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Singing with Zechariah…

December 7, 2009

Advent 2C

December 6, 2009

Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 1:67-79


The image on the album cover of U2’s most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, is that moment when the sea and the sky blend into one.  It is an image that grows out of movement toward something that can’t be perceived yet.  It’s like when you’re moving forward, but you’re not exactly sure what you’re heading towards.  It’s an image of infinity…of mystery.

Perhaps no U2 song better captures the Advent posture of watching and waiting than Joshua Tree’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”  It is not a statement of doubt, but the quintessential posture of faith.  All of us, like U2, are still moving forward toward something we can’t quite grasp, although we know that it’s something bigger than we are, something beyond us.  In the Christian tradition we are told that we will never fully grasp it until God makes all things known to us in God’s own time.  But we move forward, just the same, pilgrims on a journey. 

Advent is an invitation to a journey.  A journey that embraces both the now and not yet of Christmas.  A journey that lives into both the joy and pain of our lives with no delusions.   The journey is necessary for all who want to move beyond the cultural script playing non-stop all around us. 

This script , which Walter Brueggeman calls a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism…  This script is a readily available elixer in the Christmas season.  Shopping started at midnight on Thanksgiving.  Songs on the radio non-stop.  Christmas decorations.  Parties…family gatherings.  All this heightens the sense of expectation that we are moving toward something.  If we don’t enter this time of preparation we may find that we wake up on Christmas morning, or the day after Christmas, with a hollow feeling.  With a hangover of disillusionment and even depression.   The holiday buzz that people are chasing after is a dangerous cocktail, because the script behind it cannot deliver true peace…true joy.  Advent preperation calls us to name this and to intentionally step out of that false script.   

To fully comprehend the lyrics of Zechariah’s song in Luke’s gospel, we need to understand the backstory.  We have to place Zechariah’s words within the communal story—the story of Israel’s wearisome waiting for the Deliverer who would come.  Malachi—the messenger—prophesied about this coming. 

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap

Malachi’s words are not just for postexilic Judah.  These words reach across time and space into a world living in a black hole of discontentment.  For a disheartened audience then and now–which might question both the love and justice of God—the words of Malichi are full of meaning.  We too need the one who comes to us like a refiner’s fire…like a fuller’s soap… 

For those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, these words come as a strong medicine warming us in the depths of our beings.  The healing work of the one who would come will not be superficial—so the medicine goes beyond kool-aid.  The medicine of salvation burns going down, because it brings a true and deep cleansing to the depths of human brokenness. 

The lyrics from another U2 song, Moment of Surrender, perhaps help us connect with the desperation that is behind the joy in Zechariah’s song:

I’ve been in every black hole
At the altar of the dark star
My body’s now a begging bowl
That’s begging to get back, begging to get back
To my heart
To the rhythm of my soul
To the rhythm of my unconsciousness
To the rhythm that yearns
To be released from control

The lyrics reflect the raw spiritual hunger of all humanity.  For weary humanity wandering in the exile of materialistic hope and consumeristic salvation, there is angst just beneath the surface of our ordinary routine.  There is a sense that something has to change.  For Israel that longing was directed toward a messianic hope.  Even the return to Jerusalem after exile had not produced the fulfillment of the dream.  And this longing stirred by the words of the holy prophets moved men like Zechariah to pray for their fulfillment.  And then one ordinary day, God’s time breaks into our time.  The holy is uncovered in the midst of the “ordinary”…

Perhaps the contemporary way to express what happened to Zechariah in the temple would be to continue with the lyrics from Moment of Surrender.

I was punching in the numbers at the ATM machine
I could see in the reflection
A face staring back at me
At the moment of surrender
Of vision over visibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me

It wasn’t at the ATM machine, but it was in the midst of Zechariah’s ordinary priestly routine that he had a vision over visibility.  Temple space became liminal space.  There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.      

The divine initiative is surprising not only in terms of the messenger, but also the message.  Elizabeth is going to have a baby.  How can this be?  How can the divine hope break into a world that is barren?  A world in which there seems to be no possibility of change—no line on the horizon?  Zechariah has been praying for the very thing that is now being fulfilled, and yet he is unable to perceive it as it is coming to fruition—even through his story.  

And so Zechariah is invited to a fast so that he might be made ready to receive the holy mystery of God’s salvation coming.  In a way that goes beyond Zechariah’s ability to choose, he is drawn into a period of holy silence.  His ability to speak is taken away so that he and his community might be drawn into the wonder of a mystery that goes beyond words.  Ineffable would be the word from the creed.      

In the rich tradition of the Church there is usually always fasting before there is feasting.  We are moving toward the Feast of the Nativity.  Like Great Lent, the fast of the Nativity is a journey—one that we are invited to so that we might be ready to truly sing with Zechariah at Christmas when we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity. 

Why a holy fast during this season of extra consumption of goodies and mirth?  Fasting reminds us that all these things that are around us during this season, that we give ourselves too…all these things cannot truly satisfy our hunger.  Fasting is a holy tool that brings us closer to self awareness. It reveals to us who we are and who we are not.  It makes us more consciously aware of that for which we are hungry for—the bread of life which comes to us in a manger trough.

Zechariah’s fast from speech no doubt drew the whole household and village into contemplating what was taking place.  That along with Elizabeth’s growing belly after many barren years must have created a sense of palpable awe, even fear.  It must have been a long nine months filled with joyful expectation, wondering and plenty of note-writing in the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

Then much anticipated day arrives.  The baby is born and they are in the temple on the eighth day to circumcise the child.  And, our text says, they were going to name him Zechariah after his father (v. 59).  Because that’s what you do.  But the holy mystery that Zechariah has been carrying for nine months is about to burst forth like uncorked bottle of champagne.

Zechariah asks for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.”  And all of them were amazed.  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.  Fear came over all their neighbors, and there was much talk about all these things throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  “What then will this child become?” is a question which emerges out of the encounter with the holy.  

Will our song erupt with Zechariah as we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, as we contemplate again the baby born to Mary?  Perhaps the answer to that question depends on our willingness to enter into a holy fast through which we might be made ready to contemplate that which God is doing in our world through the Incarnation.    

May we too enter the spirit of the fast during this season so that we might be given knowledge of the depths of the riches of the mystery which has come to us in Christ Jesus.  By the tender mercy of God, may the dawn of the Incarnation break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  And may the baby guide our feet into the way of peace. 


One Comment leave one →
  1. January 3, 2010 1:10 pm

    Wow. A New Year but where are the new posts? Please write something new :) – Bill

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