Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Luke 1:68-79‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour 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.’
The Stories That Pave the Way: Luke 1:68-79
The early parts of the book of Luke are kind of like our Christmas Cantata. There are a bunch of different songs and they can be sung together to tell us a story about the Messiah. In this cantata there are three solos and one song sung by the choir. Our Gospel reading for today is that the second solo, the one by the priest Zechariah. While the solo before his, Mary's song, might be a little bit better known, this song, too, is worth hearing. Mary's not the only one who has been visited by the Holy Spirit and who will soon have a surprising child. Zechariah's wife will soon have a baby boy, too. In many ways, this baby's birth is almost as surprising as Mary's child's. So surprising that Zechariah wasn't even sure that it would happen.
Let's take a moment to remind ourselves just who Zechariah is. Zechariah might remind you of some other people we've learned about it the Bible. He is a priest. He is quite devout and quite elderly, as is his wife Elizabeth. She is a relative of Mary's. She is as devout as her husband, perhaps not surprising because she is descended from the line of Aaron, Israel's first priest. The Gospel of Luke tells us that they, like Abraham and Sarah, have wanted to have children, but have been unable to do so. In a society like theirs, to be without children was not just unusual, but often taken as a sign of disfavor from God. And, yet, though they certainly grieved their infertility, they also seemed to find comfort in their faith, following the commandments, with God's help, to the best of their abilities. Then, one day, something wonderful happens.
Wait. I bet you're thinking that I'm going to talk about a baby as the wonderful thing. Yes, eventually I will, but first, something else happens. Zechariah was chosen to give the offering of incense in the temple. That may not sound that special to us accustomed to seeing incense used regularly in Christian churches. Some Christian priests get to burn the incense all the time. In Zechariah's time, things were different. Lighting the incense was a great privilege that was granted only once in a lifetime. Had this been the only thing that happened to Zechariah that day, it probably would have been enough for him to sing out in surprise and thanksgiving. As he lit the incense, an angel appeared inside. Obviously, Zechariah was filled with fear. That is a very reasonable response to a radiant angel suddenly appearing in an empty room with you. The scripture says that he was overwhelmed by his fear.
In the dark inner room, with incense smoke swirling around them, the angel Gabriel looked at Zechariah and said, "Do not be afraid... for your prayer has been heard." Do not be afraid... this is certainly a powerful word to hear during a week following yet one more mass shooting. Do not be afraid for God will keep God's promises. God will provide for you what you have needed and your family... your little son... will be instrumental in changing this world. Gabriel told Zechariah that his boy would be a prophet, following in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah, and would prepare the people for the Lord. But, Zechariah, too overwhelmed by his fear and by the enormity of an already enormous day, could not quite believe what Gabriel was saying. Like Sarah, who we read about way back in Genesis, the one who laughed when she heard that she would be pregnant, Zechariah asked how could he know that this was actually going to happen. He knew that he and his wife were well beyond typical birthing years.
Gabriel responds with something akin to "Are you kidding me? Look at me... I'm Gabriel. I glow and stuff. I have a giant sword. You can believe me. God told me to come bring you this good news." It seems a little harsh. Then, Gabriel tells Zechariah that since he didn't believe him, he would not speak until the day that the things he told him would happen actually happen. This, also seems a little harsh. I mean, Sarah didn't zapped for a giggle. Gabriel seems a little hot-headed. But, he is an angel who hangs out with prophets. That is not easy work. Perhaps it's not surprising that he is a little cantankerous. Zechariah became silent. Elizabeth also became pregnant. She was overjoyed and not nearly so overcome by fear as her husband was. Maybe she remembered the lesson from Sarah. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me." But, even in her joy, she stayed in seclusion. No one seems to have known about the pregnancy until several months in when her young cousin Mary came to visit.
Gabriel had come to talk to Mary, too. We'll hear more about their whole conversation in the coming weeks, but, one thing that they talked about was Gabriel confirming that Elizabeth was indeed pregnant. It's not clear why Mary came to see Zechariah and Elizabeth. I wonder if Mary was so awestruck by her own unlikely pregnancy that she had to go spend time with her older cousin who was also miraculously pregnant. Who else would believe them? Maybe they sat around sharing their hopes and fears for their sons. Maybe they just needed to complain about all the ways that being pregnant is super uncomfortable. We are not told exactly how they spend their time together. What we are told, is that while Elizabeth praises God and Mary sings her own joy, Zechariah is silent, unable to say aloud whatever was on his heart and mind as he waited to see if his son would be born.
