Is it dark out? Do you find yourself coming home from work or school in the dark, feeling tired and ready for bed, and then you look at the clock and realize it’s only 6pm? It is not a mistake that Advent takes place at this time in our year—although south of the equator it would be a different matter since it’s summer there. But I appreciate that Advent is in the dark in Virginia. Advent is not about pretending that the Christ child has not been born and then feigning surprise on Christmas morning when He is born again. Advent is about waiting in the darkness of our present world for the second coming of Christ to make all things right, to wipe the tears from our eyes, to judge us and absolve us at the same time and bring us into the everlasting kingdom of God. Darkness seems the right mood for that. The saying, “It is always darkest before the dawn,” comes to mind. Contrary to the songs on the Musak in the stores this month, all your troubles are not going to be far away. They are going to feel closer than ever in Advent. There is an anxiety that is mass produced and retailed during this season which tells you that you do not have enough time to do what you need to do, you don’t have enough money to buy what you should, and not only that, people will not think what you have bought them is not enough and will return it anyway. We try to hold onto our optimism about our capacity to live up to the task of making everyone happy, including ourselves, in December, against all evidence to the contrary. The darkness is not just from the lack of sun, but from the deep knowing that we are waiting to be saved from the anxiety and burden of believing that life’s outcome depends on us. That we can make the right choices, or even know the right choices, divorced of our ego and fear. We need a Savior, a Rescue. We need to be saved from our way of believing we know how to manage this human life by ourselves. And we don’t know what God wants for us.
Rev. Fleming Rutledge, a theologian who we quote quite often around here, has published a new book about Advent where she spends over 400 pages examining this theme of awaiting the Second Coming of Christ during Advent. She says, “If we understand Advent, we will understand what it means to be a Christian.” Almost 50% of the lectionary during Advent centers on John the Baptizer and today is one of those days. Rutledge tells us that John the Baptist is the foremost figure of Advent, yet you will never see him on an Advent calendar or in the Christmas pageant. John brings the news that we are finite—we humans have limitations and do not fully know ourselves. Rutledge says, “Our entrance upon the Advent life means taking a good long look not at someone else’s deficiencies and faults, but our own.”
My husband Stuart was asking me what this might look like, if we are considering grace as the means by which Jesus crowbars his way into our lives. It means that we have an agenda of what we believe should be done to make us happy and successful and something intervenes to remind us that we don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. For instance, I was trying to write this sermon and was quite determined to continue writing without a break. Our dog, Maya, kept whining to go out and I was explaining to her why I was too busy to be lazing around with her, when I should be writing a sermon. Finally, I truculently relented and grabbed a leash. It was beautiful outside and Stuart shared some thoughts with me that helped with the sermon—and then a FedEx truck stopped in our driveway and gave us the most divine chocolate toffee ever to be made on planet earth. So you get the picture—I have my trajectory locked in Spock-like on how things should go and why, when there is an intervention of grace and love that I was not seeking but was deeply needed. An Advent moment. Waiting for what I didn’t know I was waiting for. Mockingbird had a conference about this called Distracted by Grace.
It seems to be the way that God works, using ordinary things and people to bring His Word of grace into the world. Take the Canticle today, which is from the first chapter of Luke and is called the Benedictus, Zechariah’s Song. The Gospel of Luke begins with 75 verses telling us how God used unimportant people to carry out his world-saving rescue plan. It is the story of the birth of two small children to people who were not planning to have a baby- a barren woman and a young unmarried girl; unlikely characters, nobodies in the eyes of the world. It is the reaffirmation that God is at work in the weak and the small, those who the world overlooks. The word of the Lord comes to a nobody named Zechariah in the ‘no place’ of Hebron to announce the news of God’s redemption of us all, using the precision of God’s timing that is imperceptible to our clocks.
This story is called the Nativity of John and it is deeply interwoven with the Nativity of Jesus. Two baby boys, born in the deserts of Israel, not the seats of power, who are God’s liberation plan for us. John is a baby born out of Elizabeth’s barren womb to shine the light on the life of the world, Christ Jesus. John jumps in the womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit when cousin Mary, pregnant with Jesus, comes to visit. God has chosen specific people with specific timing for a specific intervention in the world that the world was.
This is what happens in the gospel of Luke. Zechariah was on duty at his job as a priest. He was old- or as the bible says, “advanced in age.” The one thing he had been praying for was an heir—he may have given up on a son because it seemed impossible now because his wife, Elizabeth, is barren. As he is going about his annual lighting of the incense, the angel Gabriel appears and tells him his prayer has been heard. They will have a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will prepare the way for the Messiah. One catch—Gabriel tells him—you can’t name him after you. He needs to be named John, which means YAHWEH is gracious, and no one has even been named this before. Zach, unlike the Virgin Mary, says, “How am I supposed to believe that?” He is not in favor of God providing a son that would be named John—especially in their old age. Zechariah finds this ludicrous and impossible so Gabriel takes away his voice while God’s plan unfolds anyway.
What results is the Canticle for today, which is Zechariah’s repentance as he sings:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
Zechariah has been set free by doing God’s will instead of Zechariah’s will. It is the opposite of what we believe about free will. Our will is not free—it is bound up in our fear, ego, short sightedness and self-centeredness. God’s will, however, is free because it is not bound by those things. God’s will frees us from our enemies—anxiety, fear, self-centeredness and all other forms of Sin that corrupt the creatures of God. Zechariah repents of his plans for his life and that of his son by surrendering to the will of God as he sings:
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Zechariah is freed from the anxiety of knowing what to do with his life and that of his son, John. He does not have to live for himself anymore, under the tyranny of figuring it all out and making sure that he is a big success in ancient Hebron. Gabriel took something away from Zechariah and in doing so gave him a life. A writer I like described it this way, “I started thinking this week that maybe we should make Advent lists — kind of like Christmas lists, but instead of things we want Santa to bring us, we write down what we want Christ to take from us. You know, in hopes he could pickpocket the stupid junk in our houses, or abscond with our self-loathing or resentment … maybe break in and take off with our compulsive eating or our love of money in the middle of the night. Don’t you kind of long for God to do something unexpected?”
This is the unexpected Christ of Advent—the one who takes the heavy burden of you from you and gives his eternal love in return to shine on us who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death—and to guide our feet into the way of peace. The third stanza of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear captures our Advent need:
O ye, beneath life’s crushing load
Whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.