Sound of a Promise Kept
Sunday, December 9, 2018
Second Sunday in Advent Year C
Sound of a Promise Kept
Out of the embrace of mercy and righteousness, you have brought forth joy and dignity for your people, O Holy One of Israel. Remember now your ancient promise: make straight the paths that lead to you, and smooth the rough ways, that in our day we might bring forth your compassion for all humanity. Amen.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably
on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth
of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy
promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued
from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord
to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation
to his people by the forgiveness
of their 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.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9
1. Do you ever think a blessing is “too good to be true,” even if you prayed for it?
2. What gifts does your “generation” bring to the life of faith today?
3. Where do you feel closest to God?
4. How do we find that our lives “matter totally” within God’s larger story?
5. How do you and your church embody God’s tender mercies for others?
by Kate Matthews
The Gospel of Luke begins, of course, with the story of the angel Gabriel foretelling the amazing birth of a baby boy who is destined for great things in the story of salvation. This birth is remarkable not because the boy’s mother is a virgin but because she’s old: this is Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah the priest, who is also old. These two have lived righteous and holy lives, but it appears that they are denied the blessing of children.
The story sounds familiar, especially after hearing about Hannah just two weeks ago, but this time Zechariah the would-be father appears to be the one who’s praying, in the depths of his heart, for what seems impossible: the gift of a child. Gabriel brings Zechariah the good news that his prayer has been heard and he is indeed going to have a son, whom he will name John.
Surprised by “Yes!”
Ironically, Zechariah appears to be unable to comprehend that the answer to his prayer might actually be yes, and he questions the angel, who doesn’t seem too pleased about being challenged, even by a priest. But, then, perhaps a priest ought to know even better not to question a messenger from God.
After Gabriel strikes him speechless, Zechariah spends the next nine months in silence; presumably Elizabeth enjoys many opportunities during that time to speak her own mind. When the baby is born, she insists, against popular opinion–and no one seems to know why the neighbors are trying to name this baby in the first place–that he will be named John, rather than Zechariah, after his father.
Full of the Spirit
How does Elizabeth know, we might ask, that the child’s name should be John? In any case, the old priest agrees, his speech is restored, and as he holds his son in his arms, he’s so full of the Holy Spirit that he can’t help bursting out in praise for all that God has done, and he looks forward to what God is yet to do (the text calls it “this prophecy” in verse 67). His prayer is called the “Benedictus,” which means “blessing” in Latin.
In this first chapter of Luke, we’ve already heard Mary sing the Magnificat; J. Clinton McCann, Jr., compares these hymns to the songs in a Broadway musical: the words tell a story and help us to understand what’s going on.
Singing our speeches
Like Mary, Zechariah uses language so lovely that we understand why this is really a song rather than a speech (even though Luke says in verse 67 that he “spoke” it), and why the church has loved it, and sung it, for so many centuries: this hymn connects the early Christians’ story to the story of Israel, remembered, redeemed, restored.
Israel, pressed down and even flattened by one empire after another (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome), is never obliterated or without hope of a future, because they know that God’s promises are true.
The elders remind us
Zechariah reviews those promises, recalling the voice of God through the prophets, the gift of the great king, David, and of course mercy and salvation even in the face of sin and in the wake of suffering, destruction, and death.
In his book, Luke for Everyone, N.T. Wright reminds us that our elders are the ones “who cherish old memories and imaginations, who keep alive the rumour of hope,” and he notes that Zechariah “has pondered the agony and the hope for many years.” In Zechariah’s song, then, we hear the “larger hope” that “[t]hings will be put right” in the end.
Turning the parents’ hearts
One of the most haunting lines from this first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is back in the angel Gabriel’s promise to Zechariah that this child, who would of course gladden the hearts of his mother and father, would also “turn the hearts of parents to their children” (v. 17).
In his sermon, “An Intrusive Absence,” Walter Brueggemann recalls the long wait and deep hope of the people of Israel, who looked for Elijah the prophet to return because they remembered him as one who “upset everything, healed things, made a difference.” They trusted that God would act to make things right, through one who would come into their midst to “reconcile the generations….[and] heal our families of old and young, poor and rich, of have-nots and haves….”
Perhaps we could begin to reach across the divide between “the old and young” if we learn to appreciate the distinctive gifts that the different generations bring to the table. For example, the Rev. Otis Moss III calls Elizabeth and Zechariah’s generation meeting with the generation of young Mary (vv. 39-56) a “Pentecostal moment.”
