Advent II Year C                                                        Canticle of Zechariah

6 December 2015                                                       Luke 3:1-6

Ashland UCC

The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett

 

In the name of the Holy One, who is and was and is to come.  Amen.

 

We can’t listen to that song or light our candle for peace this morning without talking about the week we’ve all lived through.  Another mass shooting.  More innocents slaughtered.  More accusations hurled.  More fear, more fatalism. More stupid polarizations fueled by the media.  As if there was a dichotomy, an either/or choice between prayer and action.  Give me a break!  Of course we are to pray.  Of course we are to take action.  Some of us will continue political activism to influence public policy on gun control.  Some of us will work for increased resources for the mentally ill.  Some of us will courageously continue being first responders to scenes of violence and suffering.  Some of us will support the traumatized and grief-stricken.  Some of us will do what we can to alleviate the isolation and alienation of those in our own communities.  Of course we are called to take action and of course we are called to pray.

And so we light our Advent candle for peace this day in the midst of the present darkness.  And we continue to hold hope – hope for ourselves, for one another, hope for our communities, for our nation, for our violent world.

And has it not ever been so?  Here again we face into how the season of Advent calls us to be counter-cultural.  We are neither to buy into shallow optimism nor fall into hopeless despair.  As a nation, we no longer can live in denial of our own brokenness, nor of the brokenness in our own souls or in the soul of the world.  But as artist and author Jan Richardson says, our God is “The God of the Long Haul.”  It is a particularly difficult long haul right now, so we cry, “How long, O God?  How long before you come again and set things right?”

As we seek peace in our present darkness, I would like to tell you the story of old Zechariah, a minor Advent character who has something to say to us about grief and what it’s like to have given up hope that things will ever change.  So listen to his story, what happened to him, and how he came to believe that God is with us in ways beyond what we can imagine.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been married for a good long time. They lived in a little Judean hill town, about a three days journey on foot from Jerusalem. (When Pam Shepherd and I went to Israel a few years ago, we both loved the ancient little town of Ein Karem, still lived in. We didn’t walk there; we took the bus from Jerusalem. Instead of three days, it took us about thirty-five minutes.)

The sadness of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives was that they had been unable to conceive a child.  One senses they had long since come to terms with that fact, since both were probably in their sixties when the events of this story took place.  In the normal course of his priestly rotation, Zechariah made the three-day trek to Jerusalem to fulfill his duties at the Temple.  One day while he was there, he was selected by lot to be the priest who took the incense into the temple.  Alone in that holy place, surrounded by holy smoke, he was encountered by the Angel Gabriel who said, after telling him not to be afraid (because that is what angels always say when they come to us because, of course, we are afraid; wouldn’t you be?).  Gabriel told him, to Zechariah’s utter amazement, that Elizabeth was to bear a son, that he was to be named John, and that the child would be a joy and delight and become great in the sight of God. Gabriel went on at some length about the future of this remarkable child.

When Zechariah found his voice, he said, in effect, “Are you kidding me?  Seriously? Elizabeth and I are both really old.”  (Please take note: There is more than one miraculous birth in the season of Advent. There is unexpected new life all over the place.)

Gabriel was not amused. He said, “Because you doubt me, an angel sent from God, you will not be able to say one word until all these things have come to pass.”

Zechariah had now been inside the temple for quite a while, and the people outside were wondering what had happened to him. When he finally appeared, he tried to make signs to them about what had happened since he couldn’t speak.  The others realized he must have been overcome by a vision.  Zechariah finished out his term of priestly duties in silence and when it was time, he went home to Elizabeth.  Mute.

Contemporary Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeault says the sometimes our spiritual lives need what she calls “a stick in the spoke.”  Think of a bicycle wheel and now imagine someone putting a stick through the wheel.  Brings you a sudden and complete stop.  We’re forced to get off, stop our usual patterns, and figure out what to do next. Seems to me, that’s what Gabriel did to Zechariah when he made him unable to speak.

