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The Benedictus

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Dec 09

We are about to hear the story of the birth of John the Baptist and the response of his father, Zechariah. Luke introduces Zechariah in chapter 1, verse 5 as a righteous priest, married to Elizabeth. Both are from long lines of priestly heritage that trace back to days of the Hebrew Bible. One day, after serving in the great temple in Jerusalem, an angel appears to Zechariah and announces to him that his wife will bear a son and that he will be called John. Zechariah and Elizabeth were both aged and they had never been able to conceive a child. Zechariah was disbelieving. For his doubts, the angel decreed that he would remain silent, literally dumbstruck, until the birth of his child. And now, our reading from Luke, chapter 1, starting at vs 57…

[Read Luke 1:57-80]

If you’ve spent any time at the Episcopal monastery on Memorial Drive, or if you’ve grown up in Roman Catholic or Anglican traditions, you may be familiar with something called the Divine or Daily Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s a framework for daily devotion that marks and sanctifies each day with prayer: morning, noon, evening and night. At morning prayers, the Benedictus, or the “The Canticle of Zechariah" that we just heard, is often read or chanted. At early evening Vespers, it’s the Magnificat, or the "Canticle of Mary." At Compline, it’s the Nunc Dimittis or the "Canticle of Simeon" from Luke 2. Some of you know these pieces like the back of your hand after years of private devotion or from singing them in choirs. For others, this may be new information. Whatever the case, this season of Advent and our text for today draws us deeply into to those early chapters of Luke, and in particular to the Benedictus, literally, “Blessed be the most high God,” the first line of Zechariah’s lyrical response to his son’s birth.

To be clear, these opening chapters of Luke tell not just one birth story, but two. Writing in 70 CE, Luke has the benefit of decades of reflection about these stories originally transmitted through oral traditions. As John Dominic Crossan has said in his book Jesus: the Revolutionary: “A marvelous life and death demands and gets, in retrospect, a marvelous conception and birth.” Luke delivers just this in his telling.

I’d like to begin today by showing you just how artful and intentional Luke was in crafting these marvelous stories in striking parallel. Then we can ask why. Why is John the Baptist so prominently featured here, and throughout our Advent readings, and how might we grow from this?

Let’s start with an exercise. Imagine a piece of paper with line drawn down the middle. Fair warning, we are about to nerd out for a moment; it’s time to channel your inner biblical and literary scholars! Ready? At the top of first column is the name John, at the top of the second is the name Jesus. And now for those parallels:

On one side: The Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah.
On the other: Gabriel appears to Mary.

And from here on, let’s go with actual quotes from the text:

On one side: “But the angel said to him I On the other: “But the angel said to her

Do not be afraid, Zechariah... I Do not be afraid, Mary

For your prayers have been heard... I For you have found favor with God

Elizabeth will bear you a son.. I You will bear a son

And you will name him John.. I And you will name him Jesus.

The child grew and became strong in Spirit and he was in the wilderness I The child grew and became strong, filled with Wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child… to be called John I After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child and he was called Jesus.

Kinda cool, right? We know Luke isn’t trying to make the case that John and Jesus were somehow equal in historical stature or theological significance. John is just the warm-up act, the opening band. So, it gets even more interesting when we notice where the stories diverge.

First, Zechariah is a person of relative privilege— an older, upper class, male priest, albeit a Jew living under Roman Occupation. Meanwhile, Mary was a young peasant girl. We might wonder if this is why the angel makes Zechariah “zip it” for nine months! I know I’m taking liberties here, but I feel like Gabriel is saying: “If you are going to try to mansplain to me why you think Elizabeth can’t get pregnant, then man, step back! Stop all your priestly praying out loud. Just listen. Listen to me. Listen to your wife. And by the way, when the child comes, don’t do that thing of giving your child your name. He really needs to break out of these family ties and do his own thing, far away from these altars!” Miraculously, and marvelously, from that enforced stretch of silence comes a glorious hymn of effervescent praise and joy that would be sung through the centuries.

Another key difference is the setting of the births. Notice that John was born in the midst of a crowd of neighbors and family, likely well-to-do fellow priests and temple functionaries who worked for King Herod in Jerusalem. Meanwhile Jesus was born in relative quiet and obscurity, in a stable on the way outskirts of a town called Bethlehem. This is a big difference!

And finally, the biggest difference is in the prophecy around their individual future paths. As the story goes, John grew up and was in the wilderness, that is, the often-mountainous deserts of first century Palestine. When we think of John the Baptist, we think of a wild eccentric who ate locusts and wore animal skins, but how often do we consider his heritage and the fact that he eschewed his familial privilege in favor of God’s purpose for his life? What’s more, he did so with his family’s blessing! Jesus, on the other hand, had a more public calling and purpose, starting at age 12 when he shows up in the temple and first wows the crowds with his studious comments and questions. After John baptizes his cousin Jesus in the Jordan, Jesus spends a short season alone in the wilderness but then returns to a highly public ministry where he was constantly surrounded by crowds, first in Galilee then in the big city of Jerusalem! Strikingly similar beginnings, in some ways, but two decidedly different commingled paths.