Our story is part of a longer story
Scholars stress the continuity of the Christian story with the ancient story of Israel, and several read Zechariah’s “witness,” if you will, as a link between those stories, an affirmation that they are part of the same, larger story of God at work in the world, offering salvation to all the people (even the Gentiles!).
For example, Sharon Ringe hears the prophet Isaiah echoed in this song, and the theme of the forgiveness of sins recalling the Year of the Jubilee, which we will encounter again in Jesus’ inaugural address, in chapter four of this Gospel. And Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson see Zechariah the priest “as authorizing the ministry of John, and, hence, the ministry of Jesus and the church.”
Raising up a savior
Zechariah doesn’t just sing about God’s ancient faithfulness; he also sings of the new thing God is about to do, raising up “a mighty savior” from the house of David. In fact, he sings as if God has already done this great thing. Luke is telling us these stories together, but we understand why John is important only if we understand the central importance of Jesus, the mighty Savior, whose “way” John prepares.
Zechariah looks at his newborn son John, whose name means “God is gracious,” and feels God’s grace through the sweep of history as well as the promise of what is yet to be. How many parents have looked at their newborn child and felt a mysterious but powerful hope for the future of the world in the small miracle they’re holding!
Theology at unexpected moments
My own experience of parenthood affected my theology just as much as it affected everything else in my life. When I held my baby boy, also named John, for the first time, I became something of a theologian, long before I went to seminary and studied theology. As I gazed at that baby, I did not wonder why God looked at the beautiful work of creation and saw that “it was good.” I recognized that God’s creation of this little baby, in the same way, was good.
While I understood that “my” John was created in freedom and could and would make wrong choices now and then, I knew in my heart that we are created in beauty and innocence and grace, and that each new baby is a moment of hope, not just for one family, but for the whole world.
It occurs to me that Zechariah, the priest who knew what it felt like to stand in the most sacred place of all, “the sanctuary of the Lord” (1:9), what Richard Swanson calls “the center of the world,” seemed to be having the most profound spiritual experience of his life at home, holding a newborn baby.
John was important, too
Many scholars note that the story of Zechariah the priest long ago was the early church’s way of teaching about the importance and the role of John the Baptist. Marvin A. McMickle ties this Sunday’s Old Testament reading to Zechariah’s song in this way: “If Malachi 3:1-4 tells us that God will send a messenger who will prepare the way and cleanse the temple, then Luke 1:68-79 tells us that messenger is John the Baptist.”
Yes, John was important, but he wasn’t the most important, and the early church wanted to make sure everyone understood the difference between John and Jesus. Of course, no one I know thinks John the Baptist was really the Messiah, but there’s more than one lesson in this story, as so often happens in the Bible. That beautiful moment, and that realization, and that hope in Zechariah when he looks at his newborn son…I think that is a teaching moment for us today, in the church.
The personal and the public, stories large and small
There are several more themes in this text that bear deeper reflection in this season of Advent, when we are perhaps a little more in touch with the deeply personal and yet also yearn to connect with the wider world, in generosity and peace.
There’s that connection, that continuity, between our “small” lives and the “larger” events of history: N.T. Wright says that “Luke’s story vibrates equally with the personal hopes and fears of ordinary people” even as he tells the story of God at work in the sweep of history; “both the big picture and the smaller human stories,” Wright says, “matter totally.”
Searching, like our ancestors in faith
Zechariah and Elizabeth are experiencing the most remarkable things happening to them personally, but they look at their little baby, and they see God’s promises kept for their whole people, past and present, and even more wonders to unfold in the story of God at work in the world.
We need to find the meaning of our lives, our stories, then, in God’s larger story. How do we do that, and how do the church and the story it tells in every age help us with this lifelong task?
Living joyfully in God’s presence, now and later
There’s also the tension that we often encounter between salvation as something that we experience here and now, the healing for our souls and our families and the world, even for creation itself, and the salvation that will come after we die, when we will live joyfully in God’s presence.
Mostly, people of faith seem to focus on the latter, on “getting to heaven.” And yet, those who live under someone else’s heel, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, and like Luke’s own little early Christian community that knew Rome’s harsh oppression, have to wonder when God is going to deliver them and punish “those who hate us” (v. 71).
However, according to Clinton McCann, “[d]eliverance comes not by the military defeat of the oppressors, but by the forgiveness of sins, by the light that illuminates darkness and death, by walking in the way of peace (1:75-79).” And Marvin McMickle also emphasizes the message of the forgiveness of sins over the “prosperity gospel” so popular today that promises “to make people wealthy and healthy”; instead, we are reminded that God’s people are saved “through the forgiveness of their sins.”