Well, you don’t have to talk to make love. And, wonder of wonders, Elizabeth did become pregnant, and was overjoyed.  As we know from Mary’s story, when Elizabeth was about six months along, she warmly welcomed her young kinswoman when Mary came to visit, Mary herself astonishingly with child.  Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, until Elizabeth delivered.  (Side note:  Isn’t it interesting that Mary was present when Elizabeth went through labor and childbirth?  I can’t help but think that experience was helpful to Mary when three months later, it was her own time to deliver, far from family and home. Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

Eight days after the birth, at the ritual circumcision and naming, Elizabeth announced that the baby’s name would be John.  Of course in that culture it was the father’s privilege to name the child, but Zechariah was still mute.  The neighbors were aghast at Elizabeth’s choice.  “You’re not calling him Zechariah, for his father?” they asked her. “No,” said Elizabeth – who had clearly found her own voice during Zechariah’s enforced silence, “his name is to be John.”  Just as the Angel Gabriel had directed.

And with that, Zechariah’s lips were opened, and after nine months and a few days of silence, the first word he spoke was “Blessed!”  “Blessed be the Holy One, the God of Israel!”  From despair and disbelief, into joy and blessing.

From silence to song.

Zechariah’s song – called a canticle — is what we read together as the first reading. It’s found in Luke’s gospel.  For 1500 years, monastics have recited this canticle in the early morning as dawn breaks.  Its Latin name is The Benedictus, for the first word Zechariah spoke: Blessed. Zechariah had had a good long time to ponder the message of hope from the angel, a baby given to a man and a woman who had given up hope.  Emptied out by silence, Zechariah was now ready to witness to an utterly unexpected future of new life, given by the grace of God.

In his song, Zechariah praises God for setting people free and for keeping the divine promises of deliverance and mercy.  Then in the most beautiful – to me, anyway – in the most beautiful words of the song, Zechariah turns from God to his own little 8-day old baby boy and sings:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,

                        For you will go ahead to prepare God’s way…

            In the tender compassion of our God

                        The dawn from on high shall break upon us,

            To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

                        And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

In her own meditation on this story, artist and author Jan Richardson writes, “full of wild hope, [Zechariah sings]; knowing the state of the world, he sings.” 

And so it came to pass. John grew up and spent his own time of silence in the wilderness until the day came when he burst forth on the banks of the River Jordan, calling us to get ready for the in-breaking of God’s Reign.

Which brings us, of course, to our second reading.  Having moved backwards in Advent time to John the Baptist’s birth, we now fast-forward thirty years.  Luke firmly and precisely locates us in historical time. Luke is telling us: this really happened.  It happened here.  It happened during when the Emperor Tiberius had been in power for 15 years, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, when Herod ruled Galilee, when Annas and Caiphas were the high priests, that’s when those men had the power (or so they thought), that’s when it began, the in-breaking, it was then that John, son of Zechariah, came out of the desert wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (we’ll get to that next week) so we would be ready for the The Beloved when he arrives.  And besides, says Luke, (now time is tumbling backwards again) – all of this was predicted five hundred years earlier by the prophet-poet Isaiah, because this John is whom Isaiah was talking about when he said, “listen to the one who is crying out in the wilderness”:

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Fill up the valleys, level the mountains and the hills, straighten out the crooked places, fill in the potholes.  Create a highway, because the Holy One is coming to you.

Here’s what I think, what I believe.  To guide our feet into the way of peace; to hold hope – that is precisely how we prepare a way for God-with us, and we’re all called to the job.  It is our Advent highway construction work.  We first tend to the inner terrain of our own souls.  We do our work there in silence. Perhaps we have even been rendered mute by our formidable resistances, by our unwillingness to believe in divine promises.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit puts a stick in our spoke. We wait, and we watch, and we pray.  And we also do our Advent highway construction work in the world, as we take care of one another, especially the weak and the poor and the lonely and the lost, and we tend to the pothole-filling work of reconciliation in our selves and in our families and in our communities and, God willing, in our world.

And while we pray and take action, we — because we already know how this story ends – we, like Zechariah, we sing. “In the darkness, we sing; and in the shadows of death, we sing;” out of our long Silence, we sing, “Blessed!  Blessed are you, O God” and blessed are we, for we put our faith that

            In the tender compassion of our God

                        The dawn from on high shall break upon us,

            To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

                        And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

Amen.