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Tender Mercies

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Dec 06

Texts: Malachi 3:1-4 • Luke 1:68-79

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son has been born! John—the miracle child—conceived in their old age. And they are about to dedicate him at the temple. You remember the story. Zechariah is an old priest. He’s in semi-retirement, living in the hill country of Judea, and going up to Jerusalem a couple of weeks each year to serve at the temple. His wife Elizabeth is past her childbearing years. And—out of the blue—the Angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah to announce that Elizabeth will bear a son.

You will remember that Gabriel is the same guy who visits Mary to announce Jesus’ birth. Like Mary, Zechariah wonders at this strange news. Like Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who laughs at the idea of conceiving in her old age, Zechariah is skeptical. But unlike Mary—who ponders her odd news quietly—or Sarah—who tosses her head back in laughter—Zechariah says to the angel, “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”

Apparently, this is not the sort of thing you’re supposed to say to an angel, because for this expression of disbelief, Zechariah is struck dumb for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. That’s along time. Nine months not to even be able to say so much as “yes, Dear.” A lot of time to think. And Zechariah’s speech is restored only at the moment when he and Elizabeth go up to the temple on the eighth day to circumcise their infant son.

This child will grow to up be John the Baptist, who preaches a powerful message of repentance. John, who attracts crowds by the hundreds, baptizing and cleansing them in the Jordan River. John, who baptizes even Jesus.

And these are the words that come from Zechariah’s loosed tongue; a hymn of praise to God: “Blessed be the God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” And then these words, directed to his son, John: “And you child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

It would have been pretty natural for Zechariah to have had inflated expectations for this precious only child, who came to him so late in life. But instead, Zechariah has perfect clarity. This child will play a small role in a cosmic drama. This child—with all his talent and charisma—is not the savior. But he is a participant in God’s work, a messenger of God’s saving grace.

During the season of Advent, we too, are invited to participate in the coming of God’s kin-dom. Each of us has a role. To prepare the way of the Lord. We, who know God’s tender mercies, God’s ways of forgiveness and saving grace, have a role to play.

In churches through the ages, the Advent Season has been a time for prayer, fasting and penitence. John the Baptist—crying out in the wilderness—calls for repentance. So, too, our scripture from Malachi that brings to mind strains of Handel’s Messiah. Advent can have a hard edge. Malachi writes, “Who can endure the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire!” There is a process of cleansing and calling to account that is intrinsic to the Season of Advent. And if we move too quickly to the glitz of Christmas, without passing through days of quiet reflection, we miss the spiritual depth of the season.

These are dark days and we yearn for the light. But if we rush too quickly toward it—like a moth to flame—we might get burned. Refining is a slower process. Ore is extracted from the earth, assayed, smelted, refined. A slow burn. We live in a culture of immediacy, but we need to take time to look closely at what is near to us. Like the slow food movement that’s popular these days, perhaps we need some “slow time.” Advent time for lament, for tears, for self-examination, for confession—of our public and private sins, time for repentance and renewal.

This is a season of raw nerves. A time beyond our comprehending—these days of tragedy and violence. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been walking around feeling just raw. With recent shootings in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs, the pain and frustration are very close to the surface. So much bad news. So much anguish.

In September when Pope Francis spoke to Congress about gun violence, he expressed it this way:

"Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade." *

This is a season of calling to account. With the trial this week of Baltimore police officers, we remember the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. And with the release of graphic footage showing the shooting death of Laquan MacDonald by Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, we lament the loss of yet another African American youth. In the aftermath of an apparent cover-up, we need to know, how far up the chain of command does corruption go?

This is a season for truth-telling. With the United Nations Global Climate Summit in Paris this week, we hope that nations can and will set a new course to limit the effects of climate change. But behind that hope is an all-too-familiar fear. Fear that the pace of change is too slow, and our response is too late. Fear that New Orleans and Miami will be underwater one day. That Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Venice and Amsterdam will disappear. The Seychelles, the Maldives, the Great Barrier Reef, will vanish. What if we cannot act quickly enough?

This is a season of heartache. Perhaps Advent is a time when we can allow ourselves to feel the pain and brokenness of this world. Here, in this place where we wait in longing, here where we light candles and come together to share a feast of love. Here, where we know God’s hope and promise. Here—together—where we can act in community.

There is so much fear in the air these days. Fear of terrorism, fear of hatred and violence, fear of ourselves—that we will not be adequate to bring about needed change. “The late psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen had a theory that there are times in any society when anxiety peaks. At such times,” he writes, “terrorism, fundamentalism, and toxicity infect all of society.” ** We are living in such times.

How much we need a Word that will soothe ravaged nerves and calm our fears. In times like these, we need the dawning of a new day that will fill the house with light and chase away the shadows of our fear. This is the promise of Advent. This day is coming. Our God is a God of tender mercies, who comes to a suffering and broken-hearted world, to weep with us, to know our heartbreak, to share our common lot. To be a companion, a guide, and a balm, and to shine light on a new way of being. Luke says it with the most beautiful words:

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 in the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)

The Dayspring will come and we must turn toward the light.

We are filled with Advent longing. A deep need to feel that we are part of something important —something greater than ourselves—something enduring. An aching desire for peace—peace in the world and also peace within. We feel anguish. We experience urgency. Perhaps we need to take some “slow time” for lamentation and reflection and penitence. And turn toward the light.

In this season of preparation, if you want to fast, try giving up a diet of cynicism. If you want to repent, try turning away from despair of what the world might become. And turning toward one small thing that you can do. Consider these as spiritual practices that might make room for something new that God can do in you.

Here, in this place, we remember that we are called to be part of God’s new realm of peace. Not to bring it about by ourselves, solely by our own efforts, but to play our own small and significant role in the arc of God’s time. Here, we are invited to lay down the heavy burden of believing we need to fix it all. We cannot. But we are in a great company of saints. And we are part of a very big story—God’s story.

Perhaps the clear-eyed, old priest Zechariah offers some wisdom for us. He does not need to be the savior of the world. His son does not need to be the savior of the world. We do not need to be the saviors of the world. There is another—the Christ—who comes bringing God’s tender mercies.

This Christ, the Dayspring from on high, will break upon us all. Amen.

*http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/24/443070564/watch-live-p....

**Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 1. p. 34.

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