God’s tender compassion and our wounded world
2 Advent, Year C
December 6, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Come with me in your imagination as we take a trip to a little village just southwest of Jerusalem, in the hill country. It’s called Ein Karem. That name means “Spring of the vineyard.” The land there is rolling, and it’s fairly green. You can see how any vineyard there would produce very good harvests of grapes.
This little village of Ein Karem is where Zechariah lived with his wife Elizabeth a little over 2000 years ago. They were of a prestigious family: he was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. She was a descendant of Aaron, the priestly brother of Moses.
Zechariah, whose name means “God remembers” and Elizabeth, whose name means “pledged to God” had been married a very long time, and they were both getting up in years. They never had children, which was a source of shame to Elizabeth. In those days a woman derived her wellbeing from her fertility.
One day as Zechariah was serving in the Temple in Jerusalem he was shocked to see an angel appear before him, right next to the altar where he was offering incense to the Lord. This angel identified himself as Gabriel, whom we represent artistically with magnificent rainbow-colored wings. Gabriel told Zechariah not to be afraid…which is what people often hear when angels appear. But this imposing being with beautiful rainbow wings would have struck fear into anyone’s heart.
Gabriel had news for Zechariah that was so very unexpected and so very improbable that Zechariah just could not believe it. The angel told him that his wife Elizabeth, despite her advanced age, would bear a son to Zechariah. And that son’s name was to be “John.” John was to be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. This child would grow up to turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord. He would go before the Messiah to prepare his way and to prepare the people to receive him.
But Zechariah just couldn’t believe Gabriel. It was all too amazing and too impossible. And so he pushed back. He said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” [Luke 1:18] But Gabriel “took umbrage and pulled rank” [Robin Gallaher Branch, Exegetical Perspective on Luke 1:68-79, Feasting on the Word for 2 Advent C, p. 37] on Zechariah. “He reminded Zechariah that he, Gabriel, stands in the presence of God. As such, he has the authority to rebuke. And he does!” [Ibid.]
He tells Zechariah that he will be unable to speak until after these things come to pass. So for 9 months while the baby is developing in Elizabeth’s womb, Zechariah is unable to talk. It seems it was a time of gestation for him, too. One scholar puts it this way: “Zechariah’s nine-month ‘time out’ led to profound changes in personality and faith.” [Ibid.]
Then on the eighth day of his life John is circumcised and named by his father. Zechariah actually has to write the name “John” on a tablet because he can’t speak it out loud. And just then Zechariah’s speech is restored to him and he is filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. He opens his mouth in a great hymn of praise to God and a hymn of blessing for his son.
And so today, instead of our psalm, we have this outpouring of praise from Zechariah. We refer to it as the Song of Zechariah, also called the Benedictus (for it’s first word in the Latin translation) and it’s right out of Chapter1 of Luke’s gospel. It’s also one of the canticles in our office of Morning Prayer.
Zechariah, filled with the Spirit, praises God for God’s amazing grace. He praises God for the savior who is to come—in fulfillment of so many prophecies over the centuries. He speaks of how God has made good on his promises to generations of the Chosen People, who are free to worship God without fear. And then he turns to his son John, “You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his Way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” This is God’s holy action and God’s holy prerogative: to extend forgiveness of wrongdoing and wrong-being… What better way to mark the birth of the prophet John who is the bridge between the Old Testament prophets and our New Testament messiah.
All these benefits come by way of the tender mercy of our God. And this is the magnificent climax of Zechariah’s song:
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.
This is what we need this Advent and every day of the year, really. To be brought from our own arrogance and disbelief, like Zechariah was brought, into a place of receptivity to the Divine. To be turned to God and loved, and forgiven, and made whole again. To be brought into the light and out of the dark—to be brought—because we cannot bring ourselves. To be guided into the way of peace. We need to have these good things done for us—because we don’t have the power to make them happen on our own.
This week we were reminded anew of our powerlessness, as once again there was another mass shooting—this time by terrorists among us.
We need peace. We crave it. We can only hang on Zechariah’s words that give us God’s promises. God promises to bring us from the dark into the light, and from chaos into peace.
Come, Lord Jesus, and rescue us from terror and violence of every sort. Turn us to your light, and to your will. Discipline us like you disciplined Zechariah when we need it, and fill us with your Holy Spirit when we can receive Her.
And make us vessels for your praise, so that we might, in some small way, speak out your truth and your mercy to those who are dwelling in darkness. Come, Lord Jesus, and set us free from the hands of our enemies. Show mercy to your people and remember your promises. We need your tender compassion right now.