God works through unlikely people, in strange situations, to speak a sudden word of pure grace. The dawn from on high crests over the horizon to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) – December 6, 2015 – Luke 1:68-79, Luke 3:1-6
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Unremarkable Prophets – Pastor Evan Davis
Our gospel reading today is about John the Baptist, but the incredible song of praise which we heard at the beginning of worship today are the words of his dad, Zechariah. Today is Zechariah’s day. We don’t get to his story too often on Sunday morning, but today is his day and so we’re gonna let him shine. Elizabeth will get her day in the spotlight in two weeks. Luke alone tells their story…he doesn’t just start the story with Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, but with Zechariah and Elizabeth, father and mother to John the Baptist. How many of you know their story? Zechariah is a priest, but a pretty average priest, not too high up. I’ll call him “Father Z.” Elizabeth is descended from Aaron, which means she’s a great wife for a priest, but she’s barren, so they have no children. What’s more, they’re getting on in years. Have you met another couple in the Bible who were getting on in years and not able to have children? Oh yeah, Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors in faith, the mother and father of the whole people of God. Oh yeah, Hannah, mother of Samuel. God prefers to work with the out of luck folks of this world!
And one day, when Zechariah is doing his priest thing in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem, the angel Gabriel shows up, and Father Z freaks out. But the angel has good news – don’t be afraid, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many to the Lord their God. Father Z’s like, “really, cause, um, I don’t know if you noticed, but Liz and I, we’re pretty old.” But Gabriel’s not having it any of Zechariah’s all-too-human skepticism, so he “hits the mute button” and Zechariah can no longer speak, not until his son John is born.1
Luke shifts the story for a bit over to a young woman named Mary, Elizabeth’s relative, but we’ll tell her story in two weeks. Flash forward nine months and Elizabeth gives birth to a healthy baby boy. On his eighth day of life it’s time to snip the child like all Jewish boys and that’s when the kid gets named. Of course, everybody thinks he’s going to be Zechariah, Jr., but his mom says nope, his name will be John. Everybody thinks this is odd because that’s not a family name. So they defer to the silent one, Father Z, who writes on a little tablet, “his name is John.” And in that moment, the silent one starts talking, praising God. It’s clear this kid will not just be a run-of-the-mill priest like his daddy. He’s going to be something special.
And right then, as Luke records, the Holy Spirit takes hold of Zechariah, fills him up with divine breath, holy words, and it all bursts out of him in some of the most exquisite poetry of the Bible:
Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel, you have come to your people and set them free. You have raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of your servant David….This was the oath you swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship you without fear, holy and righteous before you, all the days of our life.
In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
God breaks into the world in unremarkable people. Barren women become mothers. Aging priests become the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of emperors, governors, rulers, and high priests, the people who make the history books, some of the main characters of the most important story of human history are an elderly priest and his wife and their crazy son John who preaches out in the wilderness, talking about valleys being filled and mountains getting bulldozed to build a highway for God to arrive and all flesh will see the salvation of God, not just the people of Israel. All of a sudden, the good news bursts into the world like the dawn from on high cresting over the horizon. And the good news is that God has not forgotten us. We’re saved. God is about to fulfill all his promises.
I heard another story this week that I have to tell you.
On June 18, 1947, on a Pam Am flight from Calcutta to New York, an engine stopped working, which caused another engine to overheat, which caused a fire, which caused a panic. While the pilot attempted to land the plane, the 25-year-old co-pilot unbuckled himself. He went into the main cabin to help with the passengers. He sat next to a young woman who was alone. He told her it was going to be okay. He told her this as he watched the engine continue to burn. He told her this as he watched it fall from the wing. He told her this as fuel lines became exposed, fire overtook the aircraft, and the plane pitched downward. He told her this knowing that every single person on that plane was about to die. The plane hit hard, crashing into the Syrian desert. Fourteen people died instantly. Two crew members survived: including the co-pilot. And with a pair of broken ribs, he went back into the burning plane, pulling survivors from the wreckage. Eventually the wind turned, and fire overtook the aircraft. And so they waited. Morning arrived, but a rescue did not. The co-pilot took charge, and formed two search parties. The first party went in one direction, the second party, along with the co-pilot, went in the other, wandering in the desert. They eventually found a village. A village which had a radio. A call was made, and the twenty-two survivors were rescued. As for the co-pilot, the crash changed him. After that, he didn’t want to be a pilot anymore…He resigned from Pan Am to pursue a career in writing and, ultimately, television. His name was Gene Roddenberry, and he created Star Trek.2
To a people who sat in darkness and the shadow of death, death approaching them at 200 miles an hour, God showed up in an extraordinarily brave, but otherwise ordinary young man. Ironically, Roddenberry had a hard time with the Christian faith, and yet I believe he was filled with the Holy Spirit no less than Zechariah. A woman who must have thought she would surely die was not alone, people who were doomed were suddenly rescued from a burning plane and then a burning hot desert. I have to imagine that when their rescue arrived, it was a moment of pure joy, of death suddenly turning into life, of good news breaking into the world. And yet for the fourteen who died, it wasn’t good news. In the same way for us, good news bursts forth like the dawn from on high even as so many still sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
We don’t have to look far to find those people. You’re those people. Your neighbors are. They’re the people of San Bernardino and Paris, of Aleppo and Raqqa and Mosul, they’re the people of the Valley who are alone or grieving or cold or depressed or unemployed or sick.
What would it look like for the dawn from on high to break upon them and upon you, for it to shine into that darkness? Where is Christ guiding our feet into the way of peace and wholeness?
I see that dawn from on high breaking over the horizon in unremarkable people like Zechariah and Elizabeth and John.
People like you who fill shopping carts with presents for children, who ring the bell to remind the world of those in need, who make sure the kids at the Minnick School are clothed and fed so they can learn, who create a place here – with your hands and your wallets – where good news can be heard, who make sure the sick and lonely in your life are visited, cared for, and loved.
We can’t keep the darkness out of the world anymore than we can stop a plane from crashing. But you are the people like Zechariah and Elizabeth and John, filled with the Holy Spirit, the unremarkable people God has chosen to tell this dark world that in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high, Jesus the Christ, shall break upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, guiding our feet into the way of peace. Amen.
1I’ll credit Rolf Jacobson for this fun little phrase, in his Commentary on Luke 1:68-79, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703 (accessed December 4, 2015).