Making salvation known through the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1.68-79): an Advent Eucharist homily for 12.9.12

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December 10, 2012 by jmar198013

“All hail the Lord, the God of Israel,

for he has come through for his people,

   he has made them free!

He has raised up a Mighty Liberator

   from the house of his servant, David;

   just as he promised in the words of the prophets,

   the holy ones of long ago:

      salvation from our enemies,

      snatched from the grip of the hateful.

   This is his mercy to our ancestors!

   This is his faithfulness to his holy covenant,

      the oath he swore to our father, Abraham:

          that he would rescue us from our enemies,

          so that we could serve him unafraid,

          with holiness and virtue,

          in his presence, all our days.

And as for you, little child,

   you shall be named ‘Prophet of the Most High,’

   for you will go out ahead of the Lord

   and prepare the way for him!

You will make salvation known to his people

   through the forgiveness of their sins.

For on account of the tender mercy of our God,

   heaven’s morning sun shall dawn on us,

          shining on ‘those who dwell in darkness,

          and under Death’s shadow,

          to guide our feet onto the path of peace.’” (Luke 1.68-79)

Old man Zechariah had not spoken for the duration of his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy, his mouth having been sealed shut by the Almighty for back-talking the angel Gabriel. Luke 1.68-79, the passage just read in your hearing, was what came gushing from his tongue when God finally loosed it. Looking at his miracle baby John, Zechariah sees a sign of God’s faithfulness. This is a child of hope, the herald of a coming time when God restores his people. God is about to answer their prayers for a Redeemer, just like he has finally answered Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer for a child.

The child was a sign. Zechariah made plenty of thrilling pronouncements about this baby who would grow to be John the Baptist, most of them garbled—predicates without subjects and whatnot. Pretty much what you’d expect from someone who finds himself suddenly able to speak again in the presence of a miracle. In the midst of the old man’s breathless syntax is a curious phrase that is easily glossed over. In v 77, Zechariah claims that John “will make salvation known to his people through the forgiveness of their sins.” I’d never noticed those words before. Now that I have, I can’t stop staring at them because they seem so odd. Frankly, I’ve never associated John the Baptist with salvation and the forgiveness of sins; that’s Jesus’ job. John was a prophet of judgment, whose talking points centered on broods of vipers and axes on the root. Human chaff tossed into the eternal fire? Sure, that sounds like John the Baptist. Salvation and the forgiveness of sins? With John, those are less certain.

Perhaps the problem with seeing John as an agent of salvation and forgiveness is a matter of perspective. Historically speaking, our faith tradition has set salvation and forgiveness in a propositional relationship. In other words, we have reduced salvation to not going to hell, and understood forgiveness of sins as the condition upon which salvation rests. Zechariah, however, doesn’t seem to view salvation and forgiveness propositionally. For him, they are concepts best understood historically and relationally, defined by the history of a particular people. For Zechariah, salvation means rescue from enemies so that God’s people “could serve him unafraid, with holiness and virtue.” The basis for salvation isn’t forgiveness of sins, but God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, especially his loyalty to the oath he swore to Abraham. In our passage, forgiveness of sins is not the condition for salvation, but the foretaste of salvation. Thus John will “make salvation known” to God’s people “through the forgiveness of their sins.” Salvation and forgiveness of sins are not procedural; they are the folkways of God’s people, historical truths embodied in their life together.

John’s task was to prepare the Lord’s way so that people could recognize salvation. Read Luke 3’s account of John’s ministry, and you’ll notice that John urged his followers to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” That means living like forgiven people. Forgiven people have no trouble sharing their extra food and clothes with those who have none. Forgiven tax collectors will stop inflating what is due. Forgiven soldiers will cease from shaking down widows for mites. It was the knowledge that they were forgiven that freed them to serve God “unafraid with holiness and virtue.” People who live by sharing and receiving, free from acquisitiveness and violence, are people whose life together demonstrates forgiveness of sins. These forgiven people were able to share in John’s vision of a coming salvation. And when this salvation arrived in the person of Jesus, they recognized it. His way of life, and the community that formed around him—based on reconciliation, faithfulness, non-violence, and love for enemies and strangers—had been hinted at and rumored in John’s preaching. Those forgiven people knew that Jesus was salvation. John had prepared his way.

This season of Advent reminds the church that our vocation is similar to that of John the Baptist. The church is a sign from God promising salvation. We are the ones sent to prepare the way for Christ, the Savior who has come and is coming again. And like John, we make salvation known through the forgiveness of sins. We live as a forgiven people, and that means attending to the form of life Jesus has given us. Forgiven people are reconciled to those with whom they are angry instead of killing them. Forgiven people live faithful to their marriage covenants. Forgiven people are able to tell the truth. Forgiven people don’t need to retaliate. Forgiven people can love enemies and outsiders. Forgiven people know their daily bread is a gift from God. Forgiven people do not judge, but care for others as God has cared for them. When we so live, our forgiveness extends to others. And being forgiven, they are able to recognize salvation. Like John, we are straightening crooked roads and making rough paths smooth so that all may see the salvation come from God.

This table, meanwhile, stands as a constant reminder to us that we are a forgiven people. The forgiveness God has extended to us in Christ frees us to “serve him unafraid, with holiness and virtue, in his presence, all our days.” May our share in this table ever reveal salvation to us afresh through the forgiveness of our sins.

Prayer: Father, let this meal remind us that the basis of our salvation is your faithfulness to the covenant established in the body and blood of Jesus. Father, we ask that we would live faithful to our task in the world, to make your salvation known through the forgiveness of sins. Amen.

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