By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 28, 2021
Reading: Luke 1:67-79
I want to introduce to you an influencer, (an awfully overused phrase these days), who will say something great to you. The influencer has a name that literally means “God remembers” and his son’s name means “God is a gift”. The person who I'm introducing to you this morning is someone who has been married to Elizabeth for a long time, and he has served as a religious leader and given his life to the service of God. Without further ado, I introduce to you, Zechariah. You’ve probably already heard of him. He was both deaf and a mute so for him to hear from God, to be given a message, and then to share it with others, was an incredible gift. What we have heard from him, is known as the Benedictus Dominus Deus, or simply the Benedictus: a word from the Lord.
Zechariah was in many ways a revolutionary-in-waiting. He was someone who deep down in his soul, believed that creation itself would be healed. He believed that his nation would be restored. He was writing in very dark days, the days as we have mentioned many times, when the Romans were in control of Israel and Palestine. He was giving his message in a time of moral and spiritual uncertainty, and there was a fear in the land, fear that they were going to lose their very nation. He thought that a time of peace was coming, a time when God would do something spectacular. Zechariah ultimately believed that God would do wonderful things.
Zechariah also had a problem; he was not young. In fact, we don’t know his age at the time that the scriptures were written, and the Benedictus was spoken, but we do know that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were way beyond childbearing years, a bit like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, he had wisdom, had served his God, and was respected within the priestly order. The problem was not only that he was old, but the people often didn’t listen to those who were older. They wanted a revolutionary who was young and energetic and powerful to speak God’s Word. The last thing they wanted was someone who was seemingly in his declining years, like Zechariah, especially someone deaf and mute.
In writing about this, the great scholar, Bishop NT Wright said the following, and I think he captures the essence of Zechariah’s problem. He writes: “Often it’s the old people, the ones who cherish old memories and imaginations, who keep alive the rumour of hope.”
Zechariah comes across in this passage, especially in the prophetic poem, as someone who has pondered the agony and the hope for many years, and who now finds it bubbling out of him as he looks in awe and delight at his baby son. You see, his wife is going to give birth and it is to none other than John the Baptist, the one who would pave the way for the Messiah. Very often we dismiss those who are older and wiser and have a collective memory, those who have gone through the trials and the tribulations of life and understand perhaps more poignantly what hope is. You see, often in our society, as well as in the first century, there is the perception that the only people who really hold out the candle of hope, are those who are young and have a long future ahead of them. What we forget is that those who have had great life experience, who have deep knowledge and have come through different problems and struggles, are the ones who understand what hope is. They are even more eager to make sure that the generations to come keep that hope aflame.
This morning we have lit the candle of hope. It’s a reminder to not only look to the future for years to come, but to look to the future through the eyes of someone who has known the great travails of time. Zechariah was one of those people. He also brought a profound that we have a new relationship, a free relationship with God through God’s own activity. Now this newness, this sense of hope that runs its way through the Benedictus, is powerful because for many people, Christmas has become old hat. While we enjoy going to events that celebrate our faith and that bring people together, we nevertheless tend to become rather blasé about it. Maybe not as much this year, after the terrible time we had last year, but nevertheless, it’s still there.
I was sitting in the barber shop this week, having my hair cut for the Advent period, and as I was sitting, relaxing, listening to some beautiful sacred music playing. It’s owned by Italians, and man, they know music. A man comes and sits next to me, and no sooner has he sat down when he says to his barber in a loud voice, “Oh, my, don’t you just get fed-up with this,” and then he uses an expletive, “Christmas music? It’s just so irritating.”
I must admit, I didn’t know what to say, and I know the guy cutting my hair knows who I am, and he certainly didn’t know what to say. But I think he missed a whole strip up the back of my head. He’s thinking, “Oh, dear Lord, does he know who he’s sitting next to?” You could feel the anxiety rise in the room. I just said, “I understand what you mean. It’s like when you go into a mall and you hear all this muzak” I said, “But there’s content to these hymns. There’s content to them.”
