Sunday 9 December 2018
The Second Sunday of Advent
Today and for the rest of Advent we are going to be looking at a series of songs in the scriptures. Every week we read at least one song from the bible. We don’t know anything about the melodies or rhythms, but every single psalm in the bible is actually a song. They were meant to be sung by the worshipping community. Some we even written for particular liturgical occasions, like walking through town on the way up to the temple. In fact, psalm is just the Greek word for song.
But the psalms are not the only songs in scripture. There are many more. In fact, we have a special word for songs in scripture that aren’t in the Book of Psalms. They are called canticles. Which, of course, is just another word for song, this time borrowed from latin.
As you know, we have four different gospels in the bible, and three of them have some version of the Christmas story. The gospel that we are following this year is the Gospel of Luke. And Luke’s gospel has something very peculiar in it’s version of the Christmas story. In Luke’s Christmas story, people are constantly breaking into song. When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she breaks into song. When they take baby Jesus to the temple eight days after he is born, the prophet Simeon breaks into song.
And toward the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, just after John the Baptist is born, his father, Zechariah breaks into song. That’s the canticle that we read together this morning. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”
Like I said, we have no idea what the actual music would have sounded like, but we can tell by the form of the writing that it is a song. And it’s actually a very popular song in the Christian tradition. It has become a standard among Christian communities who pray the hours. For many Christians, morning prayer is always accompanied by this song. It usually falls right after the reading of scripture, and it is often sung. You can find in the morning prayer services in both the United Methodist Book of Worship and in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. When it’s chanted, it can sound something like this.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
Who has come to set the chosen peo-ple free.
The Lord has raised up for us
a mighty Savior from the house of David.
Through the holy prophets,
God promised of old to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us;
to show mercy to our forebears
and to remember the ho-ly covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our fa-ther Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship with-our fear,
holy and righteous in the Lord’s sight,
all the days of our life.
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to pre-pare the way,
to give God’s people knowledge of sal-vation.
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break u-pon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Glory to you, O Trinity, most holy and blessed;
One God, now and for-ever. A- men.
Zechariah is a priest in God’s temple. One time, when it was his turn to enter the sanctuary and give an incense offering, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, standing next to the altar. Gabriel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, that their son would be a prophet, and that they should name him John.
The angel said to John, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his brith, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah is frightened and confused, and he also knows that he and Elizabeth are too old to be having children, so he asks Gabriel for a sign, so that he can know that Gabriel is speaking the truth. And Gabriel obliges. If Zechariah wants a sign, he will get one. Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute. For nine months, Zechariah can’t say a word. It’s not until after John is born that Zechariah is finally able to break his silence. And when he does, he opens his mouth and begins to prophesy with a song.
He sings about God’s care for the people. He sings about the ways that God works for liberation. He sings about God’s promises. And he identifies John as the one who will go before the Lord to prepare the way. He will prepare the way for the one who will shine a light in the darkness. That is John’s role, to prepare the way for Jesus, to prepare the way for the one who shines light in the darkness.
Zechariah’s song calls back to an older song, the song that we heard read this morning from the prophet Malachi. Like all of the books in the Old Testament, Malachi is a Jewish writing, and it is part of the Hebrew Bible. It appears in the middle of the Hebrew Bible, as part of the book of the twelve. But when Christians claimed the books of the Hebrew Bible as their own and transformed them into the Old Testament, they changed the order of the books. For Jews, Malachi is in the middle of the bible. But for Christians, Malachi is at the very end of the Old Testament. And that’s not by accident, either. Early Christians placed Malachi at the end of the Old Testament because they thought that it prepared the way for the New Testament. Malachi sets the stage for the appearances of John and Jesus.
And like the passage from Luke 1 today, the passage from Malachi comes in the form of a song:
Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path be-fore me;
suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you take de-light is coming;
s. ays the Lord of heaven-ly forces.
As Christians understand it, Malachi is prophesying about the coming of John the Baptist. John is the messenger who goes ahead to prepare the way, to prepare the way for Jesus.
But, Malachi warns, the coming of the Lord may be difficult. Again, this is done in song, and the setting we best know of this text is by Georg Friedrich Händel.
But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth?
In other words, Is anyone able to endure the coming of the Lord? Does anyone have the strength to stand in the presence of the Lord?
The prophet continues:
For he is like a refiner’s fire.
And he shall purify. And he shall purify….. the sons of Levi.
God’s presence is hot, it is intense, it purifies, it makes stronger. It is a good thing, but it can be overwhelming. It is in the midst of crisis that God’s best work is done.
Which introduces an important question. Does God intend bad things for us? Does God intentionally give us suffering? Does God put us through trials in order to make us stronger?
That’s a pretty common theological understanding. God gives us blessings, but God also sends us suffering. And if God sends us suffering, it must be for our own good. It must be meant for us, intended for us.
When people experience significant tragedy, that’s often the kind of message that we send them. You may feel bad, but it’s part of God’s plan. God has a reason for putting you through this.
And you know what, I don’t buy. It didn’t seem like good theology to me even before I had an experience great loss, and it certainly didn’t feel like a blessing while we were going through loss. I don’t think that a good God intends us harm. I don’t think that the God who loves us intentionally subjects us to suffering. I don’t think that God plans tragedy for us.
I do believe we live in a very big, very complicated world. I believe that as a result of our human freedom, and the freedom of other beings in the universe, hardship arises. It is a natural consequence of life. If God kept us from experiencing any pain or loss, then we wouldn’t really be alive. But God does not choose out special hardships for each one of us, like some kind of sadistic scientist performing tests on us. Suffering is an unavoidable consequence of a life of freedom, an unavoidable consequence of the human condition. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices. Sometimes suffering just hits us out of nowhere. I don’t think God chooses suffering for us.
But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in suffering. On the contrary, most of God’s best work is done in and through suffering. Because God has the power to take something that is truly horrible and to bring something good out of it. It is true that we are refined in fire. It is true that many of our greatest strengths are born out of the experience of pain and suffering. But that isn’t because God makes us suffer. It’s because God redeems our suffering. God takes a situation of pain and finds a way to work good out of it. It doesn’t make the pain disappear. It doesn’t make the grief go away. But God’s grace somehow finds a way to draw good from the grief, to find some purpose in the pain, to forge strength in the suffering, to bring some transformation out of the tragedy. For he is like a refiner’s fire, the one who is able to use the fire to strengthen our faith.
The Lord is coming, we are told. And the prophet John goes ahead to prepare the way. And sometimes the preparation is painful. But through God’s grace, through God’s grace, we see fear and we find hope, we see conflict and we find peace, we see despair and we find joy, we see hate and we find love. May we be transformed through God’s redemptive grace, that we might be prepared for the coming of the Lord.