Sunday, November 27, 2011

song of hope - 1st sunday of advent

These are the final words of the Hebrew scripture:

Malachi 4:5-6

5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Israel had survived exile, returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the temple, and reestablished worship in the holy city. But, by the time of Malachi, they had grown, not wicked or rebellious, but apathetic and hopeless. In this short book (only 4 chapters) we read God’s final words to his people. We read his final prophetic utterance of the old covenant. God speaks and is then silent for 400 years. Like most of the Old Testament books of prophecy, there are warnings and correction. There is a call to change. But, Malachi ends with hope. Malachi ends with a promise. God makes a promise… and then God is silent.

400 years later, Israel is occupied, as is much of the known world, by Rome. There was an old Jewish priest named Zechariah who was descended directly from Aaron, the brother of Moses. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were devout and devoted to God and the Gospel of Luke tells us that they were “upright in the sight of God”. Luke also tells us that this old couple had no children as Elizabeth had never been able to conceive a child.

In those days, temple duties rotated by family and Zechariah was charged with burning incense inside the temple as the gathered worshippers prayed outside. While performing his tasks, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah (which scared Zechariah Spitless!) and said:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth…

… He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

If you know this story you know that Zechariah expressed what would have seemed a healthy dose of skepticism and asked, simply, “How can I know this is true?” He also reminded Gabriel that both he and Elizabeth were not getting any younger and that the whole story seemed a bit tough to swallow.

Gabriel’s answer to Zechariah’s “how can I know?” is exactly what I would have said… you know… if I were an Arc Angel… Gabriel essentially says “Duh… I am Gabriel… I stand in the presence of God…”

Oh… right… ok… sorry…

Then Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will be unable to speak, not a word, until the child is born.

Zechariah completes his temple rotation (in silence) and Goes home to Elizabeth who, soon after, discovers that she is pregnant. Over the coming months, Elizabeth remained in seclusion and is later visited by her cousin Mary who, as it happens, is also pregnant.

Finally the time comes for Elizabeth to give birth. The baby boy is born and their friends and neighbors shared their good wishes with the family. On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the boy and publically name him. Most everyone assumed that he would be named after his father, Zechariah but Elizabeth protests. To settle the issue, Zechariah is given a writing tablet upon which he writes: HIS NAME IS JOHN.

And then Zechariah’s voice returned… and he sang!

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[c] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
At the end of Malachi, God speaks a promise and is then silent for 400 years. And then, 400 years later, he speaks the promise again, the same promise, to a humble and devout priest… and the priest is silent.

Hope is not found in our speaking, in our singing, in our words. Hope is found in silence; in listening for a voice that does not speak and then trusting in the silence. God spoke and then he ceased speaking but He was not absent; he was not idle. In his silence he began the work of preparation, of gestation, of preparing creation for the birth of hope.

Conception begins in passion, it is drama and life and excitement and fireworks. But then, the mystery takes over. The silence begins. The miracle of life that is set in action with such passion becomes a silent time of waiting; a time of anticipation; of hope. And life grows and becomes and is made ready… in silence.

Hoping is not wishing. We confuse the two fairly often but they are very different. A wish has a specific object. We create “wish lists” for Christmas. We make a wish when we blow out the candles on a birthday cake. When we make a wish, we wish for something. It can be noble or incredibly selfish but it is always specific. Hope is so much more; so much deeper. Hope is a thing that, when we most truly experience it, often has no tangible object; no thing we can name. While wishes often do not come true it is only lost hope that leads us to despair. A wish needs to be articulated or written down. Hope is often hidden… it is more fragile and more precious. And it is silent in the waiting.

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” ~Vaclav Havel
‘The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen’ ~thomas merton
God spoke and then God was silent. And creation hoped. Creation groaned. Creation waited.

In the early stages of pregnancy, there is not a lot of visible activity. Many of us wait months to even tell our friends or families that we are expecting. But, as the due date approaches, the signs become more clear, the change more dramatic. And hope grows stronger… more real… more visible. After 400 years of silent and un-noticed growth, the hope of God’s promise began to “show”. The signs of eminent birth became visible. And creation, who had carried this hope, began to feel the first subtle and then more pronounced kicking of hope, ready to be born.

Zechariah watched as his son grew inside his wife’s body. He watched in silence. He waited. And when the son came and he looked into his eyes, his silence turned to song and his waiting was over. So, within a matter of weeks, would God’s silence end as he looked into the eyes of his own son and sent his own song, in the voices of angels, to proclaim that hope had finally come.

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