December 5: Laying a Foundation

December 5: Laying a Foundation

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Audio of Scripture reading and sermon only

December 5 – 2nd Sunday of Advent

I’m going to show you a brief video, and as you’re watching it, I’d like you to be consciously aware of how it makes you feel. Take a look graphic indicating external link

So, how did the boy’s message leave you feeling? Personally, I found it very uplifting and encouraging. I like how he began his welcome to the newborn by informing him or her that the world is “a pretty cool place.” That there’ll be lots to see and smell, and of all things in the world they can look forward to, one of them is corndogs! He informs them that in this life, they can look forward to singing and dancing laughing. I was particularly struck by his honesty in naming for the newborn some of the challenges she or he will face in life, but quickly points out that those days will be tempered by the good ones. “Some days, gross things will happen. Some days, awesome things will happen. Some days, you’ll get ice cream. Some days, you won’t.” I love that he tells the newborn that they won’t be going through life alone, and while some of the people they’ll meet won’t be nice, more of them will very nice.

It was the final part of his message to newborns that I especially appreciated. He said, “You’re going to do so much! It’s not about what you do, but who you are. And you, you’re awesome! You’re made that way. You were made from love, to be loved, to spread love.” And then he closes by telling them, “We’re really glad you’re here.” I think I speak for all of when I say, this isn’t a needed word for just newborns to hear; this is a helpful word of hope and encouragement for we who’ve been around for a while. Who among us wouldn’t appreciate regularly being told, “You’re awesome, and we’re really glad you’re here!”?

There is power in words. Written words and spoken words alike can have a significant effect on peoples’ lives.

When I was in 9th grade, I participated in our school district’s vocal solo and ensemble event. If you’re not familiar with solo and ensemble, it’s a competition where you’re in competition against yourself. You leave with a score of a I, II, or III. A I comes with a blue ribbon and a II comes with a red ribbon. I sang two pieces, one of them in Italian. My father was my accompanist and vocal coach, and one of the things he really emphasized was singing with expression, especially the Italian piece since no one would understand the words. Well, at some point during the Italian piece, my brain momentarily checked out and for a handful of measures I couldn’t remember the words. So, I just hummed along until they came back to me, at which point I sang the rest of the song with the words. The good news was, despite my momentary brain blip, I went home with a blue ribbon!

On Monday, I met with my choir teacher after school to go over the score sheet provided by my adjudicator. Right there at the top of the page in the score box was that beautiful Roman numeral I which the adjudicator gave me. However, the very first words out of my teacher’s mouth were something to the effect of, “You didn’t deserve a One because you didn’t earn a One.” I guess he wanted to be very clear with me right from the onset that forgotting words should automatically disqualify someone from receiving the highest score.

Now, to be perfectly honest, I have no actual recollection of that conversation. The reason I know that such a conversation was had was on account of what I do remember, which was my father’s response. My father and my choir director were colleagues on the music staff in Ann Arbor. By this time, Dad was a “well seasoned” teacher while my choir director was still relatively new. I must have expressed feelings of disappointment and shame to my folks that night. Unbeknownst to me, sometime that week my father paid a visit to my choir director and kindly shared with him how his comments had affected me. I’m pretty sure my father approached him not as a parent, saying, “You hurt my son’s feelings,” but rather, as a teacher who’d been around long enough to know that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, as the saying goes. I think he wanted my choir teacher to know that in the many years he still had ahead of him, it would serve him well to be more grace-full when talking with his students. Like I said, I honestly don’t have a recollection of that after-school conversation, but what I distinctly remember to this day was my father telling me, “Drew, contrary to what Mr. W. told you, you deserved the score you received, and the reason is because there’s more to singing than just hitting the correct notes and remembering all the words. You sang with feeling and the adjudicator responded accordingly. Congratulations! You did well!” Although I’m sure he didn’t realize it at the time, in his attempt to be honest with me, my choir teacher’s words had the unintended effect of tearing me down. But fortunately for me, my father’s words quickly built up what had been torn down.

You didn’t deserve a One because you didn’t earn a One!

I’m sure we can all point to instances in our lives when someone else’s words stung to the core, even if it was unintentional. At the same time, I bet you can also recall when something said to you was very encouraging.

