Second Sunday of Advent: "Hold On I'm Coming"
This week we are celebrating the Second Sunday of Advent. We learned last week that "advent" is a word that essentially means "expectation" or "anticipation," and the season of Advent is a time when the whole Church is invited to lean forward in anticipation of the coming of the Christ-child. Which seems kind of strange when you think about it.
It reminds me of that infamous scene in the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby when Will Ferrell's character Ricky Bobby is saying grace before supper and insists on praying to the baby Jesus.
He says: "Dear, tiny infant Jesus, we--" His wife then interjects: "Hey, um, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him, 'baby.' It's a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby."
To which Ricky replies: "Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I'm saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want." Then he adds a bit later:"Okay. Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don't even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent..."
That's a great scene.
It does seem sort of strange that during the season of Advent our language shifts a bit, and we begin focusing on the 8-pound, 6-ounce newborn infant Jesus, rather than the Jesus who rose in triumph from the grave, and whose promised return we long for and anticipate.
But maybe that's what we need, to be honest. We need to remember the beginning of the story in order to fully appreciate the middle and completely anticipate the ending.
Which brings me to wishes.
Not the best segue in the world, but still...
Have you ever looked up at the evening sky, saw what you thought was a star all by itself, and then said the following: "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight--I wish I may, I wish I might grant the wish I wish tonight..." Or something like that?
Where did this little poem come from? And where did we get the notion that wishing upon a star was the way to get what we want?
In the ancient world there were beliefs about the gods that had persisted for thousands of years, but were sort of written down and widely accepted during the Greco-Roman period of history. The idea of wishing on stars came from the belief that shooting stars were caused when the gods would peer over Olympus down to earth. If you wished at that moment, they would be more likely to hear you and grant your wish.
This kind of cultural belief persisted for a very long time, but became part of our modern cultural imagination in the late 1800's when the poem "Star Light, Star Bright" appeared in a book of Mother Goose poems, and other publications.
Of course, Walt Disney made it famous in the 1940's with the release of Pinocchio, and the Oscar-winning song, "When You Wish Upon A Star" that is a huge part of Disney's marketing even today.
And then there's the awesome disco version by Earth Wind and Fire--"Shining Star," which just makes you want to get down, right now.
So what would you wish for--if you could wish upon a star right now? Wealth, prosperity, a new car?
Or---maybe in light of all of the terrible news that just keeps coming our way--you might just wish for... peace.
I get it. "World peace," is the stuff of beauty pageants, right? It's what some vapid young woman in a bathing suit would say in answer to the question, "What do you want most in the world?" during the interview portion of the contest. "World peace," she'll say with a brilliant smile.
The main reason why we brush aside the beauty pageant answer is because deep down inside we have come to understand that peace--at least the way that we define peace--is just a pipe dream.
The passage of Scripture that we are going to be studying today comes to us from the Gospel of Luke chapter 1 verses 68-79. This is a song, a song about the Daystar, the Christ, the Prince of Peace.
And what we're going to be holding on to today as the main thread of this sermon--the thing that I want you to remember if you forget everything else is this: When the Prince of Peace reigns in our hearts, anything is possible.
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
This passage is called "The Benedictus" in the Catholic tradition--the Latin translation of the first word of the song. In most other traditions it's simple known as Zechariah's Canticle, or song. It's a song that is also a prayer, a praise and a prophecy. But above all else, it is a wish for peace.
The singer of this song is Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Let me tell you a little bit about Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Zechariah was a Levite, part of the priestly tribe of Israel, and he did indeed serve as a priest both locally in his village and in the Temple in Jerusalem.
They also were childless, which would have been a source of serious pain and shame for them as a couple. In the first century, not being able to have a child would have been seen as a sign of sin or a curse on the family. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived through that pain, and finally grew old and beyond the years when they were able to have a child.
Interestingly, Zechariah is a Hebrew name that means, "God-remembered." Zechariah had a lifetime of disappointment, and then finally resignation. But he kept serving, kept faithfully fulfilling his duties as a priest even though I am sure deep inside he wished he'd been named something else.
He finally gets a chance in his old age to serve in the Temple in the Holy of Holies--an honor that only fell to a priest perhaps once in his life. While Zechariah is in the Holy of Holies, the angel Gabriel appears to him and gives him a prophecy that he and Elizabeth will have a son, and that this son would become a prophet to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Zechariah argues with the angel--which seems improbable, but is a fairly familiar part of these kinds of stories in the Bible. Because he argues with Gabriel, the angel pulls rank and basically says, "Are you kidding me? I come directly from the presence of God! So how about this? You'll be unable to talk until your son is born. That will be a sign for you, my friend!"
