by Daniel Harrell
Today’s the first Sunday of Advent and a new church year—a big day as far as church seasons go. This is why we’re wearing purple, though some of you may be thinking more about football than Advent today—a big game this afternoon as far as the Vikings’ season goes. Being that I’m a lifelong Patriots fan, invitations to come watch have been delicately declined. Sure, you’d love to be wearing your horns in my presence if the Patriots get skewered—a chance to gloat despite Biblical injunctions against it. But what if the Vikings lose as predicted? Then you’d have to bear the humiliation and watch your language in front of the minister. I know, I know, isn’t winning another World Series enough? How many championships must Boston attain in this century? We New England expats know this can’t go on forever. Tom Brady’s too old. But then again, here in Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah were old too.
“Both were righteous before God,” we read, “following blamelessly all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” And yet for all of their righteousness they had no children, the sure sign of divine blessing and the only source of social security in their culture. Their plight was reminiscent of another famous Bible couples; namely Abraham and Sarah. Way back in Genesis, God launched his chosen people project by choosing an elderly pair with no chance at having kids. But then old Sarah gave birth to Isaac—a name that means laughter—since who could believe a woman as aged as Sarah could ever conceive. Here we’re only told that Elizabeth was “getting on in years.” Just like Tom Brady.
And just like me. I drew Elizabeth as my Advent Companion. Hopefully, you received an Advent Companion yourself, one of the cards designed by Tracy Mooty and Janet Hagberg handed out over the past couple of Sundays. They’re characters from the Christmas story to journey alongside us this season—shepherds and wise men and donkeys and sheep too. Elizabeth is famous for being Mary’s cousin and mother of John the Baptist. Old Elizabeth gets pregnant just like the old Sarah did. I’ve got the old part down, not quite sure about the pregnancy part. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul speaks about enduring the pains of childbirth throughout his New Testament letters, so I suppose there is precedent.
Advent is a season of expectancy and new birth. But also birth pains. Traditionally, Advent is about Christ’s second coming—apocalypse and doom—Christianity’s dark side, so to speak. Nevertheless, Christ’s return portends dramatic hope—a Judgment Day when all wrongs are made right and all things are made new, a perpetual nativity of heaven and earth, a home in glory land that outshines the sun. Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, a sure future breaking back into our present, a true destiny determined by God drawing us ever closer to Christ, a love from which nothing can separate us.
Elizabeth is likely the most quoted person in the Bible, right after Jesus. Millions recite her words countless times every day, especially if they are Catholic: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Elizabeth speaks these words to her cousin, overjoyed that Mary, enjoyed an even more impossibly unconventional pregnancy. “Who am I?,” Elizabeth marveled, “that the mother of my Lord should come visit me?”
It was an extraordinary encounter. In virtually every time and place throughout human history, women had a better chance of being abused by their husbands than of learning to read. Open your Bible and for at least the first two-thirds, Scripture reinforces the sense that there is no safe place to be female. In Genesis, Judah’s daughter-in-law is forced to play the prostitute to gain what is rightfully hers. In Judges, a father sacrifices a daughter to keep a rash vow in God’s name. A master slices up a concubine to make a macabre point. King David forcibly has his way with another man’s wife, then kills the husband to cover it up. Basic bodily functions render women unclean and unfit for worship, and on and on.
Until we get to Advent and God taps two overlooked and underestimated women for a redemption project: one a child bride who can be killed if her virginity is even called into question, the other an elderly wife who lives as a pariah because she has failed at her one essential purpose: providing an heir for her husband. God’s redemption project proved revolutionary: The Lord favors the unfavored. The Lord chooses the unchosen and remembers the forgotten. Those who glut themselves on prestige and riches, on privilege and supremacy and position all get dragged down. God speaks through the mouths of the silenced and shows his might through those deprived of power. God abides in those robbed of standing and worth and tells truth through those least expected to know it. The Lord moves out of the Temple, out of the palace and the corner office and every high place, descending down the back stairway into women’s kitchens, factory floors, laborer’s fields and shepherd’s caves. For now, Elizabeth and her cousin, Mary, comprehend the great things God is doing, but in time, even those who oppose will see the revolution in its rightful light.
Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, betokened salvation in classic Old Testament fashion. He dressed like Elijah, grew his hair out like Samson, bellowed like Jeremiah and baptized like Moses and Joshua, for those willing to see the Red Sea and Jordan River crossings as baptisms. Old Testament baptisms conveyed judgment and repentance; a baptism specifically reserved for unclean Gentile sinners needing a washing down by the riverside. But John reserved his river water for the righteous—for those who thought being born with blue blood sufficient. John the Baptist impeached the privileged for their arrogance. “Don’t presume you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’;” he howled, “God can raise up children for Abraham from rocks.” Being born was not good enough. You had to be born again.
So then why did John baptize Jesus? John asked the question himself. Jesus answered that it had to do with “fulfilling all righteousness,” and sure enough, as soon as John did it, the skies opened up, the Holy Spirit dropped down and, boom, the revolution was on. John the Baptist let loose, “The one coming after me is far greater than me,” he said. “I’m not fit to unstrap his sandals. I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will char with unquenchable fire.”
