Full of grace and power

A sermon for Christmas 1

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147
and Acts 6 & 7

When it appeared the time between writing a Christmas sermon, and the 1st Sunday after Christmas sermon was rapidly collapsing, I thought I’d just borrow the core from a previous year’s sermon. It turns out I haven’t preached the 1st Sunday after Christmas very much. Most often, I had taken the week after Christmas off, as we visited one family or another. Okay, I’ll borrow the core of a previous St Stephen’s sermon. There was one, and you have heard it. So, here we are.

Once again, after reading, and prayerful cogitation, not to be confused with a nap, the divine muse offered an idea. Acts refers to Stephen as full of grace and power (Acts 6:5). The prologue to John describes a man sent from God, who is not the light but testifies to the light (John 1:6). And to those who receive and believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God (John 1:12). And a bit later:  we have received grace upon grace, … grace and truth (John 1:16, 17). A life, known for an eloquent defense of the Gospel, grace, and power, resonates with John’s description of one who testifies to the light being full of grace and truth. Stephen’s life resonates with John.

You know something of Stephen; at least that his last name “is not Spielberg or King” (Johnson). You know there was a dispute in the early church about the fair distribution of food and that Stephen is among the seven chosen to resolve the problem. You know Stephen is martyred. You may not know why.

In addition to waiting tables, Stephen is a powerful preacher, healer, etc. He gets into a conflict with a Synagogue of Freedmen; Jews who have returned from Roman slavery in the dispersed Jewish community.  They are unable to overcome his teaching and preaching, about how to be faithful toward God (Gavenat and Petersen). They didn’t like it, so they charge him with blasphemy and drag him before the council. Sound familiar?

In defending himself, Stephen recites a salvation history, not unlike what we hear in the Great Easter Vigil (Ryan). He talks about the promise God makes Abraham and the covenant that follows. He covers Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt, and the Jacob’s family moving to Egypt. Then moves on to Moses, and the gift freedom given the Hebrews. And then their rebellion, including the whole golden calf incident; and drawing from Amos, a lesser known offense, of worshiping Moloch and Remphan (Amos 5:25-27) (Copeland Acts 7). He finishes with a history of the Tabernacles, the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem; concluding that God does not dwell in anything made of human hands. And having gone this far in disturbing his accusers, he charges them of behaving like their Jewish forefathers, in resisting the Holy Spirit, and killing prophets. Horrifically enraged, the Freedmen drag Stephen out of the city, and stone him to death. In the process, Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God, offers his life to Jesus, and asks forgiveness for his persecutors. Sound familiar? By the way, he is loving buried by devout men lamenting his death (Acts 8:2).

There is a strong similarity between Stephen’s life described in Acts, and Jesus’ life described in the Gospels. But what I’m curious about is the similarity with John the Baptist as a witness to the light. Both are exemplary disciples, whose lives we tend to put up on a pedestal, as far beyond what we might accomplish. This line between the extraordinary and ordinary is not helpful; and in truth, it runs against our lives as incarnate people, as baptized people (Johnson). Gavenat and Petersen note we cannot serve the word and not serve at table. The grace that enables Stephen’s eloquence inspires his table service, feeding the widows of his community.

Living a life, that follows Jesus is a generally accepted model, even if often shunned as impossible. And while our lives may not match Jesus’ in the dozen or so points that Stephen’s may, we can, in our own way, be servant leaders, we can, within our own calling, be full of the Sprit, we can, within our own gifts, show signs, and wonders. By the way ‘wonders’ is not about the miraculous, or supernatural, it’s about the depth of care we demonstrate in doing something for another who is in a difficult circumstance. And even if we don’t perceive an ability to do much, we can change our behavior for the better in the parlance of Stephen’s story, we can stop throwing stones. As hard as it is to confess, we throw stones more frequently than we think. More often than not we throw stones that are words of hate, words of disapproval, or words of judgment (Ryan).