So what about the Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, itself? True to his name, Zechariah, which means “God remembered,” utters forth an ancient hymn in two movements: the first is praise for what has been. The second is promise of what is to come. Indeed, Zechariah remembers God’s faithfulness to his ancestors and all God’s people, remembers how God gives us the security to do what we most want, namely to serve God with awe and without fear. The promise comes when he recognizes that John is the long-heralded voice that will cry out it in the wilderness and prepare the way for the Messiah. And here, the message is both political and personal. Zechariah is talking about salvation for an actually war-torn nation and rescue from the hands of actual enemies, i.e. Rome. As was the case when God led the people out of Egypt, as was the case when God lifted up King David, now God’s promises are being fulfilled again, starting with John, and culminating with Jesus, that Dayspring from on high! Equally important though is the personal invitation we find here, that the coming of the Messiah is a moment that will require repentance and forgiveness of all. Even here, on the day of John’s birth, redemption is proclaimed to be about both personal and social transformation. Ultimately, the song is about John’s role in readying the people, as individuals and as a body politic, to receive God’s tenderest of mercies— Jesus, who is that Dayspring from on high, that new and holy dawn that will break upon us in light and guide our feet in the path of peace.

And now, finally, we can ask: why do we hear so much about John at this time of year? Maybe it’s that we ourselves can’t really come to know or understand Jesus without first understanding John, Elizabeth and Zechariah! Luke seems to be saying: ‘If you know the deep change that Jesus is bringing, then you too need a warm up act!’ By all means, take Zechariah’s example. Silence yourself for nine months if you have too, and don’t think that you are old enough and wise enough to have seen it all. If you really want to get ready for what comes next, be like John! Cast off the fancy robes, lead a counter-cultural movement of relinquishment and repentance, and head to the outskirts of town. After all, that is where Jesus was born, not here amidst the golden city! And, let’s not forget the context, which is key. Both babies are born in the days of King Herod, and in the days when a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all should be registered. They are both living in the days of empire. They are both somehow trying to chart an alternative path to God’s kin-dom.

Those of us who are reading Thomas Merton as part of our Advent study will recall his observations about this registering. Merton’s piece is called “The Time of No Room,” as in the time of no room in the inn. Merton writes:

Why then was the inn crowded? Because of the census, the eschatological massing of the “whole world” in centers of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power. The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed. To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.... It was therefore right that there should be no room for him in a crowd... His being born outside that crowd is even more of a sign.

That good news of “the Great Joy” is announced, after all, in silence, loneliness and darkness, to shepherds “living in the fields” or “living in the countryside” and apparently unmoved by the rumors or massed crowds. These are the remnant of the desert-dwellers, the nomads, the true Israel. Even though “the whole world” is ordered to be inscribed, they do not seem to be affected. Doubtless they have registered, as Joseph and Mary will register, but they remain outside the agitation, and untouched by the vast movement, the massing of hundreds and thousands of people everywhere in the towns and cities.

Merton continues: “They are therefore quite otherwise signed. They are designated, surrounded by a great light, they receive the message of the Great Joy, and they believe it with joy. They see the Spirit of God over them, recognize themselves for what they are. They are the remnant, the people of no account, who are therefore chosen....And they obey the light…”

Does this sound like anyone we’ve been talking about? The imposed silence of Zechariah? The clear “No” to the lineage naming of Elizabeth? The chosen path of John, to become a desert-dweller, to live in the fields and the countryside?

Friends, we can’t get there from here – we can’t receive the message of that great joy-- without folks like these to warm up and show us the way! For the preparation for the coming of Jesus begins in silence, imposed if needed. The preparation for the coming of Jesus happens in wilderness places. We, like John, begin in too-crowded public places. We, too, need to move into the darkness and wilderness, if only so that we can see the light!

Why John and why all the fuss with the Benedictus? Perhaps it is telling us, too, to watch out for all those noisy and crowded ways that we are already registered as card-carrying member of the empire, the ways we are already joining the masses that are clinging to familial legacy or tribal expectation? Oh, and it’s not just the government either, though I hear Trump has a new census up his sleeve. Just think of the ways we are, almost all of us, registered, literally, by Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, with IDs and passwords to boot! Are we being called here to chart a new path, to join with the “quite otherwise registered,” to be in solidarity with the undocumented of our time, or with those increasing numbers who are consciously choosing to live off the grid, if only for a tech free sabbath once a week? Are we being called to find silence and solitude? Perhaps, to explore a new wilderness of prayer, chants and canticles at the monastery. By the way, I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to any of you! I’m way far from where I want be when it comes to this stuff, and just saying it doesn’t mean that I’m living it, try as I might!

Remember before when I mentioned the word repentance, a word associated with John the Baptist, perhaps even more than Jesus, though they both said it many times? Advent is not only a time of joy filled remembrance and promise but also a time of repentant preparation. Repentance is not brow-beating guilt, contrition or merely feeling sorry for our sins. No, repentance in the actual Bible is far more about making changes and turning towards God. One translation for the New Testament word for repent is “to go beyond the mind that you have.” It means starting to see the world differently, so that we can move from alienation and exile and wilderness to re-connection and to our real home in God. Repentant preparation for us may well mean finding and naming and extracting ourselves from all those places where we are just another cog in a mass consumer, imperial machine. It may mean following John the Baptizer’s lead and heading for the quiet fields, or the places where those of “no account” live, for that is where Jesus is born. That is the place where the capital G Great and capital J Joy, the Great Joy, will be born again, and again!

So go now to those quiet places, to those wilderness places in your own lives, those places where you can remember that you too are quite otherwise signed - as nothing more or less than a beloved child of God! For this is how we, too, will prepare the way.

Thanks be to God for the Benedictus, for all remnant people, for the people of no account, and for these stories of marvelous births. May they be born anew in us today! Amen.

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