Finally, the baby was born healthy and screaming into the world. Well, I'm mostly imagining the yelling. I know that this baby will grow up to be John the Baptist. I don't imagine that he was a very quiet kid. But, Zechariah still did not speak, even after he saw the baby born safely. Even holding that child in his arms did not take away his fear. For 8 more days, he was silent. Then, it came time for the child to be circumcised and named. The officiants were going to name the boy after his father, but Elizabeth stopped them. She remembered the words of the angel, and said to name the child John. This was a strange request, so they looked to Zechariah for confirmation. Zechariah, the one who has been silent for 9 months and 8 days, the one who has been afraid to believe the Good News, chose this moment to borrow some courage from his wife Elizabeth, to learn a little from her assurance that God keeps God's promises. He took a writing tablet, and wrote down four simple, life-changing words: "His name is John." His name is John.
With that, something broke open in Zechariah. The Holy Spirit converted his fear to thanksgiving. Zechariah, the one who had been silent, began to prophesy. "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them." And, what does this redemption look like? Mercy and a covenant remembered. Rescue from the hands of enemies. And, yet one more prophet, his son John, who will prepare the way for the very-inbreaking of God, Jesus Christ. Zechariah said, "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 the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." God keeps God's promises. God will provide salvation. And, God's way is a way of peace. Who among us doesn't need to be reminded that God is with us when we sit in the shadow of death? Who here doesn't need God's help to stay in the path of peace? Zechariah was prophesying to his people then, and is still singing to us now.
In a world that seems so violent, how can we gain the courage to sing the song of God's peace? Where can we borrow the courage to write down the promises that God is fulfilling in our lives? These are our challenges for today. In the face of such hatred and bloodshed, fear is so tempting. So is fatalism. We can think there is nothing we can do to fix the brokenness around us, so we become silent and inert. But, Zechariah's story reminds that we are meant for more than our fear. God intends for us to live in peace. Christ will show us how we can help him build this peace in the world around us. The Cantata is not yet over. We still have to sing our song of peace and salvation. I pray that we will not choose silence. I pray that we have the courage to live in prayerful action. It is our turn to sing next.
Resources that Pastor Chrissy used to write this sermon:
Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
Elizabeth Webb: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
Comfort My People
I remember taking a school trip to Atlanta, Georgia when I was a teenager. We were all very excited to go to the big city four hours to the South. We were going to go full-on tourist while we were there. We were going to the Coca-Cola Museum, where you can try Coke products from all over the world, most of which will rot your teeth. We would go to the very touristy Underground Atlanta, a series of shops and restaurants in a part of Atlanta that has been covered over by viaducts. And, perhaps most excitingly, we were going to the headquarters of CNN and Headline News. Not only would we be able to peak behind the scenes of a national cable news network, but we would also get to actually be on television. There was a show they did live out in the open at the network headquarters. They had the hosts and experts sit in the middle of this amphitheater seating area, and the guests, including my group of high school students, would sit around them in a roped-off area.
On the day we arrived, the topic was set to be very exciting. All that people had been talking about for several days was the mass suicide of members of an apocalyptic cult called Heaven's Gate. Thirty-nine members of the group, all but 2 of their total membership, had purposely ingested poison out of the belief that once they died, their souls could board an alien spacecraft that was following the comet Hale-Bopp in a near earth orbit. For so long, their religious beliefs initially seemed to be a fairly harmless mix of Christian apocalypticism and New Age-y alien lore. Their religious community existed for about 20 years without any kind of violence or self-harm. Then, in 1997, that all changed. Their leader grew afraid or inspired or something and thought the earth was about to be destroyed. The only way that they could escape would be to first destroy their earthly bodies so their souls could join the aliens and proceed to their next spiritual level.
We high school students were very excited to talk about such a scandalous event, an event that would have almost seemed funny had it not been so awful. Most of us had grown up hearing some version of Christian apocalypticism, perhaps even believing that we were waiting for the End Times and Christ's return. For those who believed in Christ's imminent return, cults like Heaven's Gate gave the Apocalypse a bad name. Of course aliens weren't going to take your soul to heaven. That's not how the End of the World works. These folks were simply foolish and not following the Bible. Or, they had been deceived by the Devil. Either way, how could anyone take the End of Days seriously if these pretenders kept popping up. People needed to be ready and watchful for the signs. This kind of thing was just a distraction.
