Guide our feet into the way of peace
Luke 1: 68-79
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
December 14, 2014
The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Can you imagine a more appropriate scripture text for our day of national division and resentment and outrage? These birth stories in the gospels of Luke and Matthew are not foreign to the social and political turmoil that we are experiencing, and to be faithful to the meaning of these stories means that we gain some spiritual insight into our own situation.
So we begin by noticing that these stories sound like they were told in an obstetrician’s waiting room! This is especially true in the gospel of Luke, which tells us not one, but two birth stories! The first is the birth of John the Baptist, a story that in many ways is just as fascinating an account as the stories about the birth of Jesus. So as we wait for Christmas, let us notice the birth of a baby boy named John.
If you are prone to think that this birth story is a quaint little religious tale that says nothing about current issues, take another close look. The way the writer constructed this birth story says a great deal about power politics, even as feisty as ours is today. It all comes in the way he introduces the main characters. He opens the story this way: In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah…His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
Now that may sound innocent enough, but Luke is telling a story about how God was changing the face of history. And how would that change happen? Through the power politics of Herod of Judea? Would world history be changed for better because of this political leader who represented Rome, considered the most powerful military on earth? Is God’s ability to bring dramatic newness to the world limited to the precincts of any nation’s political maneuvering? The answer seems obvious from Luke’s perspective.
Every generation tends to label its time by the name of its political leaders. “In the days of Franklin Roosevelt,” we say. “In the days of President Eisenhower,” we say. We speak of eras as if the truly great events of the world are limited to what happens at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But Luke’s not so subtle reminder is that God’s work for good in this world is not limited to those who hold the great political and military positions of power.
Luke tells a story about a world-changing event that begins among a group of people known in local parlance as the Anawim, the poor of the land. They had little of this world’s goods and even less of this world’s power and prestige. They never had to stand before the cameras, interview with the press, walk the red carpet, or argue before the courts. They were the nobody’s of the age; they were part of the hoi polloi; they blended into the landscape. The fact that Luke introduces these two people, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, in the very same breath with reference to King Herod, is a subtle message.
Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in a different universe from King Herod. Herod was a King, while Zechariah was a country priest, way down on the ecclesiastical totem pole. His wife Elizabeth was dealing as best she could with the fact that they had not been able to conceive, and the years were rolling by like empty perambulators. Both were getting on in years, says the text. The implication is that both of them were settling down, learning to live with the disappointment, and hanging on until retirement. It was a plodding existence, and they were hoping to live long enough to get some pleasure out of life, but not long enough to be a burden on anyone.
This sad old couple become the venue for God’s great work in the world. History would remember Herod primarily as the King at the time when John the Baptist and Jesus were born. Yet Herod was not even aware of the events for which he would be remembered! God was quietly working in the lives of a forgotten older couple to bring about change.
Luke’s story of the birth of John the Baptist confirms the truth that James Russell Lowell would write centuries later, that
…behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
Surely God was keeping watch over this aging couple who had just about given up hope. The story says that Zechariah was chosen by lot…to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. This was a big day in his life. All the priests of Israel were divided into twenty-four groups; each group served twice a year for a week in the Temple. So this large group of country priests came to the big city, and one of them would be chosen by lot to enter the Holy of Holies and bring the incense to the altar.
Zechariah must have been shocked that his name was pulled from the hat. It would be a high moment, the pinnacle of his professional life. While the multitude of people were praying outside, Zechariah would enter the sanctuary alone and offer the incense. The people would be waiting expectantly outside for him to emerge.
But the people had a long wait. They waited and waited. Where was this country priest? Why was he delayed? The other priests must have fidgeted and whispered. Would someone dare to go in and see what was wrong?
But in the way of biblical stories, we readers know what was happening. We know that in his religious fervor, Zechariah had a vision of an angel, and like everyone else in the gospel of Luke who encounters an angelic vision, he falls to his face in terror. And the angel says, Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.
Now, I don’t want to dwell too much on this because it is a little embarrassing, but have you noticed here that even priests can be shocked and dismayed when prayers are answered? Even professional religionists become dull in their expectations. We officiate in the sanctuary itself, but repetition brings familiarity, and familiarity (as we all know) can breed contempt. Even religious folk can go through the motions of prayer and worship and not expect anything significant to happen.
In Zechariah’s case, he had become so used to praying with no evident response from God, that when the angel tells him that he and Elizabeth will indeed have a son, he argues with the angel. I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years, he says. The argument goes like this: Zechariah says emphatically, I am old…. Then the angel says just as emphatically, I am Gabriel. They are nose to nose in argument. I am old…I am Gabriel. You can’t…you can! You won’t…you will! And finally Zechariah comes out of the sanctuary mute, unable to speak, overcome by the divine.
Here is a reminder that we cannot afford to become too complacent in our expectations. We pray fervently for the renewal of the church, and when it happens, we are scared to death. We hear the argument of Zechariah echoing through this holy place, You can’t…I can! You won’t…I will!
And sure enough, the story goes on to tell us that Elizabeth did conceive, and a baby boy was born. When they brought him for dedication, the community was gathered around the parents celebrating the birth of their baby. Everyone thought they would name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, No, he is to be called John. And poor, mute Zechariah confirmed it by writing on a notepad, His name is John. And the story tells us that immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.
In language of praise and gratitude and hope for the future through the birth of a new generation, we have before us what has come to be called The Benedictus, surely an ancient hymn of the early church that drew from early Jewish piety but added a Christian dimension to the hymn. The people of Israel had long expected that God would deliver them from the political domination of a foreign power. This hymn coming from the mouth of a new father reflects this form of Jewish piety, but the church added a new dimension to the hymn; you might call it a new stanza:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
That haunting phrase, to guide our feet into the way of peace, ends Zechariah’s hymn sung before his newborn son John. It is the prayer of every parent that the new generation will guide our feet into the way of peace.
It is our audacious faith that God’s purposes in the world are not confined to the great and the powerful. There are people of faith whose names are not on CNN, who do not negotiate contracts in the millions, who do not wield great power and influence in the media, who do not vote in Congress or head big corporations, but who by their quiet, often inconspicuous, and humble lives can lead a church, a nation, and even a world into the way of peace.