God’s promises

We began Advent at Bethany with Zechariah’s song at the birth of his son, and celebrated the way in which God keeps promises. The song is below and thoughts are after the jump.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
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.”

The words we just sang and read are the very end of Zechariah’s story. This is what Zechariah is remembered to have sung at the birth of his son. It’s kind of an odd song to sing for the birth of a child. Definitely no cutesy-baby stuff; it doesn’t sound like a lullaby; and it barely even mentions the child just born. But this hasn’t been an ordinary birth.

Nine months prior Zechariah was standing in the temple. He was alone, and then, all of a sudden, the story tells us the angel Gabriel appeared.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a child, a son who will be a prophet, who will prepare the way for God’s promised savior. Zechariah is skeptical.

He and his wife had tried for years to have a child. Now they are too old. Who does this guy Gabriel think he is waltzing in and proclaiming that God has promised them a child? Zechariah says as much to Gabriel, and for his skepticism receives the punishment, or maybe the gift, of nine months of silence. Zechariah is rendered mute.

He can’t speak another word until after his son is born, when his lips are opened and this song we read today pours out of him.

I wonder what it was like to be unable to speak, unable to break the silence, unable to jump into an argument or speak words of love to his wife or recite portions of Torah. I wonder what it was like to be quiet for nine months.

I imagine it gave him a lot of time to mull over this promise God has made to them, that his skepticism and despair struggled with a newly lit spark of hope.

He would have had more time to listen to Elizabeth than he had had in years. What insight might she have had about this deep longing they shared and this promise God had made?

In the middle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy her cousin Mary came to visit. Mary also found herself unexpectedly pregnant. When she arrived and she and Elizabeth began to marvel at the wild cards they’d been dealt, Mary sang out a song of praise to God for saving the weak, lifting up the broken, and filling the hungry. All of this Mary discerned in the promise of her womb. In Bible study this week we wondered if Zechariah might have been there silently listening as Mary sang.

Could that be when he began to see their situation as more than just a wild impossibility happening to the two of them, but as part of something bigger God was bringing about? Two older people having a child—in scripture that’s the oldest story in the book. Did he laugh when he realized that Sarah and Abraham had lived the very same thing? And, of course, just as for Sarah and Abraham, the promise of a child was a sign of something larger. God’s promises to Sarah and Abraham, to Elizabeth and Zechariah, were tied up in God’s promises to all people.

That’s why Zechariah’s song is so epic. He’s not just rejoicing in the birth of their child—although it’s that for sure. He’s rejoicing in God’s goodness from age to age. He’s marveling at the wonder of a God who could make a promise to Abraham thousands of years prior, a promise to be in relationship with all the people of the world, and then include Zechariah and Elizabeth in the keeping of that promise. He’s marveling at the wonder of a God who not only makes and keeps promises to an elderly couple in the backwaters of the Roman empire, but in some way uses those individual promises to bless all people.

That’s why Zechariah’s song is only a little bit about his son John. It is strange at first glance: a new father singing about everything but his son. But in these months of hoping and waiting, longing in silence, Zechariah’s vision has shifted. His child is not only the fulfillment of his hopes, but is part of something so much larger.

This is how it is with us as well.

The deep longings and desires in our hearts, longings like Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s for a child, longings for reconciliation with someone from whom we’ve been estranged, longing for love, for healing of wounds physical or emotional—these longings are sacred. They point us toward the promises God makes us—promises for life, life abundant.

And no matter how private and individual these longings and God’s promises may seem, they connect us with others and with God’s work in the world. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s longing for a child was connected to the hopes of generations for a prophet and a savior.

Our faith proclaims that our longings and God’s promise of reconciliation with a family member or an estranged friend, are in some way tied up with how God is at work in our world to bring about peace. Our longings for love, and acceptance, and forgiveness and God’s promises for the same, connect us at a fundamental level with the people around us who long for the same things. Our longings for and God’s promises of healing, for wholeness of mind and heart, are connected with God’s promise for shalom, true wholeness throughout creation.

Our God is a God who keeps promises—promises to an old couple without children, to a people without a home, to us as we long for love, peace, and wholeness in our daily lives.

The keeping of these promises will not always look like we expect it to, and certainly may not happen on our timetable. We may have to let go of some things in order to have our hands open to receive what God does offer. And we may need some quiet, some distance, some altered vision to see what’s going on around us. Zechariah needed 9 months of time.

Perhaps this Advent can be a time of watching, watching to see how God may already be at work in our lives bringing peace and healing—not only to us, but to all creation with us.

The truth is, as Zechariah’s song reminds us, we are part of something larger than ourselves. He and Elizabeth and their new son John were one family within the much larger family of the people of God. The fulfilled promise they experienced was but a foretaste of the great promises which God is fulfilling even now.

Friends, even now, even here, Christ is coming. In ways we can scarcely imagine, Christ is coming; in places we barely dare hope, Christ is coming; in our longings and God’s promises, Christ is coming. May our hearts be ready and our eyes open.

by Sarah W. Wiles
December 2, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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One Response to God’s promises

  1. Carolyn Joy says:

    Amen and amen.

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