In these remaining ten days of Christmas, I pray we take the time to prayerfully discern:  how we are incarnate, how we live in the Divine Light, how we receive grace and truth, and how we share them in:  healing the broken hearted, binding wounds, lifting the lowly, providing refuge, or serving at the table of the other. May the incarnate light shine through our lives, on the lives of family, friends ~ and Freedmen.

 


 

References

Copeland, Mark. Bible Study Guides. n.d. <http://executableoutlines&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Johnson, Edwin. “Confusing The Sacred & The Profane, Christmas 1(C) – 2015.” 27 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

Ryan, Linda. Speaking to the Soul: Why Wenceslaus went out that day…. 27 12 2015. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Christmas Blues

A sermon for Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 (15-20), Psalm 96

I’m usually tired of all the Christmas music by now. This year I’m not. It may be because I haven’t heard much. And that that is because I’m not listening to the usual and customary radio or Pandora stations. Actually, I’m glad, as strange as it may seem, because all those banal tunes tend to add to my holiday blues; it may get bluer, and I’m already blue enough.

If the street talk is correct, we may have to rearrange our nativity. Rumor is Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem. Mary rode mule back, as Joseph guided the Kawasaki all 70 to 80 miles. The crowded roads made for a very long trip, and I pretty sure it was not so comfortable; especially for Mary at nine months pregnant. When they did get there, the only place to stay was in a back yard shed, way out on the out skirts of town (Allen). I’ve also heard, that the shepherds can’t find a way around the fence at the southern border. There is a report that the Angels got stopped by TSA. Those whole body x-ray machines showed their wings, and no one believes the archangel’s story about shepherds and the King’s birth. Everyone thinks it some sort of wild fairy tale. And the three kings, they have been picked up by Homeland Security. No one believes they aren’t refugees with a very imaginative story. Times are dark.

There is the growing international ISIL threat, shootings in Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino. There are the continuing concerns about numerous black folks killed by police officers at times under questionable circumstances. Declining middle-class industrial jobs is generating fear in previously stable and productive segments of society. Some politicos are exploiting this fear, spouting blame while offering no real solutions. There is the continuing shifting power balance between the US & our allies, whoever they are, and the old, we thought vanquished, Russian Empire; in addition to the rising unpredictable China. In the last few months, we’ve heard about a dubious hedge fund manager exploiting opportunities and raising the cost of a vital but inexpensive drug 5000%. And he is not the only one. We have local troubles of our own; there have been waves of vandalism, theft, and shootings; there have been layoffs and job losses, in the midst of a near normal unemployment rate; and we have our own local political intrigue. Times are dark.

But it is not the first time. The dark is woven into many of our Christmas Hymns. And yes I know it’s an Advent hymn, none the less it reveals the way,

             O come, o come, Emmanuel
                        and ransom captive Israel (Hymnal 1982 #56 ),

            and then:

             O little town of Bethlehem,
                        yet in thy dark streets (#78),

            O Savior of our fallen race,
                       our constant star in sins deep night (#85),

            God and sinners reconciled
                        born to give us second birth (# 87),

            He on Adam’s fallen race
                        sheds the fullness of his grace (#88),

            Yet with the woes of sin and strife
                       o’er all the weary world.
                       above the sad and lowly plains
                      Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long (#89)

            to save us all from Satan’s power (#105),

            all in the bleak mid-winter (#112).

A couple of thousand years ago it was dark. Mary rode the mule; Joseph walked as he guided the four-legged beast. They were off to Bethlehem to get counted so they could pay taxes to the empire that occupied their lands (Allen). At this particular time Israel is occupied by Romans; before then they were occupied by the Greeks, and before then the Persians, and before then the Babylonians, and before then the Assyrians, and before that they fought one Kingdom against the other. For nearly 900 years, they have either been occupied or fighting each other (Factsheet Chronology). And we should not forget Israel is a people who came to be in slavery in a foreign land ~ in Egypt. Isaiah speaks a far deeper truth than we realize: The people who walked in darkness… those who lived in a land of deep darkness. (Isaiah 9:2) Time and again the political and military rulers followed the devices and desire of their own hearts rather than trust in God. Time and again, the religious leaders, save an astonishingly few prophets, went along. The darkness that faces us this evening has faced followers of God, for millennium of years (Brooks).

