Five years ago when I decided to put aside the Lectionary during Advent — with its focus on the Day of Judgement on the first Sunday of Advent and on the prophecies of the adult John the Baptist on its second Sunday, and to read instead Luke’s first chapter with its stories of two miraculous conceptions, of John the Baptist and of Jesus, as a way prepare for Christmas Eve when we hear Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem from his second chapter — I wasn’t aware that the Lectionary ignores Luke’s story of the conception of John the Baptist.
Zechariah’s song of praise and rebellion, sung at the end of Luke’s first chapter, and which occurs after John’s birth and after nine months of silence for Zechariah, does appear twice during the Lectionary’s three-year cycle. But churches that follow the Lectionary hear nothing about the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and his punishment of Zechariah’s skepticism and alarm at the prediction of a pregnancy for his elderly wife Elizabeth.
I can understand this omission. In his first chapter, Luke seems to undermine the originality of Jesus by having not one but two miraculous pregnancies. The text doesn’t say that Elizabeth’s pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit as it does when it focuses on Mary’s pregnancy and which we will hear next week. But this might be implied from the text.
Still, I am glad to have adopted the reading of Luke’s first chapter during Advent in these last five years of my ministry because of how they connect with our preparations for Christmas.
Christmas is a source of never-ending charm both for the church and the broader secular culture. But the biblical stories themselves are filled with both darkness and light, both fear and faith, and both hatred and love.
I can understand Zechariah’s skepticism and alarm at the supposed good news of the Angel Gabriel. Few things are more challenging than parenting; and because Zechariah and Elizabeth are elderly people who accepted their inability to conceive when they were young, I would find it strange if Zechariah were not skeptical and fearful of the Angel Gabriel’s words.
I also appreciate Zechariah’s punishment of nine months of muteness until his wife Elizabeth gives birth to their miraculous son John. To me, it is a metaphor for how we might prepare for Christmas.
The secular side of Christmas is filled with busyness – buying gifts, celebrating parties, and preparing for big family meals, and which we may appreciate even more this year given how much was cancelled last year during the second wave of COVID infection in Canada. But there is also a more spiritual side of Advent, which can be helped by spending time in silence and reflecting on all the many colours of the season. And no one spends more time in silence than Zechariah.
Reflecting on Zechariah’s silence might help us bring some peace into this busy time of year; and his song of exultation, which he sings when his miracle son is born and when his punishment of muteness is finally lifted, highlights the other side of peace – the peace that flows from justice.
After writing in a tablet that his new son will be named John in accordance with a command of the Angel Gabriel, Zechariah’s voice, which has been silent for nine months, is finally loosed; and he sings, that John’s birth will [quote] “bring salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah concludes his song by say that John’s words will [quote] “shine a light on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death and guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:68-79).
I love this song even as it challenges us because, despite its prophecies, we still live in a world with too much violence, destruction, and war.
Despite this fact, at church we highlight hope-filled prophecies by people like Zechariah, Mary, and Jesus. They can give us courage and remind us that these prophecies are already fulfilled in some deep way despite ongoing difficulties.
Mill Woods United is a church that focuses on both sides of Advent. In the joy of singing on Sunday mornings and in fun-filled events like The Christmas Craft Fair, we experience life’s happiness with fellow pilgrims. And in our outreach to the poor, our advocacy for the oppressed, and in our spiritual gatherings, we focus on our desire for a world of greater peace with justice, one in which the dream of God’s realm of love might exist on earth as it in heaven.
On this Stewardship Sunday, I am glad that we focus on both sides. Helping to sustain the church sustains our ability to gather in celebration and joy. It also helps us to mourn, to organize, and to find some of the love that sustains us in the face of tough realities we don’t like.
Five years ago, I Iooked for another way to celebrate Advent in response to the election of a fascist president in the United States. I was shocked by this election, and I continue to be shocked by the harm caused by fascist leaders in areas from refugees to COVID-19 to reproductive rights.
In reaction, I rely on the counter-cultural aspects of church tradition. During Advent, I enjoy Christmas carols even as I try to find time to sit in silence like Zechariah. I try to experience the exuberance that accompanies the birth of a child and to remember other emotions like sadness or anger that flow from the negative shadows of the world.
We need church more than I ever, I believe. We offer one another Advent Blessings and enjoy Christmas cheer. We may also crave a space to sit in silence as we try to absorb the blows of individual or social vicissitudes. We need gatherings that focus on peaceful reflection, communal joy, and the quest for peace with justice. In these crazy and wondrous times, we need one another more than ever before.
For this reason, I am grateful to Nancy and the Stewardship Team for their work to inspire us with the good news of church in society, to invite us to continue to give to this community our time, talent, and treasure, and to thank us for all the many things we have done and are doing.
As I prepare to finish my career as a called minister next spring, I continue to glory in churches like Mill Woods United. They are places to listen for God’s word in strange stories like those of Luke’s first two chapters. They are spaces to celebrate the joy that arises in our lives. They are refuges in which we remember with gratitude that love is our source and our sure destiny. And they are gathering places in which we can appreciate Advent in all its many colours and to prepare for Christmas joy despite the darkness that sometimes seems to surround us.
And so, on this second Sunday of Advent, I remind us again that Christmas is coming. Watch out dear friends! I fear it’s going to be awesome.
May it be so. Amen.