by Ellen Sims
texts: Luke 1:68-80; Luke 3:1-6
I try very hard not to have favorites.
But Luke IS the best of the Gospels. I look forward to liturgical year C, which began last Sunday, and which focuses on the Gospel of Luke. Luke is the only Gospel writer to bring us the beloved parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Luke gives the greatest emphasis to Jesus’s social justice themes—and the Spirit. Luke notices the women. And it’s Luke’s beloved second chapter, which we read every Christmas Eve. But today we read from Luke 1 and 3, chapters that bookend the nativity story. Because we won’t fully appreciate the story of Jesus’s birth unless we look at the birth and ministry of his kinsman John.
Oddly enough, it’s the story of John – the firebrand evangelist and radical baptizer whose gory head will be years later served up on a platter to the second King Herod – it’s John who lays the foundation for the peaceable kingdom Jesus preached and lived and invites us into.
The many parallels between Jesus and his forerunner in Luke deserve our attention. But this morning we’re zeroing in on Zechariah’s song sung at the birth of his son, and which followed Mary’s joyful “Magnificat” we’ll sing next Sunday. The empire-challenging lyrics of both canticles set both boy babies in their socio-historical context and set them off on their theological trajectories. Like Luke’s first readers, you and I are fully aware at the start of this biography that both John and Jesus, born within months of one another in the reign of Herod the Great, will be executed at the command of his son, Herod Antipas. And as in birth, so in death, Jesus will shortly follow his kinsman. If we borrow from another Gospel writer, we might say Zechariah’s joyful “happy birthday” song for John dramatically contrasts with the horrific death-day song-and-dance for John performed for the second King Herod on Herod’s birthday (according to Matthew 19).
Zechariah’s canticle became known by the church as the “Benedictus” or “Blessing.” The song begins by giving thanks to God. The second verse, if you will, is sung directly to the newborn son. The canticle begins:
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them. 69God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of David, 70as God spoke through the mouth of the holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered God’s holy covenant, 73the oath sworn to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness all our days.”
Zechariah’s sung prayer of thanks to God situates the birth of his son within the history of a people beaten down by their enemies, a people who had known little peace, a people who at that very time were oppressed by Rome and Rome’s puppet king, a people who yearn for true peace that is not just cessation of fighting but shalom based on the well-being of all people, a wholeness, a sense of safety and completeness.
Then Zechariah’s song shifts. His child is addressed:
“76And you, child,” the aged father perhaps quietly croons to the infant: “you 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.”
Perhaps you can imagine Zechariah then lifting the child to God as he sings on: 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.”
I suspect Zechariah sang his song to his newborn not just once, but often, a lullaby he repeated but refined night after night the way other parents make up tunes and words to keep themselves awake while trying to put their baby to sleep. “My son,” Zechariah intoned deeply as he pared it down: “Go before the Lord to prepare the way. . . and guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 76-79). The story invites us to imagine that Zechariah was preparing his son to prepare others for Jesus’s way of peace.
If the lullabies we sing to our children were like Zechariah’s, there might be a lot more wild and crazy prophets roaming the countryside—-but maybe a lot more peace.
Maybe years later the even older Zechariah sometimes hummed an old tune as he and an almost grown son walked a dusty road. “Shine some light in this darkness, John,” he might have counseled, draping his arm over the shoulders of his boy, “and let God light up the path of peace. That’s how this ol’ world will be saved, my boy. You can teach us that.”
What if peace were the core of the curriculum in our homes and churches? Would our children, charged to offer God’s compassion, become more forgiving of their own inevitable mistakes and allow themselves to risk more and judge less? Would our children understand God differently and therefore see the world more lovingly? Would our children—would we—so value right relationships with others that we would work through the hard stuff instead of moving on and putting all the blame on someone else? Would we know God’s peace within our own spirits and beyond us in the world—if Zechariah’s lullaby played in our prayers each night and prepared us to greet God each new dawn?