But the truth is the darkness has never been dominating. O Little Town of Bethlehem reveals the deeper truth

             in thy dark streets shined
            The everlasting Light,
            the hopes and fears of all the years,
            are met in thee tonight

            The dark night wakes,
            the glory breaks
            and Christmas comes once more

Our Lord Emmanuel abides with us. (Hymnal 1982 #78).

The dark diktats cannot hold. Jesus was born; the incarnation was accomplished. The everlasting light, the great light has shone is shining on the world; it never has been, nor ever can be overcome.

O Little Town of Bethlehem not only reminds us of the light of Christ coming into our world; the hymn points our way forward. Bits of two verses:

            So God imparts to human hearts, and

            Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door

reveal that we have our part to play. Jesus’ birth, the incarnation, helps define our Christian calling.

William Templeton, a former Arch Bishop of Canterbury, believes the incarnation calls us to build the kingdom of God on earth. God incarnate in Jesus, makes social transformation possible; it is our calling to work for justice and reconciliation. Evelyn Underhill writes about committing our lives to the work of the continuing incarnation in prayer and action. It does not matter how blue one is, it does not matter how dark it is, each of us in our unique way can do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micha 6:8) (Butterworth).

Tonight we have once again witnessed the light of the world; once again we hear that we are the torch bearers.

As feed the hungry we prepare him room (Hymnal 1982 #100).

As we clothe the naked, we receive him (#100).

As we heal the sick, we adore him (#83).

In bringing shalom, wholeness, to one little corner of creation, we join with angle choirs sweetly singing through the night Gloria to God in the Highest (#96).

 


 

References

Allen, Ron. Commentary on Luke 2:1-14(15-20). 24 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. “Commentary on Isaiah 9:27.” 12 12 2015. Working Preacher.

Butterworth, Susan. “People of the Incarnation, Christmas Day (C) – 2015.” 24 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

Church, Episcopal. Hymnal 1982. 1982.

Lewis, Karoline. God Said Yes to Me. 6 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

Christmas, Christmas blues, incarnation, the darkness, Christmas light, Luke, O Little Town of Bethlehem

 

Welcome and Love Those Who Are Not Our Own.

A sermon for Advent 4

Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 3 or 15 (Luke 1:46-55); Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

She is a coupon queen. She never heads to the grocery store without them. Then again, she almost has to be; it takes a lot to feed seven kids, four of them nearly grown. So I was not surprised when she decided to accept a challenge this year to feed her family on a dollar a day, per person I think; either way, it is quite a challenge. She was very upfront about the guides she would follow, healthy was number one, and not putting her children at risk was a close second. The whole family participated, changing eating habits, and following the agreed on rules.

I was a bit surprised she managed the feat, it reveals just how fortunate we are when it comes to assumed basics like food. I was not surprised when I heard she would take on such a challenge. She has never shied away from a challenge. For several years they have been foster parents, often welcoming hard to place, and occasionally hard to manage children. Two years ago, they welcomed two children, who were both hard to place, and hard to manage. One motivation was to keep siblings together. A year ago they adopted them. I have always marveled at their capacity to welcome and to love, those who not their own.

