Scripture: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Zechariah is singing about his son John, not Jesus. Zechariah was a priest. About nine months prior to this day, he was in the temple in Jerusalem, in the holy of holies, preparing for the day of atonement. The angel Gabriel appeared to him and said that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a child, even though they were very advanced in age. (This same angel Gabriel would show up to Mary about 5 months later.) Zechariah was terrified of the angel. And, he didn’t quite believe the promise. As a consequence of his disbelief, he wouldn’t be able to speak! So, Zechariah has been mute for the 9 months of Elizabeth's pregnancy.
On this day, Elizabeth and Zechariah brought their child to the temple, to dedicate him & share his name. John.
As soon as Zechariah wrote that name on a tablet, confirming what Elizabeth has already announced, his voice burst forth in praise! And, these words that follow are a prophecy - speaking to what God wants to do in our lives. A father giving thanks and praise and also knowing that his son would have a difficult life ahead, as prophets are rarely welcome.
The first lines of the Gospel reading names both political and religious leaders as it sets the stage for the now adult John, who we know as John the Baptist, to show up in the story. And with each of those names, we zoom in on a map, like with Google satellite, to where the story will take place. When the emperor is named – will the story take place in Rome? No; then Pontius Pilate in Judea - so Jerusalem? No, on to leaders in Galilee, and then, a twist! The story veers off, not to a city, but to an unincorporated wilderness where John is living. What would this introduction sound like today? Let me take a try.
In the year that António Guterres was general secretary of the United Nations, and the Rev. Anne Burghardt was general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation - Is the story taking place in Geneva, Switzerland? No. When Joe Biden was President of the United States and Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America - Is the story taking place in Washington, DC or Chicago, IL? No. And Tony Evers was governor of Wisconsin - maybe Madison, WI?, and the Rev. Dr. Laurie Skow- Anderson was Bishop of the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin - maybe Eau Claire, WI?. In those days, the word of the Lord came to the people of Owen-Withee, Longwood and Greenwood. Yes! The Lord shows up just as much here as any place of perceived power, any place around the world.
And what is the word brought here? Prepare ye the way of the Lord! The Lord is coming - he is already here! To use the words of the camp song Days of Elijah, “We are the voice in the desert, crying, “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
As a prophet, John the Baptist will point to Jesus, the Savior, the Lord. An invitation from John to change our ways. To turn toward God. To continue to return to God again and again. A reorientation. A reorientation that bears fruits of the spirit - peace, joy, love and compassion.
We, all of us, can point to Jesus. Point to the one who keeps his promises. Point to the one who overcame death for us all. Point to the one who is the source of compassion. Point to the one who provides forgiveness and new life. Point to Jesus who fulfills the words from Zechariah’s song:
“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the | way of peace.”
Turning to our Advent study guide for this week, they pick up the image from Zechariah about watching for the dawn. For many of our neighbors who face housing insecurity, night and day each carry their own risks. As the sky dims, the need to find safe, suitable shelter intensifies. As the day dawns, the threat of eviction or displacement looms. They are vulnerable.
As I continue, hold these few reflection questions in your mind: What does it mean to feel vulnerable? What are some ways you feel vulnerable this Advent season? How might God use you to accompany those feeling vulnerable?
St. Andrew's Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, Egypt, a ministry supported by ELCA World Hunger, accompanies vulnerable neighbors through risks related to housing insecurity. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced many governmental agencies to close down or scale back their support of refugees in Cairo, Stars and other community-based organizations remained open, providing