Where Is God Leading Me?
December 20, 2015
It was 1949, Sunday morning in early June, in a little southern Indiana town. Betty had just graduated from high school. She and her family were attending Sunday services at the little country church they attended, when Betty noticed the handsome young man across the aisle. He was passing through on business. Betty knew nothing about him, but by the third verse of the opening hymn she had fallen in love with his strong jaw. Two weeks later, she went away with him, and they were married.
A year later, the traveling businessman left her, and Betty returned home with a baby girl. Her father, George, went to the train station to pick them up and drive them home. Betty sobbed the whole way; her tears rained down on her baby. “We still love you,” her father said. “I hope you know that.”
The next Sunday, George took Betty and his little granddaughter back to church. Whispering began as they entered. George stood tall, daring anyone to look crossways at them. In his sermon, the preacher spoke against divorced people. George reached over and put his arm around his daughter, drawing her close.
Small town communities can be wonderful and supportive, and they can be terrible and judgmental, all at the same time. The latter response tends to gain the upper hand when something new and different comes along. That’s true for all of us who are human beings, no matter what size community we are part of. The town of Nazareth was no different.
It was a wonderful thing that Elizabeth was pregnant, especially at her…advanced…age, and that of her husband Zechariah. Clearly God had smiled on them, and who would not want to support something that was so obviously an act of God? When the baby was born they celebrated - brought meals over, fussed over the newborn, passing him from one to another, declaring him the most adorable baby born to anyone…of any age.
When the time came for his circumcision, the ancient ritual of claiming a baby boy as part of the House of Israel, they trooped back up the hill to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house. The ceremony was also a ceremony of naming, although not to choose a name for an infant boy, but to confirm a name already chosen. The townspeople had every reason to assume that this baby – a first-born son – would be named after his father or grandfather. That was how it had always been done; it was how they believed it should always be done.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth have been through a lot of changes in these last nine months. You might remember that Zechariah was a priest, and that despite their many years of marriage they were childless. Zechariah had been serving his turn in the Temple, offering incense in the sanctuary, when the angel Gabriel appeared to him, saying that he and Elizabeth would have a child. When Zechariah expressed skepticism about the angel’s promise, Gabriel lost it a little bit, pointed the angelic clicker at Zechariah, and hit the “mute” button.
It has not escaped me that it is not just the good people of Nazareth in this story who uphold tradition, the old ways of living and seeing and being. It is Zechariah, too – the religious professional in the story. I think Luke knew what he was doing when he painted this picture of the Rev. Zechariah who served God in the holy Temple but who was unable to believe that God could do something new in his life. And so the clergyman’s punishment was to lose his voice. He was forced to remain silent for as long as it took for the new miracle of God who was his son to grow and be born.
Zechariah’s vision of what is possible with God gestates along with the baby. Elizabeth breaks with social custom first. “His name will be John,” she tells the crowd. The people turn, incredulously, to Zechariah. Surely the preacher will uphold tradition in his own family. Zechariah writes John’s name on a tablet, and as he does so, he finds his voice.
Indeed, once his voice returns, Zechariah’s song pours out of him like “Singin’ in the the Rain” does from Gene Kelly. His song is one of several songs in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth; it’s the longest, and it overflows with language that we would recognize from the Psalms of the Old Testament.
The Canticle of Zechariah (or the “Benedictus” as it’s also called) falls naturally into two parts. The first part looks back. It expresses God’s faithfulness and redemption in terms that would have made a lot of sense to the people listening to it: it speaks of a savior who delivers God’s people from their enemies. But it does this using the past tense: God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them… God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors.
The second half looks forward; it uses the future tense to speak about salvation as something new, something different that God is doing, something for which the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth will pave the way.
Remember, as we hear Zechariah’s song, that he and Elizabeth will not be around to see what their son is part of. They are older parents, by the time John is grown, they will most likely be gone. Maybe that is a blessing, also, since John will eventually be thrown in prison and executed.
But on this day, when John is barely a week old, his father is filled with the hope that accompanies new life. It is the hope born to one who now can see God’s faithfulness. It is the hope of God’s salvation and peace for all people: Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders, rich and poor, blind and lame, tax collectors and sinners, women and men, old and young, fishermen and farmers, Samaritans and soldiers, lepers and lawyers.
Zechariah blesses his son who will prepare the way for God's son, participating in God's mission of salvation which comes about not by vanquishing an enemy – and this is what is so surprising and new about the second part of Zechariah’s song – but by the forgiveness of their sins.
John prepares the way of the Lord who saves us by forgiving our sins. And indeed, John’s cousin Jesus will throw forgiveness around recklessly, offering it to people whether they deserve it or not, whether they know they deserve it or not.
