Darkness permeates are time both atmospherically—the sun sets earlier each night for a couple more weeks—and ideologically. Terror attacks, racial profiling, xenophobia have flooded the news cycles recently. Rather than talk about this darkness (yet again) I wanted to share messages of the light with my congregation this week. This sermon comes is based on Luke 1:67-80.
When I was a kid we used to play the game of who could be the quietest the longest. As every parent can guess, my mom would be the one to suggest the game on long road trips or even short jaunts to the store as we drove in our station wagon. My sister or a friend in the car would make goofy faces at one another to try to make each other utter some sound first. My tactic was to look out the window until someone else caved. We’d last a long time, at least two or three minutes, and would play a couple of rounds more. All told there might have been 5 minutes of silence—it was golden for some in the car, I suspect.
A good nine months of silence was endured by Zechariah. He happened to be a priest and, as Luke tells us, he happened to be the one selected by lot to make the offering of incense in the sanctuary of the Lord one day. As he went in to the sanctuary by himself, the rest of the assembly gathered outside waiting for him. In the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared. “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the angel proclaimed, “for your prayers have been heard!” The angel went on to say, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Now if this had been you maybe you’d be jumping up and down thinking you’d just won the cosmic lottery, but not old Zach. He’s a priest and thinks he knows a thing or two about the divine. “How will I know that this is so?” he asks. “I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years too.”
Bad question. Never ask for a sign from an angel. Gabriel, that’s who the angel was by the way, told Zechariah that because he doubted this message from God Almighty he’d be struck mute and unable to talk until the day all this occurred. And that’s exactly what happened.
Forty weeks or so went by and then Elizabeth his wife gave birth to a son. But since it would be another eight days until the child was named, Zechariah still couldn’t speak. On the day of his circumcision, family and friends assumed the child would be named Zach Jr., but Elizabeth responded, “No, he’s to be named John.” In that culture, names had significance to a family’s legacy. “None of your relatives is named John,” they said. So they asked Zechariah, and he grabbed a tablet (the paper kind, not the iPad kind) and wrote, “His name is John.”
And with that his tongue was loosed, and he uttered this beautiful hymn that we heard this morning about John, something he had quite a few months to think about. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free.” He goes on to describe in detail the type of salvation God would bring and how God would use John. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The way to be prepared by this little eight day old child would lead from darkness to light because of the deep compassion of our God.
This world of ours sits in darkness. I don’t need to say this; you all know this as much as I do. Violence and fear fill our news headlines far too often—this week has been no different. Yet when we hear a touching story of someone showing kindness, we think, “We should hear more of these.” So rather than detailing the darkness this morning by delving into San Bernardino or racial profiling or fear, I want to highlight how some have shared the light.
First, I must begin with St. Nicholas of Myrna, whose feast day is today, December 6. Nicholas was born in the third century in what is now modern day Turkey. His parents who were quite wealthy succumbed to an epidemic while Nick was still young. In remembering their constant and faithful teaching about the way of Jesus, Nicholas decided to share his parents’ money with the poor. In one story, he learned of a poor family with three daughters. At that time, the parents of the daughters had to present a dowry—that is money and property the woman brought into the marriage—to the groom. If a young woman didn’t have the means to present a dowry, she became virtually ineligible for marriage and this would often lead to a life of destitution. The father of these three daughters couldn’t afford a dowry. St. Nicholas would have nothing of this. In the middle of the night, he threw small bags of gold coins into the house through a window, and the bags landed in shoes drying by the fireplace. To this day, many children in Europe will place their shoes by the fireplace on the night of December 5 in the hopes of finding gold chocolate coins and other treasures in them. As you might imagine, Nicholas saved the lives of those three young women and gave them the opportunity to live an honorable and full life.
Last Sunday an eleven year old boy named Tontrevion attended the evening worship service at his church with his mom in Memphis, Tennessee. While there, someone broke into their home and stole several of their belongings including Tontrevion’s hand-me down Xbox game system and all the games as well. The officers who responded to the call saw that the family didn’t have much at all, and asked him about the possibility of getting a new console for Christmas. “My mom doesn’t have that kind of money,” he replied, “and all the money she makes goes to pay the bills.” He told them that his mom works multiple jobs and long hours just to get by and that he couldn’t ask her for such a costly gift. After the officers left the scene, they decided to do something special for Tontrevion. They swung by a Game Stop nearby and bought a new Xbox for the boy. Clerks at the store, when they heard what the officers intended to do, added in additional money as well as a free controller. The police officers returned to Tontrevion’s home and asked him to look in the bag and see if this new Xbox was his. No, he sadly replied, mine is much older. Then they told him the truth that they hadn’t found his yet, but that they wanted to give him this one to replace it so that he could have a great Christmas. Tears of joy overcame that boy, and they soon spread to the adults. [ref]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/police-xbox-christmas-surprise_565e7610e4b079b2818c88a0?cps=gravity_2082_-6599131321622979785[/ref]
A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Carmen Mendez and her boyfriend stopped into a fast-food chicken restaurant in Anaheim. While they ate their meal, a homeless woman walked in and began asking customers who had obviously finished their meals for any leftovers. No one even spoke to her. At the end of their meal, the woman came over quietly asking for what was left: 1 chicken tender and 5 fries. Carmen spoke to the woman and said she would absolutely give her the leftovers from her meal. As the woman ate the meager remains, Carmen felt that this wasn’t right, that this woman deserved to be treated with dignity. So she went up to the counter and ordered her a full meal. When she returned to the table with the tray, the unhoused woman broke down in tears and gave Carmen a hug that her boyfriend caught on camera. Carmen said, “When I surprised her with this meal….the look on her face said it all…I have never felt something like this…pure, real gratitude. That hug she gave me was like a hug I had never felt….those tears she shed were felt deep in my heart.”[ref]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/stranger-treats-homeless-woman-with-dignity-gets-tears-of-gratitude-in-return_5661c163e4b08e945fef28c7?cps=gravity_2082_9040748419438026787[/ref]
“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” We long for God’s light to break into our world again this Christmas. We want the darkness to be overcome, although often we cannot imagine how that might be. But as Martin Luther King, Jr reminds us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The path John prepares, this way of the Lord, is a way of repentance, a path of turning around. Too, too often we ignore that path, and we stay focused on ourselves and break God’s heart. But when we reflect the light of God’s love, when we look toward the dawn of God’s light, beautiful things can happen even in our dark world. May we spread God’s light this Advent season as we we await for Jesus’ birth. May we reflect the goodness of God like John, so that God may guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.