John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, “Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.” The child grew up, becoming strong in character. He was in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.
“Zechariah’s song is all about something that he and Elizabeth could never do for themselves. These are not the stories of our journey towards God. They are the shocking stories of God coming down to do for us and through us that which we could never do for ourselves.”
–James Harnish, When God Comes Down
Zechariah had waited his entire career as a priest to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and provide an incense offering for the people. It was finally his turn. When a priest like Zechariah offered incense, he stood just outside the Veil, behind which was the Holy of Holies where it was believed that the very presence of God was manifest. Only the high priest was able to get closer to the revealed presence of God, and that was only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Jewish tradition described a priest who gets to offer the incense as “rich and holy” for the rest of his life. When he poured the incense on the hot coals, he watched the smoke rise from them, symbolizing the prayers of the people of Israel. What he got was a startling visit from the angel Gabriel with a life changing announcement- that he and his wife, Elizabeth, will have a son named John despite their old age, despite the fact that he and Elizabeth were not able to have children. John will be a delight to his parents and to many people, and will bring many back to the Lord. He will go forth to prepare the way and make paths straight, showing people the way of repentance, salvation, and peace. Upon hearing this news, Zechariah stumbled out of the temple unable to speak. Elizabeth became pregnant, just as Gabriel had said. We don’t hear another word from Zechariah until the day John is born and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy with his song.
This song, spoken or sung by Zechariah was meant for his son, but also for the people who would listen and receive a word of hope. Its lyrics take us behind the scenes into the heart of a man on the eve of the Incarnation, when God would come down to earth. Zechariah’s song is affirmation of the hope and joy to come- that his son, John, which means “the Lord is gracious,” will be the forerunner of the Savior of the world, and the dawn of a new world. In Zechariah’s song, we hear his vision for John- that he will tell people of forgiveness of sin, he will share the joy of the dawn of heaven breaking upon God’s people, and giving light to those who sit in the darkness. And finally, he will guide all on the path of peace. After not speaking for 9 long months, Zechariah chose words that spoke right to the heart of a people in need of these things- of forgiveness, compassion, hope, light, and peace- words that we still need to hear today.
Have you ever had a time in your life when you knew you were standing on the brink of something big? Maybe you had felt it coming for a while, or you get a feeling that something is on the horizon, but you don’t know what quite yet. Or perhaps you know it’s time for something in your life to change, but you are waiting for a sign or the right things to fall into place. From the moment that Zechariah set foot in the temple and met the angel Gabriel, he knew that he stood on the brink of something big- not just a miraculous child, but also at the brink of welcoming a Savior into the world. He had front row seats to God’s biggest event, about to unfold before him. He and Elizabeth were the ones chosen to be the forerunners for a new world, a new people, a new kingdom.
This past week, Corey and I were reflecting on the day that we met outside the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta. It was the 2nd day of seminary orientation. We became fast friends, and starting dating about a year and a half later. It’s been quite a journey. We were reflecting back on the moment we met as we were acknowledging that we are now standing on the brink of our next new adventure of having a baby- and it will probably be the biggest adventure yet. I know it is coming, and it’s hard to fully accept and embrace all that I am feeling, and I’m taking it with a lot of faith. It’s like many new, big, and important things in our lives that we await with anticipation, hesitation, worries, and perhaps some fears. Perhaps you are standing on the brink of something big or are anticipating something to happen. Maybe it’s a new job, or a medical procedure, or you are awaiting to hear some kind of news about yourself or a family member. Maybe you are holding your breath along with the rest of the world and waiting with worry to see what tragedy will unfold in the world next. Perhaps we are all waiting for some kind of emptiness in our lives to be filled with joy and hope.
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story invites us to feel the spiritual emptiness and longing that they faced in their inability to have children. But God came down to them into the midst of their emptiness, setting them on the edge of a new life in the form of a child who would prepare the way for Jesus. Zechariah’s song, then, is about something that God has done that Zechariah and Elizabeth never could have done for themselves. Not unlike the people surrounding Zechariah and Elizabeth, we too are people who are sitting in the darkness and need guidance on the path to peace.
Many of us turned on our TVs or computers this past Wednesday to see the news of yet another mass shooting in our country, this time in San Bernadino, CA where 3 suspects, armed with assault rifles, shot and killed 14 people and wounded at least 14 others at a community center. News quickly spread throughout the country as we watched in horror as these events unfolded throughout the day. There was actually another mass shooting on the same day in Savannah, GA that was not reported as widely where a man opened fire on 3 men and 1 woman. This all coming after the massacre at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last week, and a few weeks ago a man turned himself in for shooting 17 people at a playground in New Orleans.
An online article was going around over the weekend that caught my attention with this headline: “There have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this year.” Let that sink in for a moment. The BBC news network, while reporting on the latest mass shooting in the United States, titled their report, “Just another day in the United States of America: another day of gun fire, panic, and fear.” Once again, many people, including politicians with the world as their stage, requested nothing but prayers from the American people.