Everybody laughed. He said, “Oh well, maybe so.”
But he represents (lovely gentleman, by the way) what I think a lot of people feel: Christmas has become old hat, it’s old news, we’ve heard it a thousand times and we’ll hear it a thousand times again. Is it really something that we should get enthused about anymore? Well, it might be true that it is old hat culturally, and maybe we have sung the same hymns repeatedly, and the older you are, the more you have sung them, but for Zechariah, this was something new. The language he used to talk about God was enthusiastic, it was a trinitarian language. He talks about the God of the people of Israel, and he recognises the past from which he came. He recognises that the arrival of what he calls the dayspring, which is a new dawn, a new era being brought about by the Messiah.
He’s talking about Jesus coming. He is filled, we are told by Luke, by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has empowered him. He’s not looking backward he’s looking forward with excitement to God doing something new. It’s not something he needs to fabricate, rather it is something that he believes is always new, and that is God keeping his covenant love with his people. Now, our problem is that unlike Zechariah, who was writing before the birth of Jesus, we are living, looking backwards to the birth of Jesus, and looking backwards a long way. Because of that, we sometimes miss the newness and the power of it, but Advent reminds us that it’s there.
Often things seem to get old very quickly. I remember reading something by Douglas Copeland, the great Generation X writer who tried to capture that generation, although we’re way beyond that now. He said – and he was talking about the new world, “The new world is not new anymore.” That what a generation thought was a new world, created with a new humanity, often gets old, and people get weary and want to walk away from it. It seems that the new has disappeared and that we want to put something else in its place.
As humans we feel that we are solely responsible for creating these new things. If you listen to the language of COP26, the language that was used around it was that this is the last chance for us to save humanity. It gives us this is a sense in which it’s on our shoulders, it’s all got to be done by us. Notwithstanding the challenges that we face going forward, the fact is, we feel that it’s incumbent upon us all the time to determine what is new, and to create that which is new and discard anything that has come before us that is old. Therefore, when we look at Christmas, we see it as something that is old, and we lose our passion for it.
How many of you, if you're honest, would say that sometimes the flame of the joy of Christmas goes out of you? You don’t have to be five years old in front of a Christmas tree, waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney, to be excited. You don’t have to go to those extents. The joy of Christmas in children is magical and fantastic. Even just the spiritual energy and power of Christmas can lose its energy and power when we think that it’s all upon us. When we feel that it’s all upon us, we not only lose our passion, but we also lose our connection with the God who is continually new.
As some of you know, I’ve always had a great love for the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, so much so that as I was going through my library this weekend, keeping certain books, I realised that one of you, who’s probably listening today, gave me a copy of the works of Dostoevsky after a sermon that I'd preached some time, long ago. So great is my love for Dostoevsky, that at this time of the year I always think of him for some reason. Not because he was a particularly nice man – in fact, Tolstoy once said he’s the most evil Christian he’d ever met. He was hardly what you’d call a bastion of joy, and you certainly wouldn’t invite him to a cocktail party for fun and games. Nevertheless, he had and was captured by the grace of Christ and the coming of Christmas. There was one incident where he and a group of others conspired against the Tsar. The Tsar heard that Dostoevsky and others were opposing what he was doing and had them arrested. They were sentenced in a mock trial, a farce and were going to be executed.
He was taken out into the country, a bag was placed on his head, and he and the other conspirators were about to be shot. When suddenly a horse rides up with a note from the Tsar, giving him partial clemency. The hoods were removed, the of killing them. He wanted to frighten them to death. Dostoevsky was then put on a train and taken to Siberia, but on his way to a Siberian prison (he wasn’t given full clemency) he met a woman and this woman, seeing that he was in chains, gave him a copy of the New Testament. As he read it, he realised this was the only thing that he’d probably have to read for the next ten years in prison. The only thing.