I know there is a shortage of foster and adoptive parents. And so it is a wonder that I know three families who, in one fashion or another, are taking on children who are not their own. And I know of three families, who have taken on children who have close family relations. All are welcoming and loving of divine measure.  This morning we hear a middle part of Mary’s story; her visit to her relative Elizabeth, also pregnant with divine involvement. And yes, I know I’ve called them cousins before; however, I was reminded this week, the Bible only says they are ‘relatives’ (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). We presume a close relationship between Elizabeth and Mary; it is possible Elizabeth lovingly welcomes a distant, little-known, perhaps unknown, and perhaps disgraced young woman, overturning social customs (Lewis). We also heard her reply to Elizabeth’s greeting blessing Mary and her child, acknowledging the baby to be “my Lord” before Mary says anything to Elizabeth. Is Elizabeth a prophetic voice?  possibly (Jones, Commentary on Luke 1:39-45). Next we hear Mary’s response, a song of praise, we know as the Magnificat.

It is not an unknown response. Recently we read Hanna’s song, her response to a divinely assisted pregnancy. We may remember   Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Samson’s unnamed mother who all bear children with divine assistance (Scoopmire). But there is a difference for Mary. The other women were barren, and one way or another sought God’s help in having a baby. For Mary, it is a very different story.

Mary though is betrothed; she is unwed. She is not her own person; she literally belongs to her father and is the subject of the contract between him and Joseph (Hoezee). She has not asked to be pregnant. The truth is being pregnant is the last thing she needs. We read the story of Gabriel’s visit, the annunciation, as Mary meekly accepting what is said. We overlook that she is being asked to bear and raise a child, who is not her own. We overlook the social cost. We overlook the courage Mary shows when she accepts. While Gabriel speaks what is to be, it is not yet accomplished. It does not come to be until Mary says let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38)    only then does the Holy Spirit come, only then does the Most High overshadows her. Mary is free to choose (Scoopmire). She chooses to welcome, bear, birth, raise and love one who is not her own.  There is nothing meek or mild in Mary’s action. Her response to Gabriel’s invitation reveals abundant trust and strength. She knows who she is; she knows who is will be (Scoopmire). And that wisdom infuses her song of praise.

The vast majority of the Magnificat is Mary’s praise of God. Yet, the opening five words:   My soul magnifies the Lord are perhaps the definitive words. Mary credits the Lord for overturning the status quo, and restoring justice and righteousness in the land; at the same time, she accepts her part in magnifying, making visible to all the majesty of God’s presence. For Mary being blessed has nothing to do with living a living of honor and ease (Jones, Commentary on Luke 1:46-55). Mary’s blessing is living a life that magnifies, makes visible, makes human, the works of God.

That has me wondering:  How do I; how can I magnify the Lord?  How do we; how can we magnify the Lord?  How do others magnify the Lord?  How do others magnify the Lord for me, for us? To be honest, it is a bit daunting to ponder being a sort of divine light against the bleak midwinter’s darkness (Lose). However, there is encouragement   in realizing Mary’s strength comes not from her prowess, but from her lowliness. It is a reminder that in magnifying the Lord, we are enough, as we are (Burden). It is a prompt that as strangers, friends, or family cry in the darkness we are enough to magnify the Lord (Epperly).

Last Friday, The Society of St John the Evangelist’s AdventWord was ‘Prepare.’  Br. James wrote:

We have just days to get ready for Christmas, and there is a lot to do. But the most important thing is that only you can say ‘yes’ to God. Only you can build that temple in your heart where the one whom the heavens cannot contain may dwell.

The days are short, yet we can still say “yes,” we can magnify the Lord, we can welcome and love those who are not our own.

 

 


References

Bratt, Doug. Advent 4C | Center for Excellence in Preaching. 20 12 2015. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Burden, Richard. “My Soul Magnifies the Lord, Advent 4(C) – 2015.” 20 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Advent 4, Cycle C. 20 12 2015. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – Fourth Sunday of Advent. 20 12 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 4C | Luke. 20 12 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 20 12 2015.

Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 1:39-45. 20 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

—. Commentary on Luke 1:46-55. 20 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Koester, James. “Prepare.” Brother, Give Us AN AdventWord. SSJE, 18 12 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. A Merciful Advent. 20 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 4 C: Singing as an Act of Resistance. 20 12 2015.