This is where that tension lies, if we want to live an authentic faith: “walking in the way of peace” may appear easier for someone not living under the heel of an oppressor (and that oppressor may be a “force,” like debt or illness or poverty). Christians have to discern where the “way of peace” leads them on behalf of others who suffer, especially if we benefit, even indirectly, from that suffering. McMickle subtly ties these two threads together when he claims that “God is surely a God of wrath where injustice is concerned, but Zechariah points to ‘the tender mercy of our God’ (v. 78).”
Righteousness is justice, not self-righteousness
There is, then, something very real, something embodied about this salvation, not just a heavenly, spiritual one but also a healing of the damage caused by sin and brokenness, violence and greed: a restoration of things to what they ought to be. Zechariah sings of forgiveness, of light, of holiness and righteousness. (More than one scholar notes that “righteousness” could be understood as “justice,” which makes a lot of sense if we’re talking about the damage done to one another and to the earth by our sin and selfishness.)
All of these promises of God and all this hope engage us in the story of salvation; they draw us in rather than relegating us to spectators on the sidelines. Do we embody God’s own tender mercies, right here, right now, toward the poor, the orphan and the widow, and the stranger in our midst? We can hardly reflect on this text, this vision, without expressing our sorrow and concern, for example, over photographs of small children being tear-gassed at our border.
Pay attention to the women
In the Bible and in most of human history, men have claimed center stage and most of the power, but Richard Swanson’s reflection draws our attention to the women who seem to be bystanders in this story. (Actually, how the mothers of these two important babies are “bystanders” in these events is hard to comprehend; presumably, they were central to the births.)
Swanson suggests that Zechariah’s long silence, however much he may not have chosen it and however much it contributed to his spiritual growth, is underneath the voices of the women, Mary and Elizabeth, who voice the “powerful hopes” of their people: “Only after women have sung the hopes of the Jewish people into the story is that silence punctured. Zechariah reveals that he, too, shares the hopes that give life to the Jewish people. The story holds open the possibility that these hopes were breathed into life by the singing of Mary and Elizabeth, which he could have overheard in his silence.”
Silence, then, gives others a chance to speak, and a chance to teach us something, a chance to voice shared hopes and longings. The baby, John, is seen by his father Zechariah as the one who will prepare the way for Jesus, the “mighty savior” God has graciously sent, and so the role of this tiny child in salvation history is obviously crucial. How do you experience your own role in salvation history: as a participant, or as a “bystander” in this unfolding and yet ancient drama?
Barrenness as part of the human condition
Another subtle theme in the story is the somewhat troubling one of “barrenness”: G. Lee Ramsey, Jr., suggests that we might reflect on the fact that “God comes to Israel and all of humanity especially in our waiting periods marked by barrenness.” What he says is true, in that God often works most powerfully with and through us when we feel that we have nothing left to give, when we are at our lowest, when we feel empty and–a huge taboo in our driven society–“non-productive.”
However, the word “barren” is a sensitive one for women: we remember the biblical (and historical) women whose “barrenness” defined them as human beings, and their roles in any given story. We also consider the women in our lives who do not have children, by choice or not, and how such a word sounds to them.
It would be worth a second thought on how we use the word in Bible study as we work with this text. Still, the word “barren” can apply to more than humans, and to more than simply having children, so it can be quite evocative as a metaphor for emptiness, if used with care.
Reversing their fortunes
A recurring theme in the Gospel of Luke is that of reversal of fortune, and we are already hearing this kind of song sung by both Mary and Zechariah, in this very first chapter. According to Rosetta Ross, Zechariah and Elizabeth are not among the poor, singing of their liberation from poverty; instead, they are from the “Jewish upper class,” since he is a priest.
When this member of the upper class sings about God at work, making things right, he illustrates how there may be some surprises, and not just a few ironic twists, in store for us: “New sight, resulting from the dawn breaking in and giving light, insinuates possible paradigm shifts and the reversals identified with Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps those identified as enemies earlier in the song may become friends.”
How do you describe peace?
Is there a better way to describe peace than former enemies becoming friends? Well, there is certainly a fuller, more comprehensive one, and the end of Zechariah’s song inspires writers like Marvin McMickle to draw a picture of “a time of wholeness, well-being, security, happiness, and contentment that will extend to all people”–which is what it means to walk “in the way of peace.”
