(A sermon for Advent 1B–Luke 1:5-25, 57-80— November 27, 2011)
|(Yes, I realize it didn’t look this way in 1977.)|
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
I piled into a woody wagon with a group of teenagers I knew from church. The driver was the youth group leader’s college-age son, and they were all going to see some movie at the Williamsburg Theater. It had been playing all summer, but I’d never heard of it. When I got in the car to go to the movie, I didn’t know I was heading toward something that would become part of my personal mythology, that the crowded station wagon and the Hinson boys (hi on Facebook!), the sons of my youth group leader, would forever be entwined with my memories of Tatooine and R2D2 and Luke Skywalker.
The only trouble is, the first time I saw Star Wars, we arrived late, and I missed most of the words in the “scroll,” the words that set up the story. So that first time through I had a hard time understanding what was happening. Every good epic has a prologue, but I was not paying attention.
We know the part of the Luke story we hear on Christmas Eve, the part about Joseph going to Bethlehem to be registered, along with his espoused wife Mary, great with child. We know she wraps the child in swaddling clothes and lays him in the manger. We know about the shepherds who come to see him, following the light of a star. But in Luke’s gospel there are two babies born, cousins who will later meet as adults, one laying out the way for the other.
Every good epic has a prologue, and Luke, Chapter 1, is ours.
A long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived an old couple. They were sad, because they had no children. And in that time and place, children mattered. Everyone wanted strong and beautiful children who would have more strong and beautiful children who would have more strong and beautiful children…well, you get the picture. The land was occupied by an invading army, with all the insults and ugliness and worry that goes along with having soldiers in your town, soldiers who speak a foreign language and worship false gods.
“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” (Luke 1:5-7, NRSV)
People in the first century had a simplistic understanding of how human reproduction worked, of how it came to be that people produced people. They understood the sex part, but the inner workings were a mystery. They believed that the man implanted the woman with a teeny, tiny person. All men could do that; all men had the seed available.
So if no baby appeared, it was clear, the woman was at fault. She had not provided a good field in which to grow that mini-person. This is what Elizabeth means when she says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (Luke 1:25, NRSV) But this is more than a story about two people who suffered from infertility and had a late-in-life baby.
Elizabeth and Zechariah symbolize a post-fertile culture, a post-fertile world view, and for the Jewish people of the first century, that infertility equaled a lack of hope for the future. The collective hope was in the coming generations, and this couple had done nothing to contribute to those generations. The line ended with each of them.
This barrenness was about the practical problem of keeping the population up, but it also signified a worry that God’s favor had been withdrawn.
What would be a metaphor for the brokenness in our culture? And what would qualify as a sign of hope? Much as we may love babies, and I do love them, we are living in an over-crowded world. When we hear the Duggars are expecting number 20, we shake our heads and say, “Well, at least they can support their children,” but what we really want to say is, “What are they thinking?!?!!”
In the first century of the Common Era, in the hill country of Judea, a baby was a sign that the future might be a better place.
What would be a sign for us?
At this time of year, I’m looking for light. The days are short, and that’s only going to get worse before it gets better. And where barrenness was a useful image for apocalyptic fear in first century Judea, darkness may well be that metaphor for us, because we are not used to it. We have electric lights, and lights on our cars, and screens—from large and flat to tiny and hand-held—that light up our world all the time. I learned the hard way during the late October snowstorm that I need a directory not just of our Deacons’ home phone numbers, but of their cell phones as well.
Because when the power goes off, we’re stranded. Oh, we might have a candle to light against the darkness, and some of you have generators you can use to keep the basics running, but our understanding of the world has become one of instant communications, long distance included, and in this ten-digit world we feel disconcerted when we can’t make contact.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Well, actually, yesterday…
over on Mountfort Road…
|The saw in question.|
my son, Peter, and I went to get a Christmas tree. We don’t usually get our tree so early, but having Peter here to help and knowing how busy the next two weekends will be, I decided to go ahead. We came to North Yarmouth, to that place right across from the Dransfields’, to get a tree. It’s only a Christmas tree farm, not the big woods, but for your city-dwelling pastor, this constitutes an epic adventure.
We tromped around in the mud and snow, for which I was naturally prepared…or not…and Peter wielded a saw, and we even managed to get the tree home to Portland with only one stop to tie it down tighter. We came to cut our own tree precisely because it’s so early in the season, and I wanted one that was fresh. I broke my usual rule of waiting until the 2nd Sunday in Advent because I don’t want to face the darkest weeks of the year, the shortest days and longest nights, without a tree in my house to hold the lights that make it possible to bear the darkness.
Yes, I think darkness is the word we’re looking for, the description of how we feel when we are out of relationship with God and wonder if we’ll ever feel the touch of divine love again. A quick scan of the headlines offers up all sorts of disconnection from God. To those of you who love Black Friday, I do know the term is about the economics of getting companies into the black for the year. But every year there is a story, and some years it’s worse than others, reminding us that even in the midst of holiday lights, people are acting out their despair. Darkness is the word for the madness of using pepper spray at Wal-Mart to try and get ahead of others in line to buy electronic games.
Darkness is the word for loss of hope, for a fear that there is no goodness in the future, for a disconnection from God so profound that sometimes there is barely a crack to let the light break through. But we light the candles on the Advent wreath as a claim against the darkness, all kinds of darkness; we light the candles as a sign we believe in a new hope.
God sent a sign of hope into a broken world: John the Baptist, the miraculously conceived son of parents who were getting on in years. He would bring the message that God was coming, to set things right and to set people right, as prophesied by his no-longer-tongue-tied father, Zechariah.
“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.” (Luke 1:78-79, NRSV)
The new hope of a light in the darkness has been part of the story all along.
John pointed the way to the hope coming after him: God’s own self in the person of Jesus. God came to us as Jesus, bringing and becoming hope for a broken, barren, darkened world. In these Sundays of Advent, we gather and listen to the prologue and wait for the story to begin, hopefully. Amen.