As far as Advent sermons go, it was a dandy. John the Baptist took dead aim at every sort of sin, especially the sordidness of Herod Antipas, the local Roman puppet ruler. Herod threw John in jail for sedition, but no matter, John knew he wouldn’t be there long. Jesus would be bringing his winnowing fork and fire. But then came the reports. Jesus wasn’t sticking a fork into anybody. Instead, he was walking around preaching about the poor and the meek being blessed and how you should love your neighbor and your enemies too. No unquenchable fire. Not even any smoke. Worried, John sent a message to Jesus to ask what was up. He wanted to know: “Are you sure you’re the right guy, or should we wait for some other Messiah?”
It’s a kind of doubtfulness John inherited from his daddy. In this morning’s passage, known in Christian circles as the Benedictus, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, prophesied a “mighty savior” to save God’s people “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Salvation of this kind normally brings to mind Playstation visions of violence and military power. But the Biblical game world deploys ironic power to overcome evil. Zechariah hints at it in the closing lines of his song: “the dawn from on high will break upon us and shine light on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Having drawn Elizabeth as my Advent Companion, I couldn’t help but think on Zechariah too. He’s an aging minister, devoted to Israel, a true patriot. He drew the short straw for incense duty in the Temple—sort of like having to preach on a Sunday night when the Vikings play New England. Nobody expected too much from God anymore. Israel was overrun by an iron-fist empire that did whatever it pleased. The local ruler was a crazy man. Pharisees and zealots fought over identity and politics. Zechariah showed up week after week, doing his duty and keeping all the commandments and regulations. But little changed. No money saved for retirement. No children. Nary a peep from the Lord for more than four hundred years.
But then we get to Advent and the angel of the Lord taps an old codger and tells him congratulations, his prayers have been answered. He’s going to be the dad of a baptist. It was a million-to-one jackpot. That an angel broke the news likely gave Zechariah heart failure. The angel offered the standard “fear not,” and Zechariah scratched his beard. “Are you sure you have the right guy? I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”
Zechariah preached and prayed according to the script every week—about faith and God’s promise and the power of sure hope and true belief—with nothing much to show for it. And then when something actually happened, he can’t really believe it, even though he’d been preaching it. Like the time I preached a sermon about the rich young ruler and selling possessions to follow Jesus, only to have a property owner tell me she sold an entire luxury apartment complex she’d inherited so she could give the money toward an affordable housing project. Horrified at her risk of faith and not wanting to be held responsible, I told her I had meant to be metaphorical. She said I was her angel anyway. “Are you sure you have the right guy?”
I wonder how I’d react if a real angel appeared. I’d probably tell her not to bother me, I’m preaching. This really ticks angels off. The angel Gabriel said to Zechariah, “Because you did not believe my words, which, by the way, do not require your faith to come true, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day your son is born.”
Meanwhile, the congregation’s out in the courtyard, waiting for worship to start, wondering what’s taking so long. When Zechariah finally appeared from behind the curtain unable to speak, we read that the congregation figured he must have had a vision from the Lord—a bonafide revelation. I gotta stop talking so much.
Silence works as well as speech. Sometimes there’s nothing to say. In a doom and gloom day when gun-wielding crazies fire at will on innocent people, apocalyptic fires rage worldwide, nations jockey for economic and military advantage, governments flounder, and churches too. Families collapse, social media supplants social connection, life expectancy declines due to addiction and despair and world peace remains a pipe dream, what is there to say? An angel finally shows up—but God’s plan for world peace is a couple of kids—one born to old people and some other to refugees in a manger. What kind of salvation is this? John the Baptist would end up with his head served up on a platter. Jesus would hang on a tree. All of it according to the gospel script—but none of it making much sense. The Biblical game world deploys apparent defeat to overcome evil—ironic power made perfect in weakness and humility and grace and love.
“Are you sure we have the right guy, or should we wait for some other Messiah?” Zechariah is given time to think about it. Plenty of time to work on what to say once he found his voice again. When he finally can speak, at his newborn son’s infant baptism—known in Old Testament practice as a circumcision—Zechariah sang a song full of the Spirit. And the church has been singing it ever since.
“Blessed be the God of Israel because he has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior in the royal line of King David the great, just like was promised, to save us from our enemies and everyone who hates us.” Like every prophet, Zechariah used the past tense to describe of the future—he declares victory before Jesus is born—a future so certain it’s as if it’d already happened. “God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” mercy as both grace and righteousness, as both reconciliation and retribution, as both forgiving wrong and righting wrong. Zechariah’s song is an oldie, a throwback to Moses and the Exodus where God threw back Pharaoh’s armies into the sea, a baptism of a harsher kind. Finally freed to worship in holiness and righteousness without fear all their days, the problem was people didn’t do it.
If you remember the story, you’ll remember Moses went to meet God, but the people couldn’t wait for Christmas. So they made their own god out of tinsel to worship—a dumb cow decked out in gold. And ever since, we humans remain impatient and prone to pursue our own short-term interests over the well-being of others and to the detriment of ourselves and even our children. And thus Zechariah adds the coda about forgiveness of sins—how his son will draw God’s people down to the water to wash and get ready for the salvation to come. We need saving from our enemies. And we need saving from ourselves. We have to be born again yet again. But childbirth is painful—women give their whole bodies and shed blood. Jesus does the same for the sake of new birth.
“Are you sure we have the right guy, or should we wait for some other Messiah?” According to the gospel script there is no other salvation, no other pathway to peace and new life. Christ has died. But Christ has risen and Christ will come again. This is our corest of core values. It is Jesus who shines light on our darkness and death’s shadow, so we can see and so we can sing.