This is the first Zechariah had spoken in months.
Luke takes more time than the other gospel writers to walk us into the story. Matthew gives us a genealogy, but Jesus is born by verse eighteen. Mark starts with Jesus’ baptism, as does John in a slightly different way. Luke begins, after a brief dedication, by introducing us to this priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah, in the line of Aaron, set up by the great King David . His wife, Luke tells us, was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They seem like nice enough folks, until Luke shows his cards in verse 7, “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.”
That’s our clue that God is about to do something magnificent. We are transported back to Abraham and Sarai, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Elkanah and Hannah, stories at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures, families that God had chosen before to bear the promise. Zechariah is at work in the temple one day and an angel appears…poof! The angel tells him not to be afraid, for his wife will soon bear a son. John, who we get to know as John the Baptist, will prepare the way for the Lord. But Zechariah is skeptical. Have you seen us? He says to the angel. We’re not as young as we once were. The angel strikes him mute for his unbelief.
Elizabeth becomes pregnant. The scene shifts then to another angelic appearance, a young woman engaged to a guy named Joseph – her name is Mary. The pieces are sliding into place. Mary wonders how this can be, and the same angel tells her that her relative Elizabeth – Luke waits until now to make the connection between Mary and Elizabeth – in her old age is pregnant. Mary goes to see Elizabeth, Mary sings her magnificat, her hope-filled song of praise. When Elizabeth has her baby and she names him John, the family is confused. That’s not a family name, someone whines. Zechariah asks for a marker and a white board. His name is John.
THEN Zechariah’s mouth is opened, tongue freed, Luke writes, and he speaks this word that is today’s text. It begins in praise. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel – God has looked favorably on God’s own people and redeemed them. God is in the process of raising up a savior, in the line of the great King David. This One will bring salvation, ushering in the kingdom of God. Zechariah looks back even further – this Savior will be the fulfilment of the promises first made to Abraham and Sarah – also too old to have a baby. So that we, God’s own, might serve without fear, in holiness and righteousness all of our days.
Zechariah turns, in a shift in the text and in what I imagine as a beautifully tender moment, addressing his son. I see him holding him in his arms. And YOU, dear child, will be called the prophet of the Most High. You, my son, have a crucial role to play, to let people know that One is coming who is filled with righteousness and justice and mercy, One who will offer forgiveness and redemption, bridging the gap between our brokenness and God. Then we get these final two verses that feel like a blessing, from father to son, but also to all of God’s people, to us. By the tender mercy of God, dawn from on high will break upon us, the light WILL COME, to give light to ALL who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Hope is coming, Zechariah says. Hope is coming.
But until then, we wait. And we hope. And we do our part to align our work with that of John the Baptist – to point to this One who has come and will come again, Jesus the Christ. On the front of your bulletin you’ll see a piece of art that helped me this week. Matthias Grünewald painted in the northern part of Germany just after 1500. For many years the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in only in Latin. None of the people spoke Latin, so churches commissioned pieces to be set up behind the table – as a visual aid. This piece of art focuses on the cross, the scene being played out in its own way at the Lord’s Table. Mary collapses in grief in the arms of John the disciple, beside Mary Magdalene. John the Baptist is to the right. At his feet is a lamb, Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who holds a cross and bleeds into the chalice. John the Baptist stands, holding scripture in one hand, and pointing to Jesus with the other. Look at his index finger. Now, there is no way his index finger is that long. But, what Grünewald is doing by painting the finger that long is emphasizing John’s task. “For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of his salvation to all people.” The words, written in the crick of his elbow – that are really hard to see – are in Latin, quoting John 3:30, when John the Baptist says, “He must increase, I must decrease.” Even before he was born, in today’s text Zechariah proclaims his son’s task, to point to Jesus.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with many of you in the last couple of weeks, both before and after the election. Much of it involved dismay and frustration with the whole process, as glorious as I still believe our democracy is. Much of it was about the tone, the language, the lack of substantive debate. After last Tuesday some of it was about grief, and shock, and fear – expressed by children, by families of immigrants, by minority groups that wonder if they have a stake in the future of our country. Some of it was a tempered optimism. Some of it was a desire to wait and see. We are surely a divided nation. We were that way before the election, it only focused our attention. But the question, no matter how you feel, is the same. And, to be honest, it’s the same question it’s always been: How will we be faithful? Here, this Christ the King Sunday, as we remember the baby born who lived and died and reigns in power over ALL things, in today’s text the question is a bit more precise: How do we point to Jesus?
I am talking about in EVERYTHING. If we believe, as our tradition holds, that Christ is Lord of all things, then there is no area of our life in which he is not in charge. There is no area of our lives we get to set aside. There is no sacred/secular distinction, no place you can hide away that Jesus can’t touch, that Jesus won’t transform. This is a lot of work, but how might you subject your life to that test – is what I just did or what I am doing pointing to Christ? In your eating and drinking, in your family relationships, in the things you say, even offhand, in the emails you send. In the commitments you make of money, and time, and energy. In this contentious political season that isn’t going away anytime soon, I want us to wrestle as well as we can with how our lives and how our community points to Jesus. That is our test.
I specifically want to challenge you to point to Jesus in two ways. First, in listening. To, in the lines of a Brief Statement of Faith, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced. To carefully try and hear what people are saying, who disagree, who have a different perspective. I challenge you as you spend time with family over the holidays, these things can get touchy. But maybe there is a cousin, or an aunt, that you can sit down with and say, help me understand where you are. Don’t argue. Just try and understand. Bridges are built this way.
But also in our speaking. How do the words you speak proclaim what you believe? Words matter. Some of those words are calls for unity and reconciliation. Some of our words must also be calls to speak out against hate. I am so grateful for our president-elect on 60 Minutes looking into the camera and saying clearly to folks encouraging anger and hate: “Stop it.” But for whatever reason, in seasons of division and strife people feel emboldened. So we must speak…every church in this state ought to be condemning the KKK march in eastern NC here Saturday after next. Anger and fear must not win, and using those tools for division, no matter what party you vote for, is NOT who we are. We must subject it all to the test of pointing to Christ. Does the way I listen point to Christ? Does my speaking point to Christ? Not my own agenda. Not any particular partisan end. But to Jesus, who is, in fact, Lord of all.
This was John’s task, given before his birth, Zechariah proclaims. As a father says to his son:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.”
And then he offers a blessing:
“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.”
To guide all of our feet, in these days of turmoil, into the way of peace. May it be so. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. See I Chronicles 24:10
2. See Genesis 12 and following for Abram and Sarai, Genesis 27-35 for Jacob, I Samuel 1-2 for Hannah.
3. This and more biographical information found here.
4. “Trump Calls for Hate Crimes to Stop” ABC News, YouTube.