When Zechariah becomes a father, and when he sings of his joy as he gazes at his newborn son, it feels like he yearns even more deeply for peace; doesn’t our longing for peace in the world, and the healing of creation, become more pressing when we have children whose futures stretch out beyond our own? Looking at his baby, Zechariah sings of a salvation that is healing for the damage the world does because of sin and brokenness, because of greed and hatred and violence; he sings of a restoration of things to what they ought to be.
And when Zechariah sings of God’s forgiveness, he isn’t describing a legalistic transaction, a reward we earn by our deeds, but a movement of the heart, God’s heart, toward us even in our weakness and humanity. But he also sees in his son the beauty of hope and the promise of God’s tender mercy, and, most of all, the promise of peace.
Repentance and peace
Peace: this is the first, but certainly not the last, time we hear Luke speak of “peace.” Randle R. Mixon echoes the prophet Isaiah in dreaming of a peace that is more than “the absence of violence”: true peace “allows the world to live with the lamb and the leopard with the kid,” which means that we need to do some hard work this Advent, and in every season of the year, to examine our lives, “both personal and corporate,” and repent the brokenness, the damage, we have caused.
Mixon makes uncomfortable observations: “The condition of souls and the condition of creation is troubled by self-centeredness, self-absorption, and failure to understand what is available in true communion with God, what God has offered us in the ancient covenant and offers us still in the coming of Jesus, the Christ.” Then, he challenges us to consider this question: “What might Zechariah predict that his son John would preach to us in this Advent?”
Where can we find “the way of peace”?
Such a seemingly impossible dream for us this Advent: that enemies might become friends, that emptiness might become fruitfulness, that the earth might be healed and the world might know peace. Perhaps not so impossible, for every light that breaks through, every blessing that heals our heart and gives us hope, every newborn baby that reminds us of the newness of God’s tender mercies each morning, is an Advent kind of experience, a taste of what is yet to come, of sign of what God is about. As Lee Ramsey observes, “While we are not yet ready to sing ‘Joy to the World,’ there is much to be grateful for in Advent.”
When we consider those beautiful words at the end of Zechariah’s song, when we hear of light, of dawn breaking over us, we too feel a longing for such light, especially in a world, a nation, so divided today. While our painfully long election season divided us more bitterly with each passing day, we’re also shaken by mass shootings, massive wildfires and hurricanes (and environmental degradation), the rise in nationalism and racism and wealth disparity (violence in slow motion) and the threat of more danger hovering over us.
Struggles, both personal and communal
Many of us, especially during the holidays, struggle to make peace in our own families before grappling with the challenges that face us in the larger community. The world around us once again (and again) worries about terrorism and war in dozens of places around our now-tiny-and-well-connected globe, and we argue in demoralizing ways about how to “protect” ourselves while we respond to the needs and suffering caused by those threats and that ugly violence. Our defensiveness and fear do not speak well of us as human beings, let alone as people of faith.
And yet, individually, so many of us also live with illness, poverty, and addiction–as well as threats and violence in our neighborhoods and even our own homes. We may have relationships that are painfully difficult for us. We may struggle with depression, anxiety, and worries over financial problems. Our children cause us concern and our parents need our care; forces much more powerful than we are, and yet forces in which we participate, pollute the air, the water, and the earth that our grandchildren will need. The world seems like a mess much of the time.
Still, we gather…
And yet, and yet. We gather in church, together in a time of fear, and like Zechariah living under the heel of the Roman Empire, we know that we, too, are children of promise, and God has not forgotten us. We hear the story of God’s love, and, here and there, we experience that light breaking over us.
In our time and in the midst of this people, we listen for the story again, we wait in the darkness together, we gather our strength, renew our courage, and feast upon the mercy of God so that we can go back out into the world and be light and love for those who, like us, long to find the way to the path of peace.
What can it mean to be the Body of Christ unless we give ourselves to the coming of God’s grace and mercy, and participate in bringing it to reality for one another, and for each of God’s children? “And you, child…”: these are the words that God sings over each one of us, not just at our birth, but each new morning, God’s tender love rejoicing at our beauty, God’s tender mercies leading us onto the path of peace.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Fred Rogers, 20th century
“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
Black Elk, 20th century
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, 20th century
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
Thích Nhất Hạnh, 21st century
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
“Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.”
“There is a reality in blessing….It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.”
Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
“Hope is a waking dream.”
Bill Watterson, 20th century
“‘How come we play war and not peace?’
‘Too few role models.'”
Carl Sandburg, 20th century
“A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”
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