From December 10, 2017
by Rev. Shawn Coons
In just a few moments I’ll be reading part of the Christmas story from the book of Luke. We are familiar with the Christmas story and the various characters in it. We know the ensemble gathered around the nativity. Of course, there’s Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. The shepherds and the wise men. An angel or two, as well as a couple sheep, a donkey or a cow. I’m guessing you all have nativity sets at home with all of these present.
But there are other characters in the Christmas story that we often don’t remember, or that we leave behind by the time we get to the candlelight of Christmas Eve. And I’m not talking about the extra characters you see in some nativity sets. For example, we have an advent calendar at home that has a different Christmas character for each day of December up until Christmas Eve. 24 different ones. There are the ones mentioned above, but then they add a few more. There’s one who is a bringing a pizza. And then there’s also a bag piper. So much for your silent night.
The passage that I am reading from Luke has none of the people (or animals) listed above. Instead the only person speaking or acting in the passage is Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and husband of Elizabeth. John the Baptist is an important person in the Gospels. He is the one who comes before Jesus to prepare the way of the Lord. Elizabeth is familiar from the passage before this one, where her relative Mary comes to her after receiving word of her miraculous pregnancy. And when Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, it is recorded in poetic verse with memorable lines such as “Blessed are you among women!” and “My soul magnifies the Lord!”
But Zechariah doesn’t have as big of a role to play in the typical Christmas story, nonetheless if we skipped over his story and how the Spirit works through him, it is only to our loss. In some ways, the story of Zechariah and Elisabeth seems more at home in the Old Testament. When we are introduced to them we meet an older couple, their lives and ancestry rooted in the Jewish tradition and the Jewish priesthood. And we hear this familiar theme, “ they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.”
Immediately, this will remind many of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, who were well beyond child-bearing years with no children, until God came to them to being them the good news that Sarah was pregnant and would bear a son. Elisabeth and Zechariah also received this news. In both cases it was met with skepticism, and in Zechariah’s case his disbelief caused God’s messenger to strike Zechariah mute until his son was born and named.
The passage we will be reading this morning, Luke 1, beginning with verse 67, are the first words he says after regaining his speech. And it is a poetic verse on par with Mary and Elisabeth’s earlier verses. First recounting the promises of God, and then naming God’s plans for his newborn son, John.
67Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
“To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Today is the second Sunday of Advent, and on this Sunday we focus on the Advent theme of peace. In first century Israel, especially at the time of Jesus birth, the Jewish people were longing for peace. They weren’t currently at war. The people of Israel wasn’t battling any other country at the time. But that’s because they had lost the war.
Israel was an occupied country. The Romans had long ago conquered Israel and their rule was law. So when Zechariah speaks about God raising up a savior who would save Israel from their enemies. He meant the Romans. When he says that God will bring light and guide our feet into the way of peace. He is expecting a messiah he will bring about peace by fighting the Romans and throwing them out of Israel. Zechariah, would have been a typical Jew of his time and recall the stories of Hebrew scripture where God was often on the battlefield with the armies of Israel. God led them in battle to defeat and conquer their enemies of old. Peace in Israel was brought about by the mighty hand of God against their enemies.
But we begin to see a clue that this isn’t what God has planned for Israel. Mary is not carrying in her womb a military messiah who will bring peace through might, but one who with the dawn from on high will bring about the tender mercy of God. In Zechariah’s poetic passage he uses imagery and words from Isaiah chapter 42. In this passage, there is a servant of God described. One who will be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.”
A light to the nations. Not the general of one nation. But a light to all nations.
For the people of Israel, and for us today, there is a monumental shift in how peace is achieved that becomes reality through the incarnation, through Jesus taking human form. During this time of Advent, you may remember that we look to and prepare for Jesus’ coming, not just 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, but to when Jesus comes again, at the end of time to fully realize the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes when looking forward to the Second Coming of Jesus we talk about the apocalypse, which is often described at times in the Bible with striking and almost violent imagery. Dark skies, the sun and moon turning red as blood, turmoil across the earth. For many Christians, the apocalypse has come to serve as code for a cosmic and spiritual war to end all wars. It will be a battle where God will strike down and conquer any enemy of God and Christians throughout the world.
But does this sound like how Jesus would bring about peace? Through violence, through war, through conquering? Does this sound like the Prince of Peace? James Alison in his book Raising Abel suggests a different way of looking at the end of time when Jesus comes again. He asks us to look at the second coming not as apocalyptic but as eschatological. Eschato-whu?