Now, with nearly 20 years of distance, I can say that I actually agree that these kinds of cults do give the Apocalypse a bad name. Despite the fact that Jesus calls upon us to be willing to make sacrifices, any religious community that asks you to kill yourself is not following Christ. That being said, I think a bunch of other folks are giving the Apocalypse a bad name, too. I can't count the number of times that I have heard the End of the World used to manipulate, shame, and coerce people. I have heard so many people speak with glee about the destruction they are observing in the world as a sign that God is finally dealing with the sinful people. I have heard too many version of this statement: These people will finally get what is coming to them now that Jesus is getting ready to return. I am pretty sure that if you see earthly devastation as the Good News in the Apocalypse, you are doing Christianity wrong.
That being said, I don't think that we who are followers of Christ get to ignore the Apocalyptic strains of our faith just because some people use it to be hateful. Christianity, from it's inception, has been firmly rooted in the idea that God is thoroughly invested in the well-being of humanity. This, too, is the soul of the strains of Jewish Apocalypticism out of which Christianity grew. This is a theology born in the experiences of a people mired in oppression and war, deeply in need of an intervention from a force beyond what they could muster on their own. They came to believe that God controlled everything that happened to them, good and bad. In the end, though, God would bring redemption. God would bring them peace. At the very center of this kind of theology is not fear but hope... hope for the future and trust that God intends good for God's people.
This is theology that undergirds our reading from Isaiah. It begins with hope. "Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term." They would no longer be punished for the ways that forgotten the commandments to love God and love the neighbor. God's grace and peace are described as a radical disruption of the oppression under which they lived. It is a like a wilderness road made easier to travel because the valleys would be lifted up and the mountains would be brought low and the rough terrain would become a flat plain when God changed the world. The people of Jerusalem would be able to see the evidence of God's work in their lives and testify to it with confidence to all their neighbors. They will look to the revived world ahead of them, and they will say, "Here is our God." So, this message from Isaiah ends in hope, too. Hope for the new way through the wilderness that God has shown them.
Like his ancestors before him, Jesus knew what is was to live mired in oppression and war. Like his ancestors before him, he lived in a nation that was controlled by wicked outside forces. Perhaps he understood his own life as one of these radically disruptive signs of God's inbreaking. Maybe he knew that it was his calling to remind his people of their Divine hope for the future. Rather than describe valleys raised up and mountains laid low, he spoke of the sun, moon, and stars, the sea and it's waves all being changed by God's intervention on behalf of God's people. When he shared this Apocalyptic vision with his followers, he was telling them that it didn't matter than Rome had taken over their country and co-opted their king. It didn't matter that their holy days were surveilled by the Empire for possible acts of sedition.God had delivered them from Babylon. God would deliver God's people once again. God was bigger than Rome. Like the people of Jerusalem before them, Christ assured his followers that, even when the world seemed most dangerous, you can still have hope. Even though you will see terrible things, you will be able to stand up and raise your heads high, knowing that redemption is drawing near.
The Gospel of Luke seems to understand the ministry of Jesus to be a hinge in human history, a central pivot point in the life of God's people that ultimately points us to redemption and peace. We are to understand that Christ's life, ministry, and conquering of death as radically changing the trajectory of history. I think we begin Advent with this Apocalyptic story from near the end of Jesus' life for a reason. It reminds us of the ultimate hope that the people were looking for, and found, in Christ. People were not looking for a simple change of their current predicament. They were looking for a world-altering, star-shaking, mountain-toppling re-orientation of their nation back towards God's redeeming love. They saw this in Jesus, a man of scandalous birth from a nowhere town who's first bed was a feeding trough. This warning about the end of the world isn't here to make us afraid of the destruction. This Apocalypse is not here to terrify us. It is here to remind us that God intends us to live with Christ's help and hope. It is here to point to God's ultimate hope and care.Christ's own ministry will help us to figure out how to respond to the devastation around us. Our goal for this season is to be begin watching for signs of hope in his life as presented in the Gospel of Luke. Hope is here. May we find it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy used to write this sermon:
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2692
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3740
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=480
Kristin J. Wendland: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2254
Elna K. Solvang: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1099
Kathryn Matthew Huey: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_november_29_2015
Walter Wink: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2208
Info about Heaven's Gate: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaven%27s_Gate_(religious_group)
Salon article about Heaven's Gate: http://www.salon.com/2014/11/15/anatomy_of_a_mass_suicide_the_dark_twisted_story_behind_a_ufo_death_cult/
Pulpit fiction: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/143-advent-1c-nov-29-2015
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). pg 353-355
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.