This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preparing for the Light.


Luke 1:59-80.

I.
            In our story for today, the newly pregnant Mary apparently stays with her relative Elizabeth, perhaps right up until Elizabeth has her baby.  When that day arrives, Elizabeth, in her old age, gives birth to a son.  And all her neighbors and friends celebrate this great miracle with her.  Elizabeth is not isolated and alone.  She is surrounded by a largely unnamed “they” who reflect and guide the process here. 
            On the eighth day, the proud parents present their son for the ancient ceremony of circumcision, a sign of the covenant between God and Israel since the time of Abraham.  Thus we see a community extended in back in time, longitudinally, we would say today.  Some of the “they” present may refer to the elders of the community who would oversee the circumcision and the official naming of the child.
            It was customary to name a first-born son after his father, and that is what the elders assume, until Elizabeth interrupts them and says that his name will be John, Yohanan, which means “the Lord is gracious.”  This is a break with precedent, and for confirmation they turn to the baby’s father.  John will be in this community, but his name, like that of Jesus, indicates that he is not fully of the community.  The one who gives him his name is not tradition or family or community but God.  And by giving John his name, God also gives John his identity, mission, purpose, vision, and calling.
            Zechariah hasn’t been able to speak for 9 months, since the angel in the Temple informed him that they would have this son.  This is the first indication that he may have been deaf as well, as they have to communicate with him by hand motions.  He takes a tablet on writes on it, “His name is John.”  Then he launches into his famous inspired poem about who this child will be.
            But Zechariah’s words are not just about John as an isolated individual.  But most of it is about God and the community God is choosing to address in this way.  John is sent to a people.  Zechariah’s hymn outlines the important qualities of the community that will receive his son, and thereafter the promised Messiah.  In other words, I propose that these words are not just about John personally, but they also point to the kind of community that will be prepared to welcome and nurture the good news of the Messiah.
            The Church of Jesus Christ has always sung this song.  It was part of the daily prayer of monastic communities; and it is also in our own Book of Common Worship for use every day.   This song has always been something we affirm defines us as Christians.  We see ourselves in continuity with and as a continuation of the people to whom this prayer was originally addressed.

II.
            It starts off with praise to God, and, like Mary’s song, it is framed in the past tense.  It looks to the future as if it has already happened; that’s how firm is the trust and conviction of the people that these promises are in the process of being fulfilled. 
            This is the kind of faith we have to have as a community.  We have to so firmly believe in God’s redemption that it might as well have already happened, as far as we are concerned.  In fact, in a strong sense it has already happened, and it is humans who have not caught up to the reality.  I mean, our creation, redemption, and sanctification happen in time, but they are also timeless.
            Jesus says we should pray as if the things for which we are praying have already been done, that we should pray as if our prayers have already been answered.  We need to live so far as we are able in the world as God made it.  And so Zechariah prays a prayer that welcomes and celebrates something that has not yet taken place in history, but will.
            So the prayer looks ahead to promises fulfilled.  And then it also looks back at the making of those promises and their reception by God’s people.  He mentions David and the prophets, and Abraham.  The people of God are rooted in a specific tradition, which is expressed in Scripture.  Were it not for Scripture we would have no idea what to hope for.  We would have no clue about God’s promises.  We wouldn’t know anything about what God has already done for the people. 
            The “new thing” God is doing will not be totally unprecedented.  It will be consistent with what God has always been doing and what God has always promised.  That is how we recognize, verify, and identify it.  That is how we know when something is or isn’t God’s will: is it consistent with what we already know about God from Scripture?  It is consistent with the faith of God’s people from Abraham and Moses to today?
            So the community that dwells in expectation of the Messiah is one that is steeped in Scripture.  It’s stories become our stories.  They are the lens through which we interpret our lives.  And this is something that always happens together, as we gather around the Word.  These words are not meant for individuals in isolation.  The Bible was written to be read aloud to a group; the idea that everyone would have their own copy for private reading was incomprehensible to people prior to a few centuries ago.
            We are a community that bounces our experiences off of this book.  We are in constant dialogue with the word in Scripture.  It is a “light to our path” because without it we are absolutely clueless about what is going on in the world and what it means.

