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Light in the darkness. 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. This was Zechariah’s song. It was an old song and at the same time a new song. What might God do in us this Christmas that is new, in light of the stories that we are reading. In light of the songs that are being sung. Let us look this morning at the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and little John who would go on to become known as “The Baptist” (and we like that don’t we?) and hear what God has to say to our hearts, and see what God will illumine for us this 2nd Sunday of Advent.
A miracle baby. A birth that was announced by an angel. A surprise. New life. I’m not talking about the birth of Christ, but of the birth of his cousin John. The one who we read about last week leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greeted her – filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. Chosen even before his birth. Of course, any story that we look at in the Bible needs to be read in the light of Christ. This story of John the Baptist is ultimately one about Christ. We read in Luke 1 about a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah – one of 24 priestly families. His wife Elizabeth was a descendent of Aaron. In other words their priestly credentials were impeccable. There is nothing wrong with this. God speaks to Zechariah while he is in the middle of performing his priestly role – while he is in the middle of performing his religious function (in this case to offer incense). He receives word that his prayer has been heard. His wife Elizabeth will have a son and they are to name the child John.
Right away we see that the newness in our story is grounded in a very old story. Original hearers of this story would think of miracle births. The birth of Isaac. The birth of Samson that we looked at recently here. The birth of Samuel. The original hearers of this story would have been on familiar ground, just as we who have heard the Christmas story countless times are on familiar ground.
God is at work in the familiar. God is at work in the familiar rituals. God is at work in the seemingly mundane everyday rituals. God speaks to us in and through them. Have you ever been to a Christmas Eve candlelight service? Have you ever heard God speaking to you there? Has holding a candle at such a service taken on a significant meaning for you as we’ve pondered the light of the world entering into our darkness? It can seem a little mundane can’t it? We might focus on not dripping wax onto the pew or be thinking about what we’re supposed to do with the candle afterwards or hoping nothing is set on fire that is not supposed to be on fire (!). I encourage you to come out to our Christmas Eve service this year if you can. Invite people to come. One writer puts it like this - “For Luke, God works in and through the normal avenues of life in the believing community.” The normal avenues of life. We light each others’ candles at the end and sing “Silent Night.” Bill McKechnie walks to the light panel and turns off all the sanctuary lights. Such a mundane act no? Turning off some lights. God speaks to us in these acts.
At the same time God is bringing about something new. New life. For the ancient Israelite a fulfilled life was one in which children borne. Lack of children meant an unfulfilled life. New life has been promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth. The question then becomes what did this new life look like?
It looks like something unconventional. I’ve said that God speaks in traditions. In rituals. God doing something new also means that conventionality is neither the sole means nor the end. Zechariah is rendered unable to speak when he asks Gabriel how these things are supposed to happen. He goes through Elizabeth’s pregnancy unable to speak and apparently unable to hear given the way that the crowd gathered to mark John’s birth motions to Zechariah to find out what name the child should be given. Apparently it was quite conventional in first century Judaism to give a first-born son a family name. “No,” says Elizabeth.
He is to be called John. It’s great the way that women are speaking truth and faithfulness to God in this first chapter of Luke. Karl Barth wrote that when we’re considering/debating the role of women preaching that this should not go unnoticed. So I’m not letting it go unnoticed. No, he is to be called John. Yahweh is Gracious. The crowd motions to the dad and he asks for a writing tablet and writes on it “His name is John.”
So new life in this story means Yahweh is gracious. But what does this mean? There’s a personal aspect to this new life, of course. To be a follower of Christ means to have a personal experience of deliverance. We talked about this last week. I asked the question “What one word or phrase would you use to describe what the Mighty One has done for you?” There is a wider aspect to God’s deliverance too. When we gather around the communion table later we’ll take the bread individually to signify our personal experience of Christ. We’ll take the cup together to signify that we who follow Christ are caught up in God’s grand deliverance project which is for all of creation! We proclaim these thing in ritual and God speaks to us in ritual. Isn’t that amazing? Does that give you cause for joy and thanks? All of these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. The effect of God’s promise to this couple is spreading. All who heard them pondered them and said…
This I think is the key question for us to consider this morning. “What then will this child become?” What then, will I become? It’s a good question. It’s maybe the question of our lives. What will I become? What am I becoming? The message that Luke is conveying to his reader and hearers, and by extension to us – these words that have rung out now for 2,000 years. That the answer to this question is found up in the person and purposes of Christ. Somebody has said that we should read all Biblical characters in the light of Christ. I would extend this to say that we should read our own lives, our own stories – we should see our own lives and stories in the light of Christ. This is why we light candles you see.
