Today’s three passages – Isaiah speaking on God’s behalf, Zachariah and Elizabeth and baby John the Baptist, and then this parable of the tax collector and Pharisee – all three of these passages talk about salvation. We don’t use the word salvation often here. We talk about salvation with words like healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, wholeness. These are accurate words to speak of salvation, and they don’t bring the baggage that salvation has for so many people who have been hit over the head with cruel church teachings.
But with all three passages offering rich ways to understand salvation, I’m going to use the word and hope we can hear it fresh this morning. Reading these three scriptures, I learn two things about salvation: it is ongoing, never finished. And it is always personal and communal at the same time.
Isaiah says that God’s salvation is coming, that soon the people will be delivered. But this is from the third section of the long book of Isaiah, the people are returning from exile, the previous 55 chapters of Isaiah are all about God delivering and saving the people by returning them to their ancestral home.
Now they’re back, and still Isaiah is preaching about God’s salvation and deliverance on its way? Didn’t we just get that, the people wonder? Salvation is never finished.
A simplistic faith might say that when Jordan, Landon and Nina were baptized two weeks ago they were saved, once and done. But just like getting married or deciding to have children, choosing a life of faith gets one climatic moment, but we choose each and every day to be a partner, to be a parent, to follow Jesus.
The exiles come home, they are delivered, they are saved, and still Isaiah prophesies that God’s deliverance and salvation are coming, because this relationship we have with God is not once and done, it lives each and every day as we choose justice, as we widen our welcome, as we share the good news. As the Jews come home from exile they are called to widen their understanding of who God’s people are. Isaiah calls them to prepare for even more salvation.
And many years later Zechariah gets a visit from an angel, proclaiming that he will have a son, John, who will prepare the people for Jesus’ presence on earth. Eventually Zechariah rejoices in the part his son will play in Jesus’ ministry, but at first he’s simply freaked out. So freaked out that he doesn’t speak until his son John is born. Once he gets his voice back, Zechariah proclaims Jesus’ birth and the blessings he will bring “giving knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Only a few verses after Zechariah’s pronouncement, the shepherds also proclaim Jesus’ birth. “An angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them.” They go to Bethlehem and meet Jesus, and then, “they make known what had been told them about this child, and all who hear it are amazed.”
Zechariah, a priest, and the shepherds are unlikely partners. Priests are revered within the Jewish social and religious world of 1st century Palestine, while shepherds are the dregs of society. Priests are pure, shepherds are impure. You look to priests for answers. You try not to make eye contact with shepherds; they’re smelly, dirty, unpredictable.
But in Luke’s gospel the priest’s and the shepherds’ stories of ecstatic, divine encounter live side-by-side. The birth of Jesus--the dawn of a new era—is proclaimed in a juxtaposition befitting the nature of the salvation Jesus brings.
The gospel writer tells stories throughout Luke that show listeners and readers that our expectations of who is worthy and wise must be inverted. Throughout Luke we find that Jesus’ way brings together the people who don’t belong.
 Luke 1:77-79