Pankey, Steve. Advent 4’s Peculiar Collect. 16 12 2015.

Scoopmire, Leslie. Speaking to the Soul: The Rebel Mary. 18 12 2015. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

 

 

 

 

Do We Want God In Our Midst?

A sermon for Advent 3

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. Oh really? We want God among us. Really? Think about it for a moment. I know what we hear Zephaniah say this morning; how divine judgements have been taken away. I know we hear that disaster has been removed. I know we hear God will:   save the lame, change shame to pride, bring us home, make us renown, restore our fortunes. I know we hear similar words from Isaiah:  that we trust in God, and do not fear. I know we hear how God is our stronghold, how we will sing praises about God’s mighty deeds. But really, do we want God among us?

You see what we don’t know are the first three chapters of Zephaniah. He is a prophet in the time of Josiah, one of Israel good kings, who tries to institute reforms. Unfortunately, he is killed in battle with Babylonians. Israel is thrown into turmoil, political and religious leaders cave in, and fall completely away from God. Zephaniah opens with a call for worldwide, for cosmic destruction. Oh, there will be a remnant, but they are not spared; they just survive (Luther Seminary).  Zephaniah is one of the grimmest, saddest most frightening books in the whole Bible (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Zephaniah). Isaiah is in a similar position. Israel is now in exile. The fires of faith have absolutely gone out (Jacobson). It is a cold, dark world.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels between Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s world and ours. Some politicians and religious leaders conspire against the people they are called to serve. Some loudly profess to believe in God and then serve other gods, other values, by their actions. Others claim God for themselves, ~ and us, and then use that claim to dismiss “the nations of the world” be they refugees, or a different race, or a different faith. It seems most people don’t really believe   God gets angry (Bratt). It doesn’t take much imagination to see the similarity between falling religiosity in the US and Europe and the cold fire of faith of Israel in Babylon. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the fear the death of Josiah evoked, as the equivalent to the perceived fall:     of respect for or the power of the US across the world.

It’s a dark, cold world. So absolutely YES!    Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. But really? Are you really ready, really willing to stand on the banks of the Jordan? Are you really ready to face the prophet whose has come out of the wilderness? Are you ready to answer him? Not the question about who warned you; oh no, the implied question of the opening salvo “You brood of vipers!” Are you ready?

I hope so, we should be   ~ the light is growing. Today is as Gaudete Sunday, marked by the pink candle, symbolic of the growing dominance of divine light. In the midst of darkness, it really is time to rejoice (Pankey, we are sorely hindered). As much as Zephaniah justifiably rants about unfaithfulness, and hypocrisy, at the end of the cosmic day it is God’s commitment to restoration and new life that makes the difference (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Zephaniah) (Stewart). And so yes, we want God’s power and might to root out or keep out all the evils. If only. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s wrote:

If it were only that simple. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being (Jones).

 

John the Baptist points to the same truth. The people by the riverside want to know what’s to be done. Notice that John does not take on the imperial oppressors, political conspirators, or the corrupt religious officials. John answers them literally:   if you have 2 shirts give one away; if you have food do the same. There are no qualifiers:   for what you have; or the worthiness of the recipient. He tells tax collectors and soldiers there, don’t steal, don’t extort money. A colleague puts it this way:   John says: share, don’t cheat and be nice (Pankey, The Terrifyingly Mundane). John sends those people, sends us, back to ordinary lives, only to live them better, more honestly, as service to others; to live spiritual lives in the ordinariness of our little corner of the world (Lose) (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Luke). John does not ask us to change or save the world; God is taking care of that. John is asking us

to witness the change already in process, by actually living like it’s here, like we believe it’s really coming, like we think it actually matters (Lose).