The answer to “What then will this child become” is found in the person of Christ, even though at this point he’s not even been born yet (but don’t worry, it’s coming – we’re waiting…). Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, Zechariah says. This story is bound up in an old story and promises that were made a long time ago. The promise was first made to Abraham wasn’t it? Now something new has happened. He has looked favourably upon his people. The word for looked favourably is the Greek word for visit. It’s the same word used in Exodus 4:31 and Ruth 1:6. God’s visit is not like a possibly unwelcome and possibly longer than expected visit by family members at Christmas time. God’s visiting us means redemption. It means bringing us back to him. It means doing something for us that we could not do ourselves. The answer to “What then will this child become?” is bound up in who God is and what God does, because it is in who God is and what God does that our lives were created to be bound up. Look at Zechariah’s words – “He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors.” God has kept his promise. God keeps his promises.
It means being rescued from the hands of our enemies so that might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. It means being rescued from the hands of the accuser – the liar. The one who tells us that we’re not God’s beloved creation. The voices that tell us our worth is in what we look like/produce/consume. We’re reminded in Zechariah’s song that systems which reflect such lies are anathema to God. That they will not ultimately win the day. That one day God will put all things right and that he invites us to be a part of this delivering work.
This new life looks like forgiveness of sins. It’s a deep down heart knowledge that God forgives and is merciful. By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us. This word for tender is one you’ve maybe heard me speak of – splanchna. It’s another word for innermost being. Guts. What we would call visceral. The mercy of God which flows from the depths of God’s heart, from God’s innermost being. The dawn from on high will break upon us – again the word for break upon is visit. To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Again with the light. And know friends that there are people all around us who feel that they are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. In hopelessness. In despair. In meaninglessness.
To guide our feet into the way of peace. The way of shalom. The way of a life lived in the way it was meant for us to live in loving connection with the faithful and loving and merciful God.
Who is always doing new things.
Like this new baby. About whom we have hardly talked. The question was about John after all. We see his life in the light of Christ. John’s life would be lived in the light of Christ. I must decrease that he might increase, were John’s words. Finding our true selves in losing our lives in Christ. John was chosen. John answered the call. He answered the choosing. To go before the Lord to prepare his ways. To give knowledge of salvation to his people. Do you remember this painting we looked at in the days leading up to Easter? John the Baptist pictured beside the cross pointing to the one who delivers us, who has delivered us, who will deliver us. It’s not just the job of preachers. It’s not just the job of Pastor Abby and myself. To make known God’s delivering loving gracious merciful just work in our actions. In our words. To come to know together what it means to have found new life and what it means to live in this new family we call the Family of God.
To see things in a new light. To have the scales fall from our eyes. Have you known this? Has following Christ caused you to see anything differently? To see people differently? This is the promise of Advent for which Zechariah praises God. This is our invitation friends. I invite you to make this your prayer this Advent. Keep making it your prayer if you’re already praying it. Lord I want to see. Give me light that I may see that way you would have me go. Give me light to guide my feet into the way of peace – into your way of love and grace and faithfulness and justice and mercy. What might it mean for our community of faith to cling to that promise this Christmas?
The invitation is there friends for all of us. If you’ve never accepted it before you can make it this morning. If you’ve accepted it and prayed these things many times you can pray them this morning. I called it the question of our lives. What then will this child become? What then will I become? May the answer be found for each and every one of us in this prayer: “Lord I want to become what you have always meant for me to be. Thank you for delivering, for forgiving, for your mercy, for your light. Be the light to my path. Guide my feet into your way of peace. Shine your light on me and help me to reflect it so that others may know you too. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”