighbors as ourselves, our enemies as our neighbors, and God as all in all.
We will commit ourselves to restitution.
We will rejoice in our redemption.
We will find our feet guided into the way of peace.
We will seek peace and pursue it.
We and all flesh will see the salvation on God.

        Yes, I know it is a lot to take in.

        Yes, I know it is a lot to ask anyone to believe. Pie in the sky and all shall be well and all that.

        Yes, I know it flies in the face of so much history, so much of what we see, so much of how things are.

        Yes, I know that a sermon or a speech or a story is supposed to build up to such grandeur rather than begin there.
It is enough to take your breath away. It’s enough to make you cry out in recognition. It’s enough to make your heart ache with longing for how things are supposed to be. It’s enough to reveal that hole in your heart you are forever trying to fill with busyness and buying and screen time and denial and self-medicating. That hole in your heart that some say was put there by God’s very self, a longing only God can fill.

        But this is Advent, and Advent promises us no less than this. It actually—well, God actually—promises us even more than all of this.

        All this because God loves us. All this because God is good all the time. All this because the Love that is longer and wider and deeper and higher than anyone can imagine took on flesh and bone and came to us as a vulnerable baby born in a barn in a backward country during an evil time to a couple of poor folks who would soon become refugees. All this because that baby would survive a pogrom, move into the sketchiest neighborhood imaginable, and grow up to become a love-dispensing rabble-rouser. All this because that man would live and die to guide a whole world’s worth of blistered and broken and calloused feet into the way of peace. All this because the Holy Spirit moved in with us and took on flesh and bone and lives among us even now.

        All this to assure us that God’s dream for all creation is yet alive. All this to reveal both the glory of God and to give us God’s own glory. All this to encourage us to let God’s love shine in us and through us. All this to empower us to become who we were meant to be. All this to renew our hope. All this to bring us good news of great joy—again. All this to remind us that the world is about to turn.

        And . . . to point out what we sometimes forget in our anticipation of Jesus’ coming: That before the world can turn, we have to turn. That it is our repentance, our change of heart and mind and living, that prepares the way of the Lord.

        It is our coming to terms with our own racism that prepares the way for racial justice.

        It is our turning away from our love of money and sharing what we have received that prepares the way for all people (and all churches) to have enough.

        It is our acceptance of God’s mercy and forgiveness that teaches us how to forgive others.

        It is our confession of responsibility for the degradation of the planet that frees us to live more lightly on the Earth.

        It is our our rejection of warmongering that forces us to engage our enemies as children of God.

        It is our clear-eyed acknowledgment of our brokenness, our humble admission of our fears and our needs, that paves the way for trust.

        It is our letting go of what has not, does not, and will not work that opens the door to something new and better.

        It is our turning away from cynicism that makes room for hope.

        It is our surrender to God’s care, and our practice of seeing Christ in our neighbors, that ushers us into the way of peace.

        Prepare the way of the Lord, cries the prophet.

        Make his paths straight, he continues, describing something like a cross between mountain-top removal and a highway construction project:

        Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.

Oh, if only it were that easy. If only we had to raise some money and rent some bulldozers and hire a road-building crew. If only we didn’t have to change.

        But this turning business challenges us to put aside our can-do spirit and ask for help. It requires us to be vulnerable, to open our hearts. This making way for God to do a new thing calls us to follow Jesus away from our privilege and along the way of self-giving. This preparing-the-way assignment calls us to trust the One we cannot see to accomplish what we can barely imagine.

        South Africa’s Nelson Mandela said it well: “One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.”

        One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.

But it is hard to prepare for the impossible, you say.
Look at the evidence! you say.

        Look around, you say. Can’t you see that things are moving in the wrong direction? Can’t you see my despair? Do you not know my grief?

        Oh, yes, we can see. Yes, the darkness seems to be deepening. Yes, we feel you.

        But look. Listen. Watch. Love is coming. Peace is coming. Joy is coming.

        During the American Civil War, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was feeling all of that. He was grieving his beloved wife, Fanny, who had died in a tragic fire despite his efforts to save her. He was anguished over the fate of his oldest son, Charles, who had left home to fight for the Union and had been shot in the shoulder. He despaired of what his country would become.

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” he wrote,
“Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom,
Had rolled along,
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth,
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The heart-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

        But God’s love would not leave Longfellow in that despair. God comes to share our grief and transform our pain. By grace, God comes even when we have not prepared the way. And so the poet considered had far God had brought him. The poet remembered God’s promises. The poet chose to believe that God’s word was true, that Emmanuel is forever coming into our hot messes, into our real lives, into this broken, warring world. This is our Advent faith.

        And so the poet continued:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

        God is not dead, nor doth she sleep.

        By the tender mercy of our ever-coming God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to we who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

        So let us prepare the way.