 

Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. The prayer is already being answered. It is not always comfortable for us. We will have to continue to acknowledge:   our other allegiances, where our actions do not meet our commitments or professions (Stewart). It is a daunting reality, but the light [point to advent wreath] is dominated and continues to overcome the darkness; it will never fail. By the light, we can recognize our illness:    physical, mental, spiritual, or moral; acute or chronic. By the light we can be healed, brought to shalom, wholeness of life; we can walk the right path, we can see the Kingdom, present and possible. By the light, we can witness to God’s truth in the face of worldly powers that tries to suppress it (Expertly) (Lewis). By the light we know:

The LORD, our God, is in our midst (Zeph 3:15b), surely, we will trust in him and not be afraid (Isaiah 12:2a).

 By the light we know:

the peace of God, which passes all understanding, is keeping your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord (Phil. 4:7) (BCP, 339).


References

Bratt, Doug. Advent 3C | Isaiah. 13 12 2015. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 13 12 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 3C | Zephaniah. 13 12 2015.

—. Advent 3C | Luke. 13 12 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 7:24-37. 6 9 2015.

Jacobson, Rolf. “Commentary on Isaiah 12:26.” 13 12 2015. Working Preacher.

Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 3:718. 13 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Advent Expectations. 13 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 3 C: Ordinary Saints. 13 12 2015.

Luther Seminary. Zephaniah. n.d. <http://www.enterthebible.org/&gt;.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle — Philippians 4:4-7. 13 123 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “The Terrifyingly Mundane.” 10 12 2015. Word Press: Draughting Theology.

—. We are sorely hindered. 13 12 2015.

Pillar, Edward. Commentary on Philippians 4:47. 13 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Stewart, Anne. Commentary on Zephaniah 3:1420. 13 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Taylor, Jemonde. “Rejoice and Seek, Advent 3(C) – 2015.” 13 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

A good time for Advent.

 

A sermon for Advent 2

Malachi 3:1-4, Canticle 4 or 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Zechariah is an experienced priest. He comes from a long family of priests. Elizabeth, his wife, is a descendant of Aaron, the first chosen priest for Israel. Censer in hand, he slowly walks through the temple, into the inner court, into the sanctuary of the Lord. Always the sanctuary is empty; ~ not today, today Gabriel Archangel of the Lord looms before him. Sensing Zechariah’s fear he speaks:  Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John (NRSV Luke 1:13).

Don’t be afraid? It has been 400 years since there has been a word from God (Hoezee, Malachi). Not a single prophet. 400 years! To put this in perspective, the US is only 239 years old. 400 years ago was 1615, when Samuel de Champlain found Lake Huron; and French missionaries arrived in Quebec (hisdates.com). 400 years from now will be 2415. I Googled it and other than the reference to Zager and Evans 1969 hit In the Year 2525 the only references were to projections of real estate and energy prices (Google.com). 400 years is a long time; a very long time; and not a single divine word, not one. And now an Archangel shows up; in the Temple; in the sanctuary of the Lord no less; and he says, “Do not be afraid.” Too late!

The rest of Gabriel’s message is actually hopeful. Elizabeth has been barren lo these long years, and Gabriel says their prayer will be answered, Elizabeth will bear a son, and they are to name him John. There is the prediction about his life as the messianic prophet. There are some instructions about how to raise him. I wonder how Zechariah heard any of it; I do not think I could have; I would have just stood there, mouth gapping open – an archangel!  Zechariah does better, well mostly. He asks How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years (NRSV Luke 1:18).

Apparently Gabriel gets annoyed and strikes him mute until these thing occur (NSRV Luke 1:20).  When he come out of the sanctuary, the people notice Zechariah is mute. They believe he has had a vision. They apparently do not think anything is wrong because he finishes his term and goes home.

Sure enough, Elizabeth conceives. And then five or six months later, her younger cousin Mary conceives; surprise. An aside – Mary asks Gabriel How can this be since I am a virgin?  (NRSV Luke 1:34) after his pronouncement that she will conceive and bear a son. A similar question to Zechariah’s, but there are no consequences for questioning. Perhaps this is another subject for another day; back to our story this morning. Mary and Elizabeth spend some quality time together. Mary goes home, and then Elizabeth gives birth to a son, whom she names John. It’s an unusual request; there is no one by that name in the family, that Zechariah confirms by writing on his tablet. Immediately he is able to speak. Bedlam breaks out in the midst of which Zechariah speaks his eloquent prophecy; we know as Canticle 16.

