Guide our feet into the way of peace
Luke 1: 68-79
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
December 9, 2018
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 fitting text for our day?
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 story begins 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 King Herod of Judea? Is God’s ability to bring dramatic newness to the world limited to the precincts of any nation’s political maneuvering?
Every generation tends to label time by the name of its political leaders. “In the days of Abraham Lincoln,” we say. “In the days of President George H. W. Bush,” we say. We speak of eras as if the truly great events of the world are ignited solely by what happens at 1600 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 us 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.
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 baby strollers. 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.
This sad and aging couple became the venue for God’s great work in the world. 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 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. He was just a country priest. 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. Zechariah alone would enter the Holy of Holies 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.
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 this is embarrassing! Have you noticed that even priests can be shocked when prayers are answered? We officiate in the sanctuary itself, but even religious leaders 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 response from God, that when he is told that he and Elizabeth will indeed have a baby boy, he argues with the angel. I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years, he says. The argument goes something 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! Finally, Zechariah comes out of the sanctuary mute, unable to speak, overcome by the divine.
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, Jr! But his mother said, No, he is to be called John. And all eyes turned to the baby’s mute father, who wrote 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 known as The Benedictus. This hymn, coming from the mouth of a new father, reflects a 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 powerful. There are people of faith whose names are not in the news, who do not negotiate contracts in the billions, 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 o