68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Last Spring at our church retreat Stuart and Krista and Jim and Andie and perhaps some of you busted out in what felt like an interminable Broadway musical sing along. It was cute. Kind of. But honestly it was a little annoying too. Because I had never seen Avenue Q or Wicked. And hearing people sing show tunes number for musicals I’ve never seen is just not really that fun for me. But then they sang Take me or Leave Me from the musical Rent and well, that was wonderful. Because I’ve seen Rent. I could picture the characters and know what is happening in the story arch when I hear the song. I know the story, so that the song really means something to me…. whereas a song from Avenue Q is just …another show tune I’ve never heard.
This is why I am preaching today on the psalm we just chanted. Zechariah’s song. The Benedictus.
Recently I was asking a new House person what they thought of worship here. “It’s great”, she said…”Because I’ve always wanted my life to be like a musical where you never know when people are gonna just start singing…and your church is kinda like that”.
The first couple chapters of Luke’s Gospel are kinds like that too – a part of the Bible which reads like perhaps it were written by Andrew Loyd Webber because Characters just bust out singing all over the place. The Holy catholic and apostolic church has a long history of acting like a musical….mostly in her practice of daily prayer when the church sings the canticles. Like when Elizabeth is visited by Mary she sings a song, now known as the Hail Mary. Then in response Mary sings her song called the Magnificat which we sang Wednesday and is actually sung everyday at vespers, or evening prayer. Simeon, when holding the 8 day old Christ child in his arms fills the temple with his song Called the Nunc Dimittis, which has been sung by countless centuries of the faithful in the daily Compline liturgy; the final prayer before retiring to bed. But the song we sang today belongs to Zechariah, husband to Elizabeth…father to John the Baptist. it’s called the Benedictus, and is a song of freedom sung every day at Lauds, or morning prayer..
And here’s the back-story: His wife Elizabeth had conceived a son in her old age…that’s one the Holy Spirit’s favorite tricks by the way …making old ladies fertile. Anyhow, Zechariah knew this miraculous pregnancy was going to happen because he had been tipped off so to speak. He was doing his priestly duty and burning incense in the temple when the arch angel Gabriel in all his glory appeared before him. Which sounds nice…having angels visit you. But we aren’t talking the little chubby baby angels of bad Hallmark cards…we’re talking a powerful heavenly being who strikes fear in the hearts of everyone he visits. If that were’nt so Gabriel wouldn’t have to start every single conversation with a human with “Oh, don’t be afraid.” The arch angel Gabriel tells Zechariah the craziest thing: that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth would conceive a son named John who would make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
And instead of just shutting up and nodding his head deferentially… Zecheriah does what I’m pretty sure I would do…he questions the angel’s authority. Zechariah says Um, are you sure because seriously…my wife is Old…how do I know this will really take place?
To which the arch angel says “Cause I said so and I am Gabriel for goodness sake” Then the angel made Zechariah mute until all these things had taken place. It was like a 9 month time-out for Zechariah. He couldn’t talk the entire time which is actually kinda wonderful.
So as his elderly wife’s belly grew large with child he couldn’t say a word. As Elizabeth’s kinswoman Mary visited and told of the child she herself carried and as Zechariah’s child lept in elizabeth’s womb he could not say a word. As the transgressive fecundity of God that would change the entire world grew in the wombs of an old lady and a virgin teenager he could not say a word. It was as though God said “you want to see what I am about? Well then…Shut up. watch and listen”
Maybe we too should take opportunities to just shut up, watch and listen for God’s redemption in forms we least expect to be seeing it. Maybe when our opinions and neurosis and pride and expectations about what the world owes us die down…maybe when we sit in this quiet of Advent we might begin to see where God is quietly and insistantlyt making all things new. Things we don’t perceive until we shut up for awhile. It was a gift really…this muteness of Zechariah’s. Perhaps the fact that he had to silently watch and listen prepared him to burst forth in song when he was finally able to speak. When his tongue was loosened he did not use it to justify himself or defend his position or to yammer on about himself…having been silent and watchful and receptive to the unexpected wonders of God he could not help but sing praise to God when finally he could speak.
This old man holds his new born son and sings of freedom. He blesses God for the ways in which God comes to us to free us. But freedom in this context is characterized not only by justice but also by the ability to worship God. Unfettered and unfiltered relationship between the creator and the creature.
This is true worship. Not vapidly stroking God’s ego as though God has low self-esteem and created us to remind him how great he is. But real worship - which is to see how God always comes down to us… interrupting our lives to insist on our salvation. That’s how God works. Interruption. Just when we get a comfortable thing going and we are humming along God says “that’s adoreable. but I have something else in mind. namely a radical new life for you and for all creation” Just when we are doing all the right stuff God closes our mouths until we see God’s faithfulness and burst out into song. Like Zechariah we become free to worship God. But that freedom comes at a cost. The price we pay for the freedom to worship God is repentance. It’s a little thing really. It’s just the simple matter of admitting that God is a God an well….I am not.
This is real worship. To sing of a God who remembers promises and who sets us free. We too sing of the very God who is not content to simply stand at a distance but insistently draws near to us in an unexpected child and in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine at the table and in the community of saints who gather around God’s story. Advent is an invitation to identify with all those in the great Musical of the Gospel…all those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, and to carry good news to all those who dwell in darkness, in the shadow of death. Advent is an invitation to be prophets. An invitation to shut up and watch and listen in a real Silent Night until we can Sing like Zechariah that:
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.