The time between the times

Sermon for the third Sunday in Advent
Psalm 126 and Luke 1:57-80

Note: No audio is available for this week

Over the first two Sundays of Advent, the psalms we heard read aloud both spoke of the hope; hope against the odds, faint hope, stubborn hope, but hope all the same. In spite of all that has crushed and oppressed us, the writers of these two psalms had said, still we can sing of a “someday” restoration. In tonight’s psalm, that restoration seems so close the writer an almost taste it. We know that the Lord will do great things for us because we have embedded in our community memory the story of how “the Lord has done great things for us.” The first stanza of Psalm 126 positively delights in that memory:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;

Remember how we were freed from exile in Babylon? Remember how we were brought home to our own land again? Remember the laughter, the songs, the sheer joy of it all?

Well literally, no. Though the psalmist writes of our shouts and laughter, and of how we rejoiced, he is in fact referring to something that had been experienced by their ancestors. But this is a people with a powerful sense of corporate identity; one that extends across the generations. What happened to our forefathers and foremothers in a real sense happened to us as well; community memory is my memory—our memory—and that is something we good modern people so shaped by individualism don’t necessarily “get”. The great gift of that shared, community memory is in evidence in the second stanza of the psalm, in which the psalmist writes of how “those who sow in tears” and those who “go out weeping” will soon “come home with shouts of joy.”

Something had again gone badly awry in the life of Israel. The Babylonian empire had loosed its hold on the people and allowed them to return to their land and rebuild, but another adversary—another empire—had brought tears to the land. Yet, the psalmist proclaims, so long as we remember what the Lord has done for us before, we can dare to imagine what the Lord will do again. If we listen closely, can almost hear the laughter of our forebears…

For those of you beginning to feel that you’d really like to move into the Christmas mode, this evening we’ve got a nativity story as our gospel reading. Mind you, it is the nativity of John the Baptist, not of Jesus, but at least we’re getting closer. Which is the way that the season of Advent works.

As a Jewish priest, John’s father Zechariah would have well known Psalm 126 and all that it proclaimed. Along with his wife Elizabeth, Luke characterizes Zechariah as one who was “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” And yet Zechariah was carrying burdens that apparently made it difficult for him to hear the laughter of his forebears, and to claim that laughter as his own. He lives with the burden of being a priest in a religious tradition just tolerated by the occupying Roman Empire. Sure, we can sing of what the Lord did to free our forebears from Babylon, but look at all of the soldiers on the streets. And the Romans have let that fool Herod claim for himself the title of King of Judea. It is hard to sing with much hope.

But Zechariah also carries a more personal burden. Our gospel reading opened with Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth giving birth to a son, but we need to back up the story a bit before we can see what that child really meant to these parents. Luke is careful to note the righteousness of Elizabeth and Zechariah, but then adds that they “had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” “Elizabeth was barren”, which was their world’s way of understanding things. Yet while we might have a better understanding of the biology of pregnancy and infertility—“barren” not being a word any self-respecting health care professional would want to use—couples who have not been able to become pregnant or women who have experienced only miscarriages will surely understand something of what burdens Elizabeth and Zechariah. It is such a painful thing when a couple decides that they are ready to open their lives to a new life, only to discover that it just might not be possible. In the world of Elizabeth and Zechariah it was further complicated by that strong sense of a corporate identity that binds generation to generation to generation; if we have no children, we have no place in the ancient and unfolding story of the people of God.

I suppose Zechariah had found some way to make his peace with this burden, and to continue his priestly duties. And so it is, Luke tells us, that “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.”

Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”

“Your prayer has been heard.” Ah, so Zechariah still prayed over these burdens. He is not without the deep memory of a God who acts; he has not left hope behind. The words the angel Gabriel speaks to him promise to lift both of his burdens. His wife will have a child, and the child will be the one who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Do you hear this Zechariah? God is moving… laughter is returning…

Zechariah, though, is not ready for laughter. “How will I know that this is so?” he asks. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” These skeptical words of doubt will be the last he will utter until after the child is born. Gabriel—perhaps with a bit of laughter dancing in his eyes—renders the priest mute “until the day these things occur.”

As Luke tells it, Zechariah must finish his term at the temple before he can return home to Elizabeth, and I can only wonder how that homecoming must have played out. All sign-language and gesture, I’d imagine, with Elizabeth having to cope first with her husband’s muteness and then with his surprising new eagerness for love-making. One thing leads to another, though, which is where our reading for this evening picks up. “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” “On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.” They, meaning the community, were going to name him for his father, and why not? Zechariah Jr.

But no. Elizabeth is insistent that he be called “John,” which is the name that Gabriel has spoken. John? That’s not a family name. “Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him,” effectively trying to override the woman on this one. Given a writing-tablet, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John.”

And just like that his tongue is loosened, and filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah spoke words like a prophet. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel / for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.” Not God will redeem, but has redeemed. It is as good as done, even though Mary has not yet given birth to Jesus. In Zechariah’s view, it is a fait accompli; the double-burdened priest has become an Isaiah-like prophet, speaking words of light and life against the nighttime of the world.

We are located between the stories of the laughter of those who have tasted God’s wild and imaginative hope—those freed from Babylon, but also Zechariah and Elizabeth and all who rejoiced with them when this baby was finally born—and the promised laughter of the feast that is the Kingdom of God. We find our location between Bethlehem and the New Jerusalem; between Christ’s coming among us as a baby in a manger and his coming among us to bring the whole of creation home.

That more than anything characterizes this season called Advent. To know that we are in the time between the times; that while “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” (Col 1:20), we still wait to taste the fullness of that reconciliation and restoration. Some days it can be hard to laugh; some days it can be hard to have much hope. But it is the claim that these stories and this season place upon us.

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.

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