The front page of the New York Daily News on Thursday was this:
This wasn’t an attack on God or religious belief, but a bold statement to say that we as American people, especially those in power, need to do something about a country gone out of control with guns, violence, our justice system, and perhaps anger and mental illness. Prayer is meant to be put into action. If we just pray and say words, then we are doing nothing. We are fixing nothing. We continue to propel cycles of violence with no end in sight. We are a tired people. We have become a hopeless people. We have lost our way.
On the other hand, if we were to argue against this headline, we might say that God has already “fixed this” by showing us the ways to live in peace, to love one another, and to value the humanity of each person (Bishop Coyner). We just have to put those tools into action as we live out our lives on the pathways to peace. Zechariah’s song reminds us of this “fix” that God provides through repentance, peace, and paving the way for Jesus.
Zechariah’s song for his son, who would become John the Baptist, the man who would preach repentance and forgiveness of sin, is just as relevant to us today as it was on the day Zechariah made his song known to those who would listen. He awaits the day that these things will come to pass, where God will pour out his compassion upon those who walk in the dark, where people will repent of their sins and return to the Lord, where humanity longs to be guided on the path to peace. We, as those who are receivers of this compassion and mercy, must preach shared responsibility, that prayers alone are not enough- that we must change our hearts and minds into actions and to know that we always must begin again by seeing new ways that God is coming into the world and being a part of bringing God into the midst of our broken and violent world.
I don’t own a gun. I have never shot a bullet or been to a gun range. I have never picked up a weapon against another human being. But I am still part of a violent culture. I still want God to come and set things right because we have surely lost our way. But we can no more cause God to come down to be among us than we can make the sun rise in the morning…but we can train our eyes to see the light when it comes (Harnish, When God Comes Down, 11). We can be a part of making the light known as we reflect it to others.
Zechariah knew that this was his task- to prepare the world for his son that would pave the way for the light…for the path to peace. John the Baptist, after all, preached a gospel of repentance and God’s mercy to those who would listen. He was the first to remind people that we are all sinners in need of a saving God- one that comes among us, full of grace and truth. Zechariah proclaims to his listeners that his son will remind people that there is no longer “us” and “them,” but “we.” Today, we still need to be reminded and to pray that we discover our “we-ness.” Once we do that, only then will we learn not to kill each other, diminish each other, and separate each other. We need to learn to see human beings again. Only then will this song ring true in our world again- only then will God’s dawn of heaven break upon us and give light to this dark world, and guide us on the path of peace.
Some of you may recall a story of a young Muslim man who was attacked shortly after 9/11 by a Texan man who was claiming revenge for the attacks. Just days after 9/11, 31 year old Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree in the Dallas area, killing two South Asian immigrants and shooting Rais Bhuiyan in the face at close range, blinding him in one eye. When Stroman was arrested, he boastfully called himself the “Arab Slayer.” But as Stroman sat on death row awaiting execution, he had an unlikely champion trying to save his life: Bhuiyan, the very man who spent years recovering from a gunshot wound to the eye and face. When asked why he was trying to spare his attacker’s life, Bhuiyan, a Muslim who immigrated to the US from Bangladesh said, “I’ve had many years to grow spiritually. I’m trying to do my best not to allow the loss of another human life. I’ll knock on every door possible.” He sprang into action, knocking on doors, collecting signatures, working with the Texas Board of Pardons, and setting up a website called “World Without Hate.” Among his supporters were several relatives of the victims who were killed by Stroman.
Despite Bhuiyan’s best efforts, Stroman was executed by the state of Texas on July 20, 2011. But Bhuiyan serves as an example of mercy and forgiveness, and a champion for seeing humanity in the other, as hard and difficult as it may have been to overcome the bitterness and hatred that may have welled up inside of him, and could have been fuel for anger and revenge, and more violence. His faith in God guided him to seek humanity and life in the life of another, and he found the mercy and compassion the gifts that Zechariah proclaims from God. Not just for some, but for all of humanity and for the life of the world. And all of this at the dawn of the birth of a child who will pave the way for people to come face to face with a Savior.
So on this second Sunday of Advent, as we continue to prepare our lives for the coming of Jesus into our midst once again, may we hear words of hope in Zechariah’s song. May we hear a challenge to put our words, prayers, and faith into action in the world that God might be glorified as we pave the way for this presence in our midst. And may we be willing to be guided on the path to peace. May we also be reminded that Advent begins with the awareness that we cannot fully save ourselves. None of us can give birth to the life, love, joy, and peace that God intends for us by our own human power. We are not in this alone. So we keep our eyes, hearts, and ears open to the ways in which God calls us out of his great compassion and mercy to live and work among us, and stirs our hearts to heal the world. As we are reminded of these lyrics to Zechariah’s song, may it be so:
“Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”