III.
            And the first thing that the word has to do with, according to Zechariah, is being rescued from the hands of our enemies.  He mentions this twice in the first 7 verses.  In verse 74 he says that this rescuing happens so that we might serve God.
            So the community that gathers under the Word of God gathers sustained by the experience of having been liberated from “enemies.”  Obviously, the biggest enemy from whom the people have been liberated is Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who held all the people in cruel bondage for centuries.  Other enemies include the tribes that harassed and attacked them in the wilderness, like the Amalekites.  There are the petty tyrants who ruled in Canaan, there are the Philistines with whom they were in constant competition.  And finally the succession of cruel imperial powers that swept through the area, finally taking the people into exile in Babylon. 
            And each time, God delivered the people from their hands.  Not always without great suffering.  But God always saves them.  Always.  Sometimes even by great miracles like the parting of the sea or the return from the exile.
            Enemies can just be those humans who are thorns in our sides; we all have them.  But more significantly I think enemies are these forces and powers within us that keep moving us away from God.  Addictions, habits, ways of thinking, fears, angers… enemies are stories we tell ourselves because they make some hurt part of us feel good, but they are not good.  They turn us away from Jesus and lead us into idolatry: tempting us to depend on something or someone or some power other than God.  They focus us on our losses, or just our potential losses; they dwell on our defeats and failures, they blame someone else.
            Enemies tell us lies like that we are worthless, weak, disliked, stupid, ugly, or sick.  They oppress us by taking our labor, or by obstructing our progress, or by undermining our community and our relationships. 
            These enemies can only be defeated in community.  Only by sharing stories together, where we hear how God has helped others to overcome them, do we find the strength within to overcome them ourselves.  Our internal enemies want us alone, like a lion waits for a zebra to separate from the herd.  But when we stick together, relying on each other’s experience and wisdom, listening together for God’s Word in our lives, then we are strong and secure.
            Then, even when our enemies are actual other people who bother and annoy us, their powers to do any real harm are often limited by the fact that we have the arms of a loving community to counteract their hurtful activity, a loving community representing a loving God.

IV.
            The point of all this, says Zechariah, is “to serve [God] without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”  Serving God, obeying God, following God is what we are set free from our enemies to do.  God does not free us for the sake of our own private, personal agenda.  Not even for the sake of our community’s collective purposes are we freed.  Like the Israelites, God liberates us so we may serve God.  The Israelites do not go their separate ways after the exodus; they stick together and receive the Torah so as to serve God as God’s people.
            The whole theme of my career as a pastor is that it is about discipleship.  Christianity, the spiritual life, is about following Jesus.  It is about putting your body where your faith is.  When God defeats our addiction to death, God replaces it with a freedom for life.  Now we may follow God, the Source of life, and participate in God’s life and God’s destiny.  And to follow God is to live forever because it means that eternity is present in your whole life.
            Zechariah then starts to talk about his son and his mission: “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.”
            We know God in being forgiven.  Forgiveness is what opens us up to the knowledge of God.  Not judgment.  Not condemnation.  Not threats.  But forgiveness.  If we don’t know God in forgiveness, we don’t know God at all.
            The word used for forgiveness in Greek literally means “release.”  John is to proclaim freedom, liberation, emancipation, release, letting go.  What we are to be released from is our sins, the acts of failure, our shortcomings, our habitual turning away, that separates us from God.
            In other words, it will be John’s job to proclaim to people, and give them a liturgical ceremony to make visible, their release from their separation from God.  That ceremony would be baptism, of course, a full-body immersion representing a cleansing and a new birth.  A person’s sin, a person’s opposition to God’s purposes and God’s life, was supposed to fall away like the water sheds off a body emerging from it into the light.
            The person and the community that prepares the way of the Lord proclaims and witnesses to release, liberation, forgiveness.  Our message is, “you are free!”  And it is people who receive and take to heart this message who are best able to turn and receive the Messiah, the Lord, when he comes.

V.
            The last two verses celebrate what we are waiting for, and they finally prepare us for chapter 2.  “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 light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  That’s the way John puts it.  “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Isaiah puts it that way.  Having prepared ourselves by serving God together and accepting the forgiveness and liberation God offers, we experience the divine light of God’s mercy driving away the darkness so we can see to walk in the ways of peace.
            Now, where others see an unfortunate baby whose mother is  forced to give birth to him in a barn and lay him in a feed trough for animals, we see the living God, the Creator, emerging into the creation!  Where others see just another Jewish man coming to John to be dunked in the river, we see the Holy Spirit descending upon and blessing him as Messiah!  Where others see a ragged ascetic emerging from the desert, we see the One who has defeated the temptations of Satan!  Where others see an itinerant rabbi and miracle healer, we see God-with-us!  Where others see another victim of Roman terror, nailed to a cross and left to die in agony in the hot sun, we see God’s love poured out for the release of the world from bondage.  Where others see an empty tomb, we see the salvation of the world in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, defeating death and hell, and leading us to the final victory of life.
            And seeing what we do see in faith, we know ourselves to be guided in the way of peace, the way of shalom, of justice, equality, righteousness, blessing, beauty, goodness, and truth.  The way of healing, forgiveness, liberation, and renewal.  And so these qualities are what characterize our lives.  We are witnesses to the love of God which is always being poured into the world.
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