First Presbyterian Church of Hamilton
Text: Luke 1:68-79 (NRSV)
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 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. 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.
“By the tender mercy of our God” we have made our way out of a great storm. “By the tender mercy of our God” we have overcome the lighting, the violent waves, and the mysterious and fearsome beasts of the sea that have tried to sink our ship and throw us onto the jagged rocky shoals. “By the tender mercy of our God” we have made our way out the tumultuous waters into the serene light of day, but as the light begins to give clarity to our sight, we see that we have not come out unscathed. There are those who have been lost to the monsters of the deep, there are those who have been engulfed by the waves or those who fell upon the rocky shoals, and as we begin to look around, we see that our community, our fellowship of humanity, is not as whole as we hoped it would be. “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 [the forces of] death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Somehow Zechariah found a way to give praise to God in spite of being surrounded by the literal and physical manifestations of death and oppression. At this point in time, the Roman Empire had established itself on large parts of the European continent and had hundreds of thousands of imperial soldiers and legionaries spread throughout the Mediterranean and even parts of the African continent. And even though the Roman Empire allowed the ancient Hebrew people to continue to “govern” themselves, it was done under the watchful eye of Rome and those who allied themselves with Caesar’s occupation. While bloodied swords, systematic oppression, and corruption were the realities of Zechariah’s day, he found a way to see the hope and joy that only God is able to give. What was it that allowed Zechariah to lift up a worshipful praise to God in spite of being in the midst of such shadows and forces of death?
If we look at the verses preceding our reading for today we find that Zechariah had been made mute by the angel Gabriel. After being told that his wife Elizabeth was going to become pregnant, Zechariah asked, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” To which the angel of the Lord responded, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:5-25) It seems like a harsh punishment doesn’t it? Wouldn’t someone in Zechariah’s position have the same questions or doubts? But nevertheless, we find that for the rest of Elizabeth’s pregnancy Zechariah is unable to verbally communicate with those around him.
What is it in our own lives that keeps us from speaking to others? What is it in our own lives that keeps us from speaking to God, speaking truthfully to God? We might not have our mouths kept shut by the power of a divine angel, but certainly, there are forces in this world that keep us from speaking and trusting in the power of God’s love and grace. In the moments when we face our fears do we invest ourselves into the powers and principalities of this world? Or do we dare allow ourselves to be touched by the transformative Spirit of God that calls out to each and every one of us? And this is a difficult thing to do because it means that we must allow ourselves to become vulnerable in a chaotic world that doesn’t always seem to make sense. This is a difficult task because it means that we must be open to seeing how this transformative Spirit of God touches the lives of every single one of us who come from all different walks of life and faith. This is a difficult task because it means that Jesus expects us to go outside of what is comfortable and into what is uncomfortable or unfamiliar.
For the nine months that Zechariah was unable to talk, I think it is safe to assume that he had spent most of that time in prayer. The writer of the Gospel According to Luke makes it evident that prayer is an essential part of what it means to live a life of faith. Jesus models this for us in the prayer at his baptism, the calling of the twelve disciples, Peter’s confession, the transfiguration, the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, and also his prayer that was offered from the cross. Prayer in the eyes of the Gospel writer is an experience unlike any other. It is a moment for us to enter into deep communion with God and experience the Holy Spirit in a way that enables us to find the voice of justice and love that God wills for the world that is often left without a voice of its own; in a world where those who are on the margins of society are often left with a voice that is not heard because they are blocked by our personal and privileged biases.
By the time we arrive at our Scripture reading for today we see the conclusion of Zechariah’s nine month inability to speak. We are told that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit as he began to speak prophetically in front of the crowd that had gathered for the birth of his son, who would become known as John the Baptist. Though surrounded by a world, which seemed to be falling apart at the seams, Zachariah manages to engage in a prophetic vision that imagines people being led onto a path of peace and righteousness by the Messiah that embodied and spread the tender mercy of our God to all people in every time and place. This prophetic voice of Zechariah also seems to emphasize the care of the marginalized and vulnerable in society and the importance that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, had for those who often fall out of our peripheral sight. So that light and freedom may be brought to those who sit in the shadow of oppression and life to those who sit in the midst of death. Are we able to embrace and share in the prophecy, this prophetic vision, that was spoken by Zechariah?
Today, as we celebrate Christ the King Sunday we take time to reflect on the impact of what it means for Christ to rule over all things. Because sometimes we can forget that being a disciple of Christ doesn’t mean that we stop seeking or yearning after Jesus. On the contrary, it means that Jesus expects even more from us, up to the point where we are to take up a cross of our very own. And indeed this is no small feat or minor undertaking. The task of being a disciple of Christ and letting Christ be king is something that requires a lot of effort. For Zechariah, this meant spending time in prayerful meditation by himself and to the community that surrounded him for nine months. How are we called to be ever growing disciples of Christ in our everyday lives? How do we allow ourselves to be tempered or strengthened by God so that we may participate in prophetic vision that Zechariah had proclaimed?
Well, I can tell you that there is no one way to answer these questions. And I would emphasize that there is no perfect way to go about answering them either. Because while Christ may call us to pick up our crosses as disciples who were created in the image of God, Jesus knows that we are also human. And that means we are prone to making mistakes along the way as we wrestle with what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to let Christ be Lord over all creation. Yet through it all there is the good news that we are not meant to journey on through this world alone. While Zechariah was unable to talk he spent time with God in prayer, and time with friends and family and the community of people who surrounded him. So when the time came to name his son Zechariah was able to stand in front of everyone who was in attendance and speak the words that God had to say through him.
If there is anything that we should take away from this text, it is that we should be able to share such a prophetic vision with those around us. If there is anything that we should take away it is that once Christ frees us from what keeps our mouths shut we have a responsibility to dedicate ourselves to pursuing the unfolding narrative that Christ has laid out before us. This is something that each and every one of us is able to do. Regardless of how old we are or where we may be in our journey of faith we can respond to Jesus Christ with the best of what we have to offer in love and service. Our dedication to Christ is something that is not easy, it’s not supposed to be. Our dedication to Christ is something that should push us to explore new communities and new places within ourselves that might be difficult for us to handle. But as I said before, this is all done in community with one another. This is all done under Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns over us in a way that cannot be compared to any earthly power or principality.
“By the tender mercy of our God” we have indeed overcome quite a storm. This election cycle has shown how quick we are to judge one another and how much healing there is still to be done for us to come together as a collective people to work for justice and to express the love and compassion we have received from God. “By the tender mercy of our God” we have been comforted when we have lost loved ones to various illnesses, to broken relationships, and to the many other forces that are at work in our world today. But through all of this it is “by the tender mercy of our God” that we are to remember who is Lord over all creation. It is not the powers or principalities of this world that we turn to when we become fearful of the unknown, but the gift of Jesus Christ who came and calls each and every one of us to work as active participants in the transforming work that God continues to do in our world today. It is “by the tender mercy of our God” that we are able to still see hope and proclaim Christ’s reign as a calling that goes against the bloodied swords, systematic oppression, and corruption that surround us today.
Would you please pray with me… Holy God, we have made our way out of many trials and turbulent storms to realize that we have not always lifted our praise to you as Lord over all creation. We have often neglected our brothers and sister, forsaken the beautiful world you created for our own gain, and have turned to other powers that be instead of placing our trust in you. This day as we celebrate Jesus Christ as king, we remember your promises of steadfast love and forgiveness. At the same time we remember that you call us to dedicate our entire selves to you, in order that we may share the love and compassion you have for all your children. Amen.