A Sermon for The Second Sunday of Advent
by Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector
I think that I speak for most if not all of us when I say that we’re living in a time when we would like some reassurance that that someone is paying attention and that everything is going to be ok. And then, along comes the Gospel of Luke, which proclaims that God’s purpose is salvation, not destruction, and that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that purpose, not just for a few, but for all, and not just way back when, but right now. Whew.
As you may well know, each year, beginning with Advent, we focus on one of the three gospels Matthew, Mark, or Luke (with the Gospel of John woven throughout each year). While Matthew starts with a pretty dry 40-verse family tree, and Mark jumps right into the story of John the Baptist, Luke gives us angels and miracles and babies and an active Holy Spirit, all of which herald from the start God’s manifest presence, faithfulness, and redemption.
By the time we get to Canticle 16, which is the portion of Luke that we heard before the gospel reading itself and is still in the first chapter of Luke, the angel Gabriel has visited both Zechariah and Mary and informed each of them of miraculous pregnancies and specific predictions about the babies to come. And Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, an old woman, and her relative Mary, opposites in many ways—old and young, married and unmarried, privileged and not so privileged by society’s standards—have realized the extraordinary, intertwined destinies of them and their sons.
In Canticle 16, Zechariah is an exultant new father, and no wonder. He and Elizabeth had been “getting on in years,” and their childlessness had lasted a long time. Then one day, Zechariah, a priest, is in the temple, and an angel appears to him. Zechariah is terrified, but the angel, Gabriel, tries to reassure him. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his prayers have been answered and that he and Elizabeth are going to have a baby whom they should name John. Gabriel promises Zechariah that the child will be “great in the sight of the Lord” and “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.”
Despite his education as a priest, a visit from an angel, and the assurance that his prayers have been answered, Zechariah has his doubts. He tells the angel that he just can’t quite believe that he and his wife are going to have a baby because they are so old. Gabriel is not amused. Because Zechariah doesn’t trust that Gabriel has been sent by God to bring him good news, much less believe what Gabriel promises, Zechariah is rendered mute, unable to speak until the good news that Gabriel has tried to tell him has come to pass.
Well, the baby is born, and everyone celebrates him just like Gabriel foretold. Most people assume that the baby will be named Zechariah after his father. But Elizabeth insists that his name be John. By now, Zechariah has learned his lesson well enough to remember that Gabriel had told him that the child should be called John, and he affirms Elizabeth in writing…because at this point, he is still communicating by gestures and notes. And as soon as he does, he regains his voice. Gabriel’s good news has come true: the baby has been born, his name is John, and Gabriel recognizes that he will be “great in the sight of the Lord.” Finally, Zechariah can speak, he is overjoyed, and so he proclaims the prophecy that we hear in Canticle 16: in a time of turmoil and war, when many people are not free or vulnerable to enemies, God fulfills his promise to set them free.
The message of Luke’s gospel is that salvation does not end with Zechariah or his son John or Jesus himself. It is ongoing, and it is available to everyone from temple priests to unmarried young girls. As Luke’s gospel unfolds, salvation extends to poor and rich, Samaritans and shepherds, sinners and tax collectors, and more. No one is left outside of God’s saving embrace.
But each of us has a role to fill on the road to our salvation. First of all, as this season of Advent reminds us, we must pay attention. In spite of fear and uncertainty, we must remember that God is still working out God’s purpose, and we should be watching…for angels and babies and the triumph of hope and prayers. Most of us tend to be a lot like Zechariah: overly comforted by our education and status and wealth, jaded by our own experiences and those of the world around us (remember, the horrors of the first century were pretty overwhelming), and a bit smug about our abilities to discern what’s really going on.
So our first challenge is to undertake our own repentance. That’s the hardest part for me, and it’s especially challenging in such fearful times as these when I’m so aware of people and situations that seem so much worse than anything I could ever be or do. Surely Zechariah felt the same way as he tended the altar, a bit complacent in his important role and self-satisfied with his status…and in spite of all his good fortune, maybe even a little resentful of the prayers that had not been answered. Such hubris led him to doubt a messenger from God; he scoffed at the idea of a baby, never mind one whose purpose would be so pivotal. It took involuntary silence to fully recognize the wonders at work and transform his skepticism into joyful proclamation. How much easier to repent on our initiative…and open ourselves to the “tender compassion of our God,” which is so much harder to recognize when we’re behind the barrier of our own denial and self-righteousness.
Our second challenge is to ourselves remember and tell the stories of God’s salvation. Now more than ever, our job as Christians is to proclaim what we profess to be true. That God is faithful and will prevail. That throughout history things seemingly disconnected and obviously related, things major and minor have worked together to affect God’s purpose. That our daily needs can be met. That we take seriously the promises of our Baptismal Covenant. That Christ has died, and Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
And then we can rest.