Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, December 5, 2021. Texts for this Sunday (Yr C): Mal 3.1-4; C 19 (Lk 1:68-79); Phil 1:3-11; Lk 3:1-6.
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. (Like 1:78-79)
“To give knowledge of salvation”. These words are given by the Holy Spirit to the priest Zechariah after the birth of his son John, who we know as John the Baptist. Now the birth of John to two aged and infertile parents was miraculous enough, but, says Zechariah, an even greater miracle is coming and John will be its messenger. John will bring “knowledge of salvation” to his people by the forgiveness of their sins”.
Advent is, as I said last Sunday, many things besides a Christmas countdown. Chiefly, I think, it is when we the church celebrate the message of the John, spoken in the wilderness, that we “shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3.6). Advent is about salvation, and Advent tells is that salvation is something real and certain and factual, something that we can have knowledge about and something that we can see with our own eyes.
Salvation is what we celebrate. It’s what we’re all about as church and as disciples of the one we call our Saviour, Jesus Christ. So what does “knowledge of salvation” mean to you? What does salvation look like to you. Do we understand salvation? Can we be certain of our salvation ? Can we explain salvation to others?
This last week I had the amazing experience of being in a room full of people who know what their salvation looks like and who can talk about salvation with confidence.
I met these people at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the first one I’ve ever attended. Someone who is dear to me had asked me to come as a guest and see them receive their One Year Sober medallion. I was not prepared for what a powerful experience this would prove to be. There was so much spirituality, honesty, courage and love in the room that I walked away thinking, “if church was like this, we’d have standing room only on Sundays”.
Here’s three things that I admired about these people.
First, I admired their total honesty. Every one who speaks has to begin by admitting their addiction: “Hello, I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic”. Each time someone introduced themselves that way, it didn’t seem rote to me. Each speaker seemed to recognize that they had been in the thrall of something dark and powerful that had blighted their lives. Often they spoke with a fearlessness that took my breath away.
The guest speaker, a former policeman, told of how he had hit bottom in his career, about to be fired as a hopeless drunk, and one night he found himself on a meaningless duty in his cruiser with his gun in his mouth while trying to pray the AA serenity prayer. As he said in his simple, matter of fact way, he felt that prayer was answered, and day by day since then he turned his life around. That man knew about salvation.
Secondly, I admired their belief in a higher power. You don’t have to be a Christian to be an AA member. In fact, the person who invited me calls themselves an atheist. However, if you know addiction is a power that can control you, as every AA member is painfully aware, then it stands to reason that you believe in a higher power (addiction), and so you believe only an even higher power can save you.
In place of our psalm this morning, we heard the Canticle from Luke’s gospel, when old Zechariah blesses his son John the Baptizer and Herald of God. Zechariah says “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shone on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1.78-79). That cop with the gun in his mouth eventually passed out, and woke in the morning with his gun on his lap. In his despair he had reached out to the God of compassion and in the breaking dawn he found a new life waiting for him. That man knew who had saved him.
Finally, I admired the love in that room. Everyone in that room showed obvious and sincere love and support for one another. I don’t think you could stand up and speak with such vulnerability and honesty without that love and support. People spoke with pride of how far they had seen one another come, and what a difference they had seen AA make in one another. I saw this especially in the sponsors, for every AA new AA member is paired with an experienced member, usually an older person, who promises to be there day and night to offer support, help, and advice.
I think that of that night when I hear St. Paul in our epistle today pray that God make the Philippian church “overflow more and more with [love] and knowledge and full insight” (Phil 1:9). I think had Paul been there, he would have thanked God for what he saw in that AA meeting. In fact, another invited guest there with me, a person who knows nothing about church or faith, said afterwards, “I don’t drink but I want to join this group, just because they’re such nice people!” These people took joy in their salvation.
In summary, these people knew they needed saving, they knew who it was who had saved them, and they took joy in one another’s salvation. I came away grateful to God for this experience, but as I said I also left wondering how attractive church would be if church people acted this way.
There are reasons why we don’t act this way, of course. Some are just cultural. Anglicans are usually restrained people, we let the liturgy carry our emotions and feelings for us, and we don’t use the language of “being saved” or “being born again”. Fair enough. Christianity is a big family, and different denominations have different spiritual gifts and languages.
I wonder, though, if we just haven’t thought enough about what salvation really means. Do we think of salvation as a customs inspection, where our passport of faith and good deeds on earth are checked before we can enter heaven? If so, then I suggest that this afterlife-based understanding of salvation is impoverished, and ignores Jesus’ many calls to think about the kingdom of heaven as happening in the here and now.
One of my favourite ways of thinking about salvation comes from Jesus’ words in John’s gospel: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10.10). There are so many dark things and forces in our world that steal and destroy the best things in life. Addiction is one, as our AA friends know all too well. But we can find ourselves also hurt and isolated, distrustful, without meaning or purpose or hope, overwhelmed by guilt and self-hatred and doubting that God, if God exists, could ever love us and forgive us.
My friends, this Advent, I encourage you to ask yourselves, what does salvation mean for me? What is it that I can’t control or handle by myself that I need God’s help with? Have you asked God for help? Have you prayed, simply and urgently, for salvation? I believe that salvation is there for the asking, and there are lots of people in our church who could help you pray for it.
If you know what salvation looks like, if you’ve experienced God’s help and power, then I encourage you to ask yourself, do I show joy in my salvation? Do I rejoice that others are here with me, here in the family of God? Have I done what I could to come alongside someone who is seeking salvation, to be a friend, mentor, and companion?
Let me finish with the same thought I finished with last week. A church that could talk about salvation with the same confidence and knowledge that an AA meeting talks about salvation would be an awesome and attractive place, because joy and confidence in salvation is the best form of evangelism.