Sitting in Darkness, Preparing for Peace

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 in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace

These were the words that stayed with me this week as I prepared to write this sermon…an echo of the prophet Isaiah. I think it’s that imagery of the dawn breaking on the darkness, the suddenness of the suns’ first beams over the mountains in the morning, or through the dark clouds on a gloomy day. That’s how God’ peace will break into the world. But at the same time this strong, albeit beautiful imagery is set side by side with an intimacy and tenderness in it’s description of God.The word tender in the English connotes something much more tender in Greek – like from God’s inmost parts…out of the mercy of God’s heart and soul, the dawn will burst over us.

These words are an excerpt from the song of Zechariah. Zechariah’s mouth is opened for the first time in nine months, rejoicing at the birth and the naming of his son John…later to become John the Baptist…but his words are not mostly about his newborn son but about the goodness and faithfulness of God over the ages and into the future, ending with the lines that I read. The last being ‘to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

What I think of when I hear the words, ‘guide our feet in the way of peace’ is of the labyrinth. I have one on the wall of my office. I watched the movie The Labyrinth a couple weeks ago. It had been a favorite when I was a kid…great puppets by Jim Henson and a quest by a girl for her baby brother who was stolen by the goblin king, played by David Bowie. The heroine, Sarah, has to find her way through the labyrinth. The problem I had with the whole premise, is that, in my experience of the labyrinth, it is not convoluted and elaborate and confounding, a labyrinth in the tradition of pray discipline is not a maze…it has only one way: the way to the center. It is not intended to confuse but to take the one who walks on it ever closer to the center. The Labyrinth should really be called The Maze – it just doesn’t sound as good.

God’s intention with humanity is not to make us walk a maze and confound us at ever step, to hide from us. We do plenty of that ourselves. God’s thrust through history has always been to take human kind ever closer to God’s center, where there is peace. The (big) problem is that we get in our own way, even when God is telling us plainly that things are going to be made right.

Zechariah is a beautiful example. God’s messenger comes to Zechariah when he is serving in the temple – he was of a priestly family that is chosen to serve twice a year for a week at a time as priests in the temple – God’s messenger comes to Zechariah and tells him that his wife Sarah will have a son and lays out the plan that God has in store. They, like their ancestors Abraham and Sarah are getting up in years.  And Zechariah basically says, ‘Um…I don’t really think that’s possible.Maybe you’re forgetting how old my wife and I are.” So Gabrielle says, ‘well we’ll just see about that. I’ll show you how powerful God is: from now until your son is born, because of your disbelieve, you will be unable to talk.”

And so it was from that time until John received his name, Zechariah couldn’t say a word. God has this straight and beautiful way laid for Zechariah and Elizabeth, a couple who have faithfully served God and been just and good their whole lives, Zechariah says, ‘Nope,’ and turns puts a few bends in the path between himself and God. The first words he speaks are after he confirms Sarah’s proclamation that their son is to be named John by writing on a tablet.

His song is often called the ‘Benedictus’ because it begins with that word in Latin: “blessed be the Lord.” The people who witness this whole ordeal are amazed and clearly Zechariah is too. The benetictus on one of three songs in the first two chapters of Luke. These two chapters are different in tone from the rest of Luke’s writing – a little like the difference between someone praying in Elizabethan English with all the ‘thou shalt’s and ‘thou art’s and the ‘thine’s etc. – and speaking in regular conversational English. Luke has deliberately set a more religious tone in the first two chapters. This is Luke deliberately connecting his audience to the God they know and love and are familiar with.

Part of what contributes to this tone are the annunciation and birth stories of John and Jesus, which are very similar to those in the Hebrew Bible, the Magnificat (Mary’s song), which we also hear every Advent and will hear in two weeks, and the Benedictus, as well as the song of Simeon, who sings at Jesus’ presentation at the temple. All of these hymns or canticles are original to Luke but they echo and parallel the Psalms and prophets in their themes and language and style. So the Benedictus is similar to those songs in some of it’s themes: the favor of God, God’s mercy to the people of God, salvation from enemies, justice and peace.

Even though the Benedictus is proclaimed at the birth of John, it is mostly about God: who God is and what God has done and will do. A few lines are dedicated to the new baby and who he will be. But even this is in relation to how John will link the faithfulness of the God of history to the one who is coming in God’s name. John will be a link to this God who has been the God of the past but will have a location in the future as well. John will be the reminder to the people of Israel that there is indeed only one path, that God has set it before them. The way is clear if one turns and faces it. Forgiveness of sins, repentance.

When John the Baptist comes along in Luke changes tone. In some ways he’s marking the present – no longer setting context, here is where the story really begins. While Luke uses poetry like the Psalms of the past to give context to the path of peace, Luke’s introduction of John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry ditches the religious song and language brings us right up to the present:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was ruler of Galilee,
and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God
came to John
son of Zechariah
in the wilderness.

