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.
Because we concentrate on the birth of Jesus at this time of year, most of us don’t spare a thought for the other birth that happens at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. So here’s the story:
There was a woman named Elizabeth and a man named Zechariah. Zecharaiah was a priest and Elizbeth was descended from priests, and both of them were genuine in their love for God. They had been married for quite a while, but Elizabeth hadn’t had any children. People said she was barren. And this is what Zechariah himself came to believe. It was a story that he’d told himself so long and so often, that the words “barren” and “wife” had in his mind become practically synonymous. It didn’t mean that he didn’t love Elizabeth. It simply meant that who she was and how people talked about her had become one thing in his mind.
Now, Luke tells us that the privilege of entering the innermost part of the temple was determined by drawing lots. The way this was done meant that a priest probably only got to perform this duty once in his lifetime. And while he did it, a multitude was always outside praying, waiting for the priest to emerge from the sanctuary. And the one day when it was Zechariah’s lot to be alone with God, and while the faithful were gathered in prayer to support him, he discovered that he wasn’t alone in the temple. A message came to him from the Most High that contradicted a story that had long ago become his reality. “Don’t be afraid,” it said, “for your prayers have been answered. Elizbeth is going to give birth to a son—you’re to name him John (a name that means God is gracious). And this boy will be something special in God’s eyes—indeed he will be Spirit-filled before he’s even born. He will have the power of Elijah to prepare people for the coming Messiah.
Zechariah had just encountered God, and the message he received was so contrary to reality as he’d come to accept it that he couldn’t quite believe. In fact, he openly questioned the message. And because of his words of unbelief, he found himself speechless. All during Elizabeth’s pregnancy, in fact, he was unable to say a word.
Now there was another pregnancy in which no man had much of a voice going on in Elizabeth’s family, for her cousin, Mary had also turned up pregnant, and people were saying that it wasn’t the Child of Joseph, her fiancé. And yet, to everyone’s surprise, Joseph didn’t abandon her. This didn’t mean it was easy for Mary, and so she came to Zechariah’s wife for comfort and wisdom. But when Elizabeth opened her door to her cousin, the baby inside Elizabeth leapt for joy. “Goodness!” she cried, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” And this confirmed to Mary that everything she’d suspected was true, and she praised God, uttering a prophecy about divine justice that we call the Magnificat.
When, soon after this visitation, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, the honor and responsibility of naming fell on her on the day of his circumcision, because her husband wasn’t speaking. The whole neighborhood assumed that she would name him after his father, but she said, “No, his name is John.”
“John?” they all asked—but there’s never been anyone by that name in either your family or Zechariah’s. So they looked to the father, who motioned for something to write on. And when he got it, he put in writing what his wife had just said. “His name is John.” And immediately the fulfillment of his faith freed his tongue and he began speaking again. Clearly the hand of the Lord was upon this child, and Zechariah then spoke the prophecy we read responsively a few minutes ago. Unlike Mary’s prophecy, Zechariah’s was not principally about justice for the oppressed. It was about the fulfillment of God’s promise. The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth was going to be part of the keeping of the covenant made with Abraham and David.
We’ll talk about Mary’s prophecy in a couple of weeks, but today I want to think about Zechariah’s prophecy. Though both songs come from the heart, Zechariah’s is a gentler, more intimate song than Mary’s. It is a song that invites us “to hold fast to our God, who will always stand by us”; that reminds us that “we can be sure that all that he has said will come to pass, provided we wait with patience for the right time and the appointed end.”
It’s nice, as the weather grows cold and the nights grow longer, to call to mind the promises of God. If there is darkness in our lives, this is the time of year I think we’re most likely to feel it. It’s not just the weather, and it’s not just the short days. It’s also the festivities around us. While most people seem to be joyously shopping and eating and decorating, some sit in the darkness of pain or unemployment or homelessness or hunger. There are even more who live their lives in the shadow of death—perhaps they or someone they love is ill; or perhaps they remember the presence of a loved one who is no longer there.
This is the world into which Zechariah’s son was born—a world shrouded in darkness, an occupied nation which had forgotten God’s promises. He wasn’t born to be the solution to the problems of the world. But he was born to shine a light on the path that would lead to wholeness. And, in a way, isn’t that what we’re called to do? I think sometimes we shy away from sharing our faith with others because we’re afraid we have nothing to offer. But to offer to hold someone’s hand as we walk the path of peace together is not nothing. And though sometimes we’re afraid to offer someone the story of our wholeness because we’re too well aware of those areas of our lives that haven’t yet been transformed, let us tell our stories not because we’re perfect, but because we’re forgiven.
Today we embark on the way of peace. May the peace of Advent guide us toward the light, and may the one who began a good work among us bring it to completion by the day of Christ’s coming.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.