I’ve never been someone who thinks quickly on my feet. If I have to say something cohesive, thoughtful, and insightful on the spot in the presence of many people, I find that I easily get tongue-tied. It’s just the way I’m wired. Back when I was going through the ordination process, I had to meet with the Board of Ordained Ministry and answer lots of questions about my beliefs, my faith, and my own spiritual journey. Knowing how my brain works under pressure, I must have decided it was best to not rush into any of my answers. There’s only thing I can recall about my interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry, and that was a comment made by one of the Board Members. She told me she really appreciated that I briefly paused before giving my answers, allowing me time to formulate my initial thoughts. She said it conveyed that I was committed to providing a well thought-through answer. And I have to tell you, her observation was so affirming to me that ever since then, I’ve intentionally taken that same approach whenever I’m being asked questions for which there are no simple answers, especially if I’m not even sure what I think! I’ve never forgotten what she told me, and even though I’m sure she’ll never recall telling me that, I can tell you it was a very affirming observation of me, one which has allowed me to stop and think before speaking without feeling bad about doing so.

Today’s Bible story from the Gospel of Luke is of a father speaking words of hope and vision to his newborn son. Zechariah was a priest, and one day while he was on duty burning incense in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that God had heard their prayers and that Elizabeth would bear a son, and that his name should be John. Sizing up the situation, Zechariah asked, “How can I be sure of this, especially given the fact that we’re both quite old and, more to the point, Elizabeth shows all signs of being infertile?” Luke 1:20 indicates that on account of his initial disbelief, Zechariah’s voice was immediately taken away, and wouldn’t be returned until after John’s birth.

Skip ahead nine months. Their son is eight days old, and it’s time for his circumcision and naming. The people assume he’ll be named after his father, Zechariah, which was the tradition. But Elizabeth tells them he’s to be called John. They must not have believed her because they turned to Zechariah and asked what the boy’s name would be. He grabbed a nearby iPad and wrote in big, bold letters, “His name is John,” at which time his voice is immediately returned to him. Listen again to the first thing that comes out of his mouth after being mute for nine months:

“Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty Savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago” (vv. 68-70).

His first words are of praise to God for his wonderful mercy for sending a Savior, who would be born to his relative, Mary, a short while later. Then he turns to his new son, whom he’s probably holding in his arms, and looks him in the eyes and says:

“You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare way for the coming Savior. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace” (vv. 76-79).

Immediatly after that verbal blessings, almost as if Luke was trying to draw a connection between the two, Luke says that John grew and became strong in spirit.

With that short blessing—a prophecy, really—Zechariah’s words set the tone for John’s life and ministry. As one commentator put it, “Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit and knowing his son would become the ‘prophet of the Most High,’ spoke words of vision to a newborn that grew strong in spirit and helped lay the foundation into the way of peace.” (Elder Vilmarie Cintron-Olivieri)

We know that in adulthood, John would be the one to lay the foundation for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus himself said that it was John’s “voice” Isaiah heard and spoke of, the voice which said, “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God” (Isaiah 40:3; Luke 3:4). John’s early message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:2, 11).

How well did Jesus regard John? He once told his disciples that “no greater human being has ever been born than John” (Luke 7.28).

How did that life begin? With a wonderful word of blessing from his father, Zechariah. You, my son, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for the coming Savior.

One of the churches Paul established was the one in Philippi. Like most other Jesus followers in that day, they knew persecution first-hand. Certainly, a word of encouragement and hope would be welcomed by any church being persecuted. But the interesting thing about the city of Philippi is that it was a prosperous Roman colony, which meant that the citizens of Philippi were also citizens of the city of Rome itself. They prided themselves in being Romans, dressed like Romans, and often spoke Latin. Many of the Philippians were retired Roman soldiers who’d been given land in the vicinity. In fact, there weren’t enough Jews in Philippi to permit the establishment of a synagogue in the city.

All this is to say, those who comprised the Christian congregation in Philippi were mostly converts from Roman paganism, not Judaism. They didn’t bring to the table a lifetime of faithfulness to a single God. They didn’t have the history of the Jewish faith to sustain them—a history replete with having to deal with troubles and challenges. In other words, it would have been very easy for the new Christians in Philippi to give throw the towel in. This is probably why Paul begins his letter to them by encouraging them. He writes:

“I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy.  I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You’re all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus” (1:3-8).

To me, that sounds a lot like what the young boy in the video said: “I’m really glad you’re here.” Like Zechariah’s song, Paul’s opening words are filled with blessing, gratitude, and tenderness.

So, what words, blessings, and actions of others have laid the foundation for your life? Who, through their encouragement, helped lay a foundation of faith for you? And just as importantly, how are you doing this for others? Have you recently shown grace when you were within your rights to express disappointment? Within your sphere of influence, who would benefit from a simple but heartfelt, “I’m really glad you’re here!”

What if every one of us committed ourselves to speaking words of hope and encouragement to the people we know, knowing that they could very well be the foundation for a life of blessing and the fulfillment of God’s will. Let’s pray…

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