An Old Man's Song

Dec 22nd  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Luke 1:5-80

We have come to that moment in advent - at which we arrive every year - when the focus for the morning centers on John the Baptist. For generations, John the Baptist has been viewed as a “warm-up act” for the arrival of Jesus.  Yes, John is important, we were taught, but not as important as the One who followed him.  John was always presented to us in Sunday School as something of a “second banana” - not a star, but a very good supporting actor.  As such, it made dealing with John a bit easier because we have been taught that John was just a little “different” - even “a little off.”


This year, however, instead of a wild-looking, politics-spewing, repentance-urging, untamed preacher, flinging down hell-fire-and-brimstone, we go back to John’s beginning.  We go back and meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, John’s parents.  When we go back to the beginning of John’s story, we begin to see that his story is, quite possibly, an important and vital one.


Of course, we are in Luke’s gospel as make the turn to Christmas.  While commonly agreed that Luke is writing for a Gentile audience, Luke picks up some tropes from the Hebrew Bible that are intended to catch our attention.  Luke reminds us of Israel’s earliest beginnings.  He reminds us of another older couple to whom God had promised children - and within that promise, the hope of a new people.  Way back last fall, we talked about Abraham and Sarah being given the word that Sarah was going to bear a child in her 90s and they laughed, as you might expect, which is why they named their son Isaac - Yitzak - “laughter.” 


In much the same way, Zechariah and Elizabeth walked that same path.  Married for years yet childless, they had been the subject of scorn and ridicule.  That kind of scorn and ridicule are never overtly presented, but what is said behind the upraised hand that blocks the lips being read, and the kind of insensitive and cruel questions that are too often asked - “is that why you adopted?” - had been the burden they bore for years.  Add to that that in those ancient times, children were seen as semi-property and security, and you can imagine their anxiety level. 


While serving in the Temple, Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel (who chalks up quite a few frequent flyer miles this time of year) who tells him that he is going to be a father - that Elizabeth will bear a son - and that they will name their son John (a name not in used in Zechariah’s family, which would break yet another tradition).  Zechariah scoffs at the idea, offering the observation that he is old and so is Elizabeth and that such possibilities have dried up.  For questioning the angel’s message - and for doubting that God was capable of keeping God’s word - Zechariah is rendered mute until the time when the child will be born. 


True to the angel’s word, Elizabeth conceives and, unlike her priestly husband, immediately recognizes that God has had a hand in this conception.  And, later in her pregnancy, Elizabeth would be visited by her cousin Mary, who had astounding news of her own.  Young and unmarried, Mary, too, is expecting a child, no less miraculously than Elizabeth.


It is not until the birth of John, his circumcision, and naming that Zechariah finally gets back his speech. And when his speech is restored, he speaks words that have come to be known as “The Song of Zechariah.”  Did he really sing?  Luke’s gospel does not say, but in Luke’s gospel, there is a lot of singing.


“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

  as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we,

being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,

in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, child,

will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

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.”


Maybe it was because he had so long to think about it in silence, but when Zechariah speaks it is a celebration of God doing what God promised to do.  It is a remembrance of God’s past faithfulness and present promise-keeping.  Zechariah sings with joy that God is at work, even allowing him and his family to be a small part of what God is doing.


When we remember what God has done in the past, it gives us confidence in the present, and authentic hope for what is to come.  Even when Herod and Caesar were ruling the world with an iron fist, God’s reign of justice and love was breaking into the world in the birth of two infants in the backwater of Judea - John and Jesus.  In the midst of deep darkness, a small, faint light was shining.


These advent days come to us this year in the midst of troubling times.  Division and discord, rancor and resentment, diatribes and denunciations have been a part of every day since we lit the first Advent candle.  There is a pervasive weariness spread all around us.  The anger and discord of our age has divided family and friends at the very time of year when we hold such relationships as more important than ever.  The bitterness of our time threatens to curdle the pure joy of this season and take from us our own song of God’s presence.


But we must not allow that to happen.


Zechariah reminds us that some time in silence is not a bad way to begin clearing the cobwebs of division and despair and regaining a better perspective of what God is up to in the shadows of our world.  Zechariah reminds us that even in the depths of despair and despondency, God is there causing


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.


God is there, quietly but confidently moving the world in the direction of justice, righteousness, and truth.  God is there, comforting the forgotten, weeping with those who mourn, providing for the ignored, and standing with the neglected.  God is there - God is here - God is with us shining the light into the dreary darkness of our world.


I don’t know what you need in these final days before Christmas.  I don’t know what you need to hear.  I don’t know that I have the words to comfort you in the broken and hurting places of your lives.


But I will tell you this: God is breaking into the troubled waters of our world in new and vital ways each and every day.  In acts of kindness and benevolence, people are reaching out to each other.  The bitterness of our world has become too much and people are drawing together in ways that affirm the image of God in each other.  The caustic injustices of our time have caused such a stench in the nostrils of God’s people, that we are finding new ways to ensure that all people are treated fairly and as the children of God that they most surely are. 


You may say, “Where?  Where is that happening?”  It’s happening all around us.  Perhaps we need some silence and time to reflect, just like old Zechariah. Perhaps a pregnant pause is what we need in order to catch a glimpse of God at work through people like you and me.


An old man’s song.  A song borne of silence.  A song nurtured by despair.  A song given rhythm and rhyme by disappointment and disturbed faith.  A song that emerged as a song of hope, of celebration, and of joy. 

It is not too late to find that song in your own throat. 


…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…


It’s not too late to sing an old man’s song.  A song of enlightenment.  A song of joy.  A song of hope.  A song of peace.  A song of the promise kept.


Sing along, won’t you?  For now and evermore.  Amen.