We read this passage last week in our pastors meeting.  We were all struck by difference between John in the wilderness and the list of luminaries.  Among all the high and mighties – the rulers and princes and kings – there is John in the desert.  The guy in the wilderness quoting from the prophets…a prophet himself, dressed in funny clothes and calling the crowds and kings names.

I tried to think about what the juxtaposition might be now between those on high and someone like John.  Something like…’In the first year of the administration of President Obama, when Christine Gregoire was governor of Washington, and Greg Nichols was mayor Seattle, while Oprah ruled the airwaves and cash was king, the word of God came to Maria, a homeless immigrant, by a shopping cart in Lake City.  I stop and say hi to Maria every once in awhile, but I spend a lot more time listening to the president.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I have also had the Tuesday’ news of war on my mind this week.  In one ear I hear Zechariah’s song of breaking dawn in the darkness and the way of peace, and Luke’s description of John as one who makes the way straight. And in the other I hear the president’s announcement about increased troops into Afghanistan. It makes me feel weary and disappointed and defeated. Some commenter or politician on NPR this week that Obama had made the decision reluctantly but he (Obama) knew he was right and that made me angry and so frustrated. If he didn’t want to make that decision why is that what he chose?

Last week we heard our scriptures portend wars and signs of wars and a cosmic hew and cry and signs of the times. And that same week many of you signed a letter with the leaders of Sojouners and other religious people imploring Obama not to go into Afghanistan with more troops but to increase aid, to bring light to those who sit in darkness, to lift the shadow of death, to look favorably on the people of Afghanistan. We were calling for repentance from the powers. I had signed the letter, and I hoped for a change in direction of policy. I hoped for repentance a turning around. I was disappointed but not surprised by Tuesday’s announcement. Like many people, a year ago I had a lot of tentative hope for something really different in a new administration but I am not at all surprised that princes are princes are princes.

As people on the path to peace, how are we to act or react to the frustrating and painful news of wars and wars and wars. Another little clip on the radio this week has been advertizing a program about people’s attitudes about humanity and war. The question was asked, “Will people ever give up waging war?” and the montage of answers was one ‘no’ after another, after another. It is difficult to be a prophet in the wilderness and crying to what seems like nothingness that the savior is coming. It is difficult to put trust in the voice of John and not in the voice of Tiberius and Pilate and Herod.

Our here on the edge of the labyrinth we can’t see the center, can’t tell that the way is smooth and stretches before us. At the very beginning of the movie The Labyrinth Sarah stops to ask a little worm which direction to go. It seems like the only path she can take points in the opposite direction that she wants to go. But the worm reveals to her that the wall in front of her is actually an opening, bus disguised. Sarah brightens, darts through and dashes out of sight down the path. After she is gone, the little worm says, ‘That was silly, show could have just kept going right on to the center.’

It does seem dark sometimes and frustrating. The way is not clear to the center and we cannot see it – do not always hear the voice that would lay the way. In Zechariah’s song, Luke is reminding us of God’ faithfulness. In the midst of darkness, light. Zechariah’s song “reminds us of the theological point, that in the certainty of God’s faithfulness, what is promised is as good as done. On that score, Luke appears to have taken a most daring step: twice in the hymn” he refers to people being saved from their enemies…Far from being saved from their enemies, the people were badly beaten, the temple destroyed and the city of Jerusalem sacked!  And still Zechariah’s song is sung, reminding the people of the reliability of God’s promises and calling them in turn to serve God ‘without fear, in holiness and righteousness.’” (Sharon Ringe)

This week reminded me one again that my trust should be in God alone, and that I should spent more time listening to Maria who I may not understand but who is rarely heard, and less listening to the news, which only frustrates. No doubt I will continue to advocate for peace and to hope for change in the world, to sign letters I believe that as Martin Luther King said, the universe is bending toward justice. But since I know that there is only one path for those who seek God and to see the Messiah, I will keep turning toward it, taking the step that is in front of me, with the people who are beside me.

Diana Butler Bass wrote a daily blog/journal during Advent last year on the Sojourners website. In one entry she wrote about wisdom, but she talks about it as a way we journey. “…holy wisdom.” she says, “calls, pushes, directs, and compels every one of us to act on behalf of the great God of the universe and make shalom… Wisdom comes not through money, politics, or power. Rather, wisdom is a way open to all who long for it, experienced through redemptive time and practicing peace.  Wisdom, hallowed time, and shalom—each a holy sign directing us away from fear and pointing our pilgrim way toward the Prince of Peace.

This pilgrim way out of the darkness and into the light, onto the way that leads to peace will, as John reminds us, need continued repentance and forgiveness. Turning back around when we’ve turned away. But God is faithful. May our Advent be full of the light, bursting from God’s tender mercy and faithful heart. Amen.

Read a related entry at Amy’s blog.