So Zechariah is forced into silence. He cannot speak. And so I suppose when that happened, he figured he better do his part to ensure that the whole pregnancy thing happened. I imagine he had to do some serious explaining to Elizabeth when he got home and wanted to---you know... only he had to do it by writing to her or through charades.
That's too funny.
So finally when his son his born, there is this big argument over what he is going to be named. All of the friends and family say, "You have to name him after his father--I mean, this is a miracle and all!" But Zechariah writes down simply, "His name is John." And suddenly he's able to talk.
What does he does he do in that moment? He starts singing of course.
This is one of 6 songs in the birth narratives of Jesus, but the only one that is actually focused on someone other than Jesus. Why songs? Were people actually breaking into song all of the time in the ancient world--kind of like a musical? And if so, why is this something that we haven't continued?
But more on that in a moment.
Everything that happens to Zechariah is essentially mirrored by what is happening to the Hebrew people at that moment in history. The prophets have stopped speaking, everything is silent. And everyone is waiting for something, anything to happen--for God to reach out to God's people once more.
And God does--through this incredible, miraculous birth of the Herald who will come before the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. The silence is broken and Zechariah who functions here as both priest and prophet begins to sing.
I still struggle with this whole singing bit. I get how it probably functioned as liturgy for the early Christian church, but did these people actually burst into song, for reals?
So I was at the Mayo Clinic this week with my mom and I was actually talking to her about this, and I mentioned the whole thing about the songs, and the musical, and why don't we live like that---because I'm not entirely convinced that it happened that way... exactly.
"I think that sometimes your song happens right after you've had some silence."
COME ON. She had no idea what I was really talking about, had no idea about the passage of Scripture I was preaching on... and then she hits me with THAT?
Listen, as I said earlier, Zechariah's song is a song of peace, but it's more than just peace like you and I understand peace. We mostly see peace as the absence of conflict, but in Zechariah's song what he's praising God for is the coming of Shalom.
Shalom is the word for peace in Hebrew, but it's not just the absence of conflict--shalom is a state of being, of existence where all is as it should be. It's the kind of peace that allows the lion to lie down with the lamb. Where former enemies not only abstain from conflict, they also grow in love toward one another.
We could use some shalom right about now.
Psychologist Murray Bowen taught that there were times when anxiety peaks in culture--something that has been true throughout history. What he means is that there are seasons when people seem even more anxious, more agitated, more susceptible to violence, conflict, rage and war.
This is one of those seasons, don't you think?
And during those seasons, peace can seem impossible.
The gloomy British philosopher Geoff Midgley told a story once about how he was bemoaning the state of the world with his landlady who also had a tendency to be a little morose. They went on and on together about how the world was going to Hell in a handbasket.
At last Midgley exclaimed, "If only there was a button we could push to just destroy the whole world and end all of this misery! What would keep you from pushing it?" "Oh," the landlady exclaimed, "I could never do that! I am terrified of electronic things!"
I think most of us are like that--we love to complain about the state of our world, but are too afraid to do anything about changing it.
The fact of the matter is that true peace, the kind that doesn't make sense, that passes understanding (as the Bible describes it)---the shalom of God comes only when we lay aside our own ambitions and passions. True peace comes when we give up control and decide once and for all to let the Prince of Peace sit on the throne of our heart.
So during this season of Advent--take this "in-between" time, this time of silence and waiting to live into Zechariah's example.
First, take the time to repent of all of the things that you have done or left undone that has kept you from experiencing the true shalom of God.
You know good and well that Zechariah spent those nine months of silence thinking deeply about all the ways he'd been faithless, and shaky in his convictions. And he repented of those things he'd done and left undone in the midst of that.
Second, start imagining what you will say--what you will sing--when peace is possible, when the shalom of God is in your heart and on the earth.
This is what Zechariah did--when his voice returned, when the silence was broken he had a song ready to sing. He sang praises to God for what God had done and was doing in that moment, and then he sang prophecy about what God was about to do in the world. He was ready. His holy imagination had been hard at work.
He saw a vision of a world made new, where enemies were now friends, where God got what God wanted at at last. He saw a vision of a world filled with shalom, completely as it should be.
Get ready, brothers and sisters. Have your song ready to sing. Because of Jesus Christ his world can be made new. Peace can happen. Evil can be defeated.
Because when the Prince of Peace reigns in our hearts, anything is possible.