A colleague of mine notes how Zechariah expresses no anger towards Gabriel or God (Pankey). He simply praises God for a savior. Then he speaks to his son, You, my child, proclaiming him to be the prophet, who, as Gabriel said, will go before the savior. If we look at Elizabeth’s song (admittedly envisioned), Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song we will see a growing sense of the prophetic, that the power of the Spirt is emerging (Jacobson, Luke 1). Zechariah’s prophecy about the savior is in past tense:  he has come, and he has raised up; this is classical prophetic tradition projecting the sense of that which is already in process but has not yet come to fruition (Bratt).

We know about John’s role as a prophet preparing Israel for the arrival of her savior. But he is not the only one who is a part of preparing the way. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary all help prepare the way.  Even with their doubts, they take on their appointed divine tasks. And they do so for the benefit of all God’s people.

In his commentary, Joseph Pagano notes that with the invention of the light bulb, life has gotten out of balance. The light bulb eliminates the natural rhythm of day and night, interrupts the balance of work and sleep (Pagano). Is it any wonder we struggle to see God’s salvific plan (Lewis)? Is it any wonder we overlook God’s presence in our lives? Is it any wonder we live in darkness?

The last several weeks have been astonishingly dark:  an Airplane blown up in Egypt, terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali, a mass killing at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, a probable terrorist inspired mass shooting in San Bernardino. There are the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. There is the rising tension between Turkey and Russia. There is the ongoing crisis of refugees fleeing the middle east to Europe. There is the less dramatic, though nonetheless tense, negotiations about climate change. And all of this is on top of the ebb and flows of everyday life.

This ~ this is a good time for our Advent traditions. It is a good time to stop, to slow down, to turn out off the light, if you will, and allow ourselves, body and soul, to regain our balance. It will take time to allow ourselves to be refined (Epperly). And I mean to be refined; while, like Zechariah Elizabeth, and Mary, we can open ourselves to God’s presence, it is the work of the Spirt that does the refining.  Now is a good time to walk away from the powers of this world, who do all they can to convince us they are in control, they aren’t, and follow our forbearers out of Egypt, out of Babylon through the wilderness (Hoezee, Mark) (Jones). Advent is time for us to be unbound from the constriction of other ways; it is time for us to change our direction and begin the, perhaps, tentative journey along the way, along the path to divine light. And it is oaky, perhaps an expectation, for us, along with Mary and Zechariah, to express some doubt as to how. Even for committed Christians it can be a new experience:  to see the appearance of the Divine presence, to see salvation unfold.

Though I have and will attend my share of them, Advent is not a time for programs, concerts, cantatas or Lessons and Carols. Advent isn’t really a time to await the appearance of the baby Jesus, or to await the return of the King. Advent is a time to see anew salvation ~ that is already present. It might even be a time to follow Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary in accepting our calling to prepare the way, for ourselves, individually and as a faith community, and also for all God’s people.

 


References

Bratt, Doug. Psalm. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 12 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Google.com. Google.com. n.d. 4 12 2015.

hisdates.com. hisdates.com. n.d. 4 12 2015. <www.hisdates>.

Hoezee, Scott. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Malachi 3:1-4.” 6 12 2015. Working Preacher.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Luke Luke 3:1-6. 6 9 2015.

Jacobson, Rolf. Commentary on Luke 1:6879. 6 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 3:16. 6 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. The Being of Salvation. 6 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Pagano, Joseph. “Finding Balance , Advent 2(C) – 2015.” 6 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

Pankey, Steve. “What Zechariah Teaches Us.” 6 12 2015. Word Press: Draughting Theology.