The text for this sermon is Luke 1: 68-79.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Poking around the internet this week, I found a blog post from Melissa Sevier about this verse. She lives on a mountain in rural Kentucky. One morning before dawn in early December she woke up to find the cold dark mountainside blanketed in snow. She was excited as all of us are at the first snow. When she opened her door, she realized that it wasn’t snow, but frost. She checked the weather on her phone and read that it would be sunny that day with the temperature moving from the 20’s to the 40’s. She decided to just sit with her coffee in her dark house watching the gray skies out her window become bright blue.
Before the sun peaked out, fog rolled in, the moist clouds caused by the frost fighting the warmth of the still invisible sun. As the fog cleared and the skies went from gray to blue she started to see the grass underneath the heavy frost. First a little green, and then a little more as the sky brightened. In only an hour, the world turned from frosty darkness, monochrome and cold, to vibrant, colorful warmth. She wrote these words at the end of her blog, “ This is always the hope of humanity isn’t it? That whatever bad thing is occurring now won’t last forever. That the fog that obscures our vision of the future will be dissolved by the light of hope. That the freezing darkness and death that seems so near especially for many this time of year will begin to melt from the warmth of peace.”
The warmth of peace was what Zechariah was feeling the day he uttered this Spirit filled prophecy. Zechariah was an elderly part time priest. He and his wife Elizabeth had not been given children. This was a source of sadness in their marriage. One day when it was his coveted turn to enter the Holy of Holies, the center of the huge, beautiful temple, he encountered the angel Gabriel who told him that Elizabeth in her old age would bear a child and they would name him John. His son would have an important role in God’s plan. He would declare the forgiveness of sins, preparing the way for the Messiah to bring salvation for all. When Zechariah heard this great, fantastic news in the Holy of Holies delivered by a glowing angel, instead of responding with praise or thankfulness, his faith failed him and he questioned whether he could believe something so unbelievable. For his lack of faith, the angel Gabriel made Zechariah mute until he held the child for himself.
Zechariah lived through nine months of not speaking, as the belly of his elderly wife miraculously grew. As the trimesters of Elizabeth’s pregnancy passed, his neighbors and Elizabeth celebrated daily God’s work and their good fortune. But Zechariah knew what he could not speak. These were dark days spent silently by Zechariah thinking about his failure. How could he question God like he had? How could he doubt the power of God, responding with very human skepticism? How could he dishonor God who brought him this honor? He was a man that had lived his life in obedience to God but had not recognized God’s word when it was brought to him by an angel. He was a fraud. Dark, cold, frosty nights.
Then like that, night ended. A child was born. His silence ended. These soaring words of Zechariah become the first words he uttered since he had been made mute by the angel Gabriel. He sang these words with joy, filled with the Spirit of God, on the eighth day of his healthy son’s life. They poured out of him as the darkness of his failure receded with the hope of newborn life wriggling and squirming in his hands. The quiet gray skies, the cold loneliness of his darkest moment, gave way to the rising of the Sun, and the blue warmth that would follow. Zechariah was caught in the warmth of peace. A peace filled with God, who had seemed so distant in his pain, but discovered to be near all along when the morning came.
From dark to dawn. From cold to warm. Morning always follows night, but the waiting can be hard. We can be impatient, especially when it is someone else who is dwelling in frosty darkness. Rather than sit and wait with them, we get out the heat lamps, to hurry the process along. We shovel the frost away and pull out the flood lights to artificially brighten the sky. Then we are disappointed when the person we are trying so hard to heal, to fix, to make right, is so indignant in their refusal to get well. C’mon we rage, what’s that pity party going to do. Turn on the lights, make peace with what happened, get on with life.
Make peace, that’s a different thing then letting the warmth of peace overtake you. More than once, I have gathered warring members of my congregation into a room and said, boldly, dumbly, we are going to make peace here! More than once I have encouraged spouses, deeply hurt by the actions of the one they had loved and trusted with their life, to let go of their anger, for the sake of the kids if not their own health and make peace. More than once, I have lost patience with people grieving that just don’t seem to want to get better, to make peace with their loss and move on. The peace I bear is sometimes more like a weapon that I bludgeon over their head as I try to make them well. It’s a lot different than allowing the warmth of peace to overtake us.
My prayer today is that we trust that dawn will come for us and for the Zechariah’s we know who sit mute and cold in the early morning darkness. May we have patience to wait for the early morning fog to roll away, and the grass to peak out from underneath the cold frost. May we have the faith to not try to fix someone we love by bringing in space heaters to warm them. May we have the courage instead to dwell with them in darkness, bearing hope that might be hard for them to believe, that morning is coming. Hope made easier to trust by the warmth of our presence. May we trust that we are on the path that leads to the warmth of peace. And believe that the Rising Sun will bring us all salvation, it’s just that sometimes we have to wait. Amen