He read it, and afterwards when he was finally released, he wrote a piece called The New Testament. In it he said that through the writings of the New Testament he had an encounter with the focal point of it, Jesus of Nazareth. He felt “as if a new day had dawned in his life.” A new day had dawned in his life. This new dawn was precisely the Dayspring that Zechariah had promised through his son.
He then went on to say this, and I think it’s one of the most powerful things that anyone has ever said. “If it were ever proved to me,” said Dostoevsky, “that Jesus Christ is not truth, and I had to make a choice between the truth and Jesus Christ, even then I would choose Jesus Christ.” So strong was his commitment, so powerful was his relationship with this Jesus that had come to him through the scriptures, through the Bible, through the New Testament, that he now had hope. So many of the great things that he wrote, some of the greatest literature that has ever been created, from Crime and Punishment, that he knew all about, to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was able to weave in this person of Jesus of Nazareth, the New Dawn, the Dayspring. Always new, always real, always living through us.
There’s also a sense here in Zechariah that a new relationship with each other that comes out of all of this. Zechariah was not just interested in himself or his son, John the Baptist, or even Jesus who was coming, for that matter. He really did believe that God would continually do something new and that the hope that we have is predicated on God doing something new.
This last week I’ve watched with horror, as many of you have also, the people crossing the channel between France and the United Kingdom, and the sense of desperation as their boats – if you can call them that – and the craft they're on, arrive on the shores of the UK, and how many of them drowned. How young families have put themselves at risk, because they want a new world, a new life, a new hope, a new land. So passionate is their desire for that new world, that new life, and that new land that they're willing to risk their lives for it. We have no conception – we cannot have – what refugees like that must feel, what level of desperation, what depths of sorrow they must experience to risk life and limb for something like this. It is tragic.
It is equally tragic that those of us who are in the West, live in an affluent world, have access to vaccines, and have governments that try to look after us, and where we can speak freely for or against our government, that we still do not always treat ourselves with equanimity, with justice or kindness and tolerate the fact that young men and women are shot in our streets. We sit back and relax while there are those who are homeless in the cold, and often we do not get excited or passionate about the concerns of the world around us. Sometimes we’re just not nice with each other, and yet we’ve got all of this, that other people are willing to risk their lives for. I think Zechariah would say, maybe like Israel in the time of his writing, that we need to maybe confess our sins. Maybe, this Advent, we need to understand that there needs to be a hope, a hope transmitted beyond our own wishes and our own world.
Zechariah prayed that our feet would be guided in the path of. His notion of peace was a very Jewish notion of peace (and I want to say today to our Jewish brothers and sisters, that our heart is with them in Hannukah, and I want to thank those within our Jewish community and in our Muslim community, who have written to me over the last couple of weeks, expressing their best wishes. Particularly those who belong to the interfaith group that has been such a big part of my life, and our life as a church). Zechariah came from that tradition; his understanding of peace was one of shalom, it was one of God’s ultimate strength; God showing mercy to our enemies; God saving us from those who wish to do us harm; God giving the freedom to serve him in the world. Peace that Zechariah wanted for his world was not a peace that the world gives, it’s the peace that God gives.
This was his prayer for John the Baptist, this was his prayer fulfilled in the Dayspring in Jesus. This was his prayer for his own nation. And this great Benedictus speaks to us as clearly today, and with as much power as it ever did in any generation.
Let’s be honest; everyone, whether they even know it or not, throughout all this COVID-19 mess, have felt stress. If you put on the stress meter and psychologists have ways to study the extent and the relativity of stress, will tell you that this has had a profound mental affect on many people. When you add anything else to that, whether it is a divorce, a breakdown in relationships, medical challenges, fear, losing your job, retiring, changing your life circumstances, having a new child or grandchild, it all adds up to stress. And when we get stressed, we sometimes emotionally shut down to handle it.
As we come into this Advent, it seems to me that a stressful world needs to take a breath and listen to Zechariah, listen to his hope; listen to what he had to say to his new son. Listen to his wisdom and listen to his God. Zechariah says that the Dayspring has come to “give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.”
This Advent may Zechariah speak to you. Amen.