Zechariah’s song reminded me this week of lyrics to “Peace in this House” by Nashville-based, grammy-winning singer/songwriter Angela Kaset. (From her album Underneath a Vincent Van Gogh Sky. Printed with written permission from Angela Kaset.)
Hey, you kids, turn off the tv.
No, I don’t wanna watch the evening news.
Come over here and sit down next to me.
And let your momma look at you and you and you.
And your beautiful faces that I want to keep safe as
Long as I have anything to say, well I’m telling you right now.
There’s gonna be peace in this house
Peace in this house.
Gonna be some tender talking
Some of those sweet little nothings
That add up to the somethings we can’t live without.
Peace in this house
And some belief in this house.
Cause every good thing that ever happens
starts from the inside out.
I’m tellin you now
there’s gonna peace in this house.
Did I tell you today that I love you
And you’re the reason for everything I do?
Sometimes I think the only hope for this world
Is the love in you and you and you.
So let’s all be patient; let’s all play nice.
Everybody’s gonna get a slice of this pie
And there’ll be peace in this house.
Peace in this house.
In Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth prepared for her child, just as her cousin Mary prepared a few months later for hers, by waiting. The pregnancy metaphor is so powerful at Advent because it captures well a spiritual preparation that is not about striving and doing but about allowing. You can’t make yourself more pregnant. You can’t accelerate the pregnancy. The dramatic changes your body goes through are beyond your control, a terrifying and awesome experience.
We can use Advent spirituality to prepare for God to take up residence in our lives, not so much by doing but by accepting and allowing for a compassionate spaciousness within, by imaging the divine within us. The spirituality of Advent is about giving God an empty womb in which to dwell and grow and fill us with love.
But let me not sentimentalize God’s peace, which is neither passive nor disengaged from the messiness of the real world. We see just how dangerous God’s peace can be in the life of John the Baptist, who grew up to be an abrasive figure on the fringes of society, a man who disturbed the peace for the sake of peace. The lectionary has paired today Zechariah’s lullaby sung to infant John with the adult John’s shouted sermon that threatened the powers that be and would eventually get him beheaded. Our two readings from Luke today explore the gentle and radical tones for peacemaking: a lullaby and a strident sermon; one a lullaby for John, the other a sermon from John.
Rome at that time understood peace to be the result of all opponents being annihilated or beaten so severely they could no longer resist Rome’s domination. Pax Romana, Rome’s version of peace during the first two centuries of the Common Era, came at the expense of others’ freedom and welfare. The peace was maintained violently. That’s a practice we glimpse when our own culture sometimes permits police brutality or fosters militarism in the name of peacekeeping.
Living under foreign occupation, John knew the party line he’d been fed about Pax Romana. But John also had studied the ancient Hebrew prophets and believed God’s Spirit can transform harmful systems as well as hurting souls. John knew Pax Romana is not God’s peace. John became a prophet who exposed injustices in the systems of his day. Unfortunately, sharing that vision for a more equitable system cost John his life.
But not before he had influenced his slightly younger kinsman, Jesus, who likely was a disciple of John for awhile and was baptized by John. He was, according to the Gospel writers, the very one for whom John was preparing the people, whose ministry John blessed, and who would likewise be executed by the state.
Zechariah prepared the way for John, and John prepared the way for Jesus. I suspect that the writer of Luke saw his own role similarly. The entire scope of Luke’s Gospel is to prepare us for the inbreaking of God’s spirit in our world to guide us in the ways of peace. This is how we, too, can find salvation. We stand in a long line of peace preachers who have passed on this vision of peace from one generation to the next. And now it’s our job to “go before the Lord” and “prepare the way of peace.” It’s our turn to walk the way of peace—even expose injustices as we stick our necks out—which John did quite literally.
Peace preacher William Sloane Coffin said: “Peace always seems a weary way off . . . . But to give up on peace is to give up on God.” (Coffin, William Sloane Credo, Louisville: Westminster Knox, 2004, p, 91).
PRAYER: Divine Peace, thank you for not giving up on us, a warring people. Amen.