The Rev. Carmen C. Germino
Sermon for December 9, 2012
Advent 2, Year C
Luke 1:68-79, 3:1-6
St. James’s Episcopal Church
Today, on the second Sunday of Advent,
Luke introduces us to John the Baptist.
Now, we’ll hear more about
John’s life and ministry next week.
But today I want to focus on his roots.
Because in place of our usual psalm today,
we heard a lovely canticle
called the “Benedictus”
And we’re also singing another version
of the Benedictus in the service
as our Hymn of the Month for December.
This song comes straight out of
Luke’s Holy Gospel, Chapter 1.
It is the song that was sung by
John the Baptist’s father Zechariah
at John’s bris.
(Y’all know what a bris is, yes?
That’s right. Snip, snip.)
The Brit milah, or in Yiddish, bris,
is an extremely meaningful ceremony
for Jewish families, as they recall
the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham.
So Zechariah sings this song, the Benedictus,
at this important ceremony.
As we have experienced this morning,
It is a beautiful song.
But to truly understand it’s meaning,
It really helps to have the backstory.
So here’s a quick review:
John’s dad Zechariah is one of the
lesser-known characters in the nativity story.
Zechariah is a priest.
So yes, that makes John the Baptist a P.K.
No wonder he turned out a little wild.
Anyway, Zechariah the priest
and his wife Elizabeth
were an older couple who had no kids.
They have been praying for a child,
much like Abraham and Sarah,
but nothing was happening.
Now, in this time, being a priest was
sort of like being in the military reserves.
A couple of times a year,
for a week at a time,
your priestly “regiment”
got called up to Jerusalem
to serve at the Temple.
So one time, when Zechariah
had traveled to Jerusalem for the week
and was performing his duties
at the Temple, he is chosen by lot
from among all the other priests
to burn the sacrificial incense
at the altar in the sanctuary of the Temple.
This is a Big. Deal.
It only happens once per lifetime.
He goes in alone, while a large crowd
waits outside, saying prayers.
He stands by the side of the incense altar,
When suddenly, an angel appears.
Luke tells us that Zechariah
was overwhelmed with fear,
but of course the angel says,
“Don’t be afraid.”
The angel goes on to tell Zechariah
that God has heard his prayers
and will be answering them.
“You and Liz are finally
going to have that baby boy.
Why don’t you call him John?
You should call him John.
Call. Him. John.
He will be an absolute delight,
and a very meaningful individual to many.
And also, he’s going to be a little different
from the other neighborhood kids…
filled with the Holy Spirit, etc.”
Zechariah takes in all of this information,
And then asks what seems like
an innocent question:
“How can I be sure about all of this?”
Zechariah says, “My wife and I—we are old!”
(Actually, I’m paraphrasing—he’s much more
tactful when talking about Elizabeth’s age.
He says she is “getting on in years.”)
But basically he is saying,
“But I’m old!”
To which the angel says,
“But I’m Gabriel.”
Because of Zechariah’s momentary doubt,
his fate is sealed.
The angel renders him mute,
totally unable to speak,
(which may have been the best
baby shower gift Elizabeth received.)
So anyway, the angel disappears.
Meanwhile, the crowd outside is
starting to wonder what’s taking so long.
They are waiting for him to come out
and pronounce a blessing.
He’s been in there a while.
Finally he emerges,
but when he tries to say the blessing,
The only thing that comes out
is some very awkward silence.
This silence, however,
lets the people know
that something serious has taken place.
An encounter with an Angel of the Lord
does not leave one unchanged.
So after the awkward silence,
Zechariah returns home to Elizabeth,
who does indeed become pregnant,
and does indeed give birth to a baby boy.
And people did indeed rejoice
upon hearing the news of this birth,
which had seemed so unlikely
given the age of the parents.
And then, eight days after the boy arrives,
being a good Jewish family,
it’s time for the circumcision, the bris.
Now, I want to pause here
and take a moment to think about
what it would be like
to not speak for nine months.
At first, I’m sure it seemed like
a terrible affliction, a great hardship.
I’m sure that, most days,
Zechariah found it very frustrating.
But we all know that sometimes
our greatest hardships,
the things we think are our worst afflictions,
can turn into gifts.
We can find that silver lining.
I wonder if that nine months of silence
might have helped to give Zechariah
a bit of inner peace
that might have come in handy later.
Some time alone with his thoughts,
to prepare for this birth that was coming,
and was going to change his life forever.
But now, it’s time for the circumcision.
And it was the custom
for the father to name the child,
but Zechariah is still mute,
so when the moyel,
the official circumcisor guy
defaults to calling the baby
Elizabeth pipes up on behalf of
her mute husband and says,
“No, we’re calling him John.”
The official circumcisor guy
looks over at Zechariah:
Should I listen to your wife?
Are you sure you don’t want
to name your son Zechariah Jr.?
It has a nice ring to it.”
Then Zechariah picks up a tablet
“His name is John.”
And at that moment,
Zechariah has named his child,
and Gabriel’s annunciation
has been fulfilled.
Then Zechariah no longer needs the tablet
because he regains his powers of speech.
The crowd gathered for the ceremony
is astonished and they ask,
“What, then, is this child going to be?”
And the answer to THAT question
brings us back to the Benedictus.
At that moment,
in his first spoken words in nine months,
Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit
and he breaks forth into song
singing this amazing canticle:
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 then the song shifts slightly
and Zechariah addresses
his baby boy directly.
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.”
Zechariah sings of God’s blessedness.
He sings of God’s redemption.
He sings of God’s promise of salvation.
He sings of a dream of time of political stability.
He sings of the dawning of the messianic age,
foretold by prophets like Isaiah,
and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who is,
at this point in the narrative,
still gestating in young Mary’s womb.
And Zechariah sings of his son,
the one who will pave the way
for this messianic age.
The one who will be Jesus’s opening act,
the one who will prepare the people
to receive their Messiah, their Christ.
Finally, Zechariah sings of peace.
The Peace of the Lord.
This is not a superficial peace.
He sings of that deep peace
That comes only from God.
I hope that you have had
an opportunity in your life
to experience some sort of peace
that feels like God in your heart.
That is the kind of peace that Zechariah,
in those long months of silence,
came to know,
and about which he then could sing.
On this second Sunday of Advent,
We take a moment to ponder peace.
In church, we often speak of
“the peace which passeth all understanding”
and in this season, we sing about
“peace on earth, and mercy mild”
In the spirit of Zechariah,
and in the spirit of John,
and in the spirit of Jesus Christ,
the Prince of Peace,
I want to ask you to think about
what it is you need to do
to allow yourself to find
a deep peace in this season,
to prepare your heart
for the coming of our savior
as a tiny baby
and his return
to finish the work he began, to finish
building the kingdom of God with us.
What do you need
to find that deep peace
within your heart?