“The dawn from on high will break upon us,” Zechariah says because of the “tender mercy” [or “compassion”] of our God. It’s a lovely phrase, tender mercy, but the Greek word for “tender” is literally “entrails/intestines/innards.” God affection for us is not sweet or sentimental, it is a deep, wrenching, gut-level compassion for all of us who sit in darkness, without understanding or vision or real life.
Finally, Zechariah says, this salvation that his son will announce and prepare a way for, “will guide our path into the way of peace.” By the time Luke wrote all of this down, the Romans have destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and they maintain the peace by way of intimidation and oppression. In Luke’s time, no less than in the decades earlier when Elizabeth and Mary gave birth to their sons, and certainly no different than in our own, the message of God's peace comes to a world more practiced at the art of warfare than it is at the craft of reconciliation.
Notice that when Zechariah speaks about the kingdom of peace, it’s not a glorious time or place that arrives triumphantly to save the people. Rather it is a way of being in the world that fosters real peace: God’s shalom, wholeness and well-being for all people and all of creation. This is true of all of the words Zechariah has used: forgiveness, compassion, mercy, peace. These are not things or states of existence, they are actions, new ways of living in the world and with one another.
It seems that Zechariah’s months of silence have birthed something new in him. Without the ability to speak, he has had the chance to improve his ability to see – now he sees himself differently, his people differently, and God differently. His song is not just a birth announcement for his son, it is an announcement of the birth of a new vision of God’s salvation.
If we can see salvation through Zechariah’s eyes, we will see that it has nothing to do with our accomplishments.
- God’s salvation does not come because we have gone to church or gone to the right kind of church;
- it does not arrive because we have behaved without sinning, or without certain kinds of sinning;
- salvation is not ours because we spend time with the right kinds of people or say the right sorts of words or profess to believe the right kinds of ideas.
God’s salvation is ours when we recognize that God loves us, and all of humanity, with the deepest, most gut-wrenching compassion.
- God’s salvation is ours when we recognize that through that compassion God forgives us – releases us from the grip of our sin, so that we and all creation are free to live in the wholeness and well-being that is God’s peace.
- God’s salvation is our when we see ourselves, our neighbors and our world through God’s eyes, full of possibility, full of promise, ready to be transformed.
And such vision is impossible when we are holding on to the past. Not just holding on to the sins that have been enacted against us, but holding on to our old sins: the beliefs and habits and self-narrated stories that have kept us blind, prevented us from seeing anything new or becoming anyone new.
When we know ourselves as truly Beloved of God, when we see that we are truly released from our sins, anything is possible. We don’t need to be perfect; we are already redeemed.
Betty is 70 years old now. She is the Lay Leader of her little country church, the same church she grew up in and returned to with her father by her side. She is the first female Lay Leader that church has ever had. When someone in the church goes through a divorce, she takes them under her wing. She visits them in their home and says “We still love you. I hope you know that.” She takes them back to church, and if other people whisper and stare, she stands tall and puts her arm around them and draws them close.
One Sunday the preacher got to talking about divorce, speaking against divorced people. The next day Betty paid him a visit in his office and told him a little story about a young woman fresh out of high school in 1949, who fell in love with a young man and went away to get married and how, to her deep shame and sorrow, it didn’t work out. People still talk about it. “Maybe,” she told the preacher, “instead of pointing fingers, you can encourage these people who have had their lives torn apart. Maybe you can help them live new lives, instead of pointing out what was wrong with the old ones.” The preacher listened and learned.
To live into God’s possibilities, freed from past fears and sins, open to a new future, willing and able to make it real and alive in your life and the life of your community – that is salvation. The salvation of which Zechariah sang; the salvation for which his son John prepared; and the salvation whose birth in the form of a baby we will celebrate on Thursday evening.
On Friday, when Christmas morning dawns, once again the tender mercy of God will break into the darkness of our world, and once again, the darkness will not overcome it.
Timothy Clayton. Exploring Advent with Luke: Four Questions for Spiritual Growth. Ave Maria Press, 2012.
Philip Gulley, Home Town Tales. Multnomah Publishers. 1988.
James Hanson Commentary on Luke 1:5-13, 57-80. December 20, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2571
Rolf Jacobson. Commentary on Luke 1:68-79. December 06, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
Audrey West. Commentary on Luke 1:68-79. December 06, 2009. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Alyce M. Mckenzie. Between Text and Sermon: Luke 1:68-79. Interpretation 55 no 4 Oct 2001, p 413-416
Sarah Dylan Breuer. Sarah Laughed: Second Sunday of Advent, Year C. December 7, 2006. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2006/12/second_sunday_o.html