Eschatology is a fancy word for a how Christians talk about the end of time. Not the end as in the finish, but the end as in the completion, the goal, the fulfillment. When we talk about eschatology, it’s not about how the world will end, how the world as we know it will be destroyed. We talk about how the world should end up, how the world should be when all is right and God’s purposes are achieved for all creation.
James Alison compares Apocalyptic vs. Eschatological:
Apocalypse is about a violent ending to the creation, a retribution by God against the tyrants, and the vindication of God's people. Behind this understanding of the completion of all things is a God who is a super version of ourselves. He will redeem and cleanse the world from its violence and evil, by using even more violence.
In apocalyptic thinking the hope is in God’s ultimate sacred violence [whereas in] eschatological thinking… the nonviolent God is rescuing us human beings from our own violence.
A key part of apocalyptic thinking is a dualistic us and them, good and evil mindset. The sheep will be separated from the goats, and we inevitably think we can perceive the lines of that separation, despite long experience that we get it wrong.
When Zechariah spoke his words of prophecy about the coming savior who would rescue Israel from its enemies, he didn’t know what he was saying. Yes, Jesus would come to get rid of our enemies. But not by fighting them, but by loving them. Ghandi once said, “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love.” And Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
But long before any of those were said, Jesus taught people to “love their enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus knew that true peace wasn’t achieved by destroying those opposed to you, but by loving them until they were no longer your enemy. This was a powerful and strange message to those in Israel who were looking for God to take care of their enemies and give them what they had coming to them.
It’s a powerful and strange message to us today as well. We live in a time and place, where too many people are looking to strike out against their enemies, where too many people are looking for enemies where there are none. Some of our leaders have discovered that the quickest way to power is not to unite people, but to divide, to label this group or that group as the enemy. To look for those who are of a different faith or a different skin color, and turn their followers in anger against them.
Some leaders even claim to do this in the name of God and Christian faith. But a true leader from God doesn’t look to make enemies out of neighbors, or create enemies for personal or political gain. A true leader from God seeks to create neighbors out of enemies, and to lead and live in such a way that enemies are not vanquished or conquered but loved until they are enemies no more.
It’s so easy to find an enemy and pray for that they get what’s coming to them, but that is not what we are called to, Christians. In Matthew 25, we have a somewhat apocalyptic passage where Jesus comes back at the end of time to judge the nations based on how they treated those who were poor and in need. And it can be easy to read it as a passage where God takes our enemies and gives them the punishment they deserve. Jesus separates them like sheep and goats, the sheep, the good ones on one side going to eternal reward, and the goats on the other side, headed for eternal punishment.
But I want to read to you a continuation of this story, written by Andrew Prior. It’s not from the Bible, but it rings of truth to me, and maybe to you as well.
A great silence settled over the stockyards. Many among the sheep had expected to go to the other place. They had, after all, not lived well. But some small mercy on their part had them standing here kingdom bound. A few shifted uneasily. Some of that charity had only been to shut up and get rid of beggars on the street.
n the other yard, people who had worked long and hard, and sacrificed much for God gazed dully at the ground. It was so obvious now− how could they have not seen that doing the right thing while leaving someone unloved was an absolute contradiction of the kingdom?
A small lamb squeezed its way between the fence rails and limped into the middle of the goats. The king rumbled, "You! Lamb! What are you doing there?" The lamb quavered before the roar of the king."
You said you would draw all people to yourself." (John 12:32) The Great King said nothing. The lamb paled. "Blessed Paul said, 'One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.'" (Romans 5:18) Still the King was silent. "He said, 'For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.' (Romans 11:32) And he said, 'all will be made alive in Christ.' (1 Corinthians 15:22) And he said− "
"Enough!" said the King. "What do you propose to do, little lamb?"
"I… I think I will stay with the goats, sir. They need someone to care for them."
And the King laughed a laugh of great joy. "Someone has understood! Someone has really loved! They have seen. The only judgement is love." And the King was gone, and all that remained was a Lamb standing among the people, goats and all.
Zechariah’s words call through the ages to us today, on the Sunday of Peace, in a world where peace seems far and enemies seem near: The dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And so we pray for peace, we pray for an end to our enemies, not to their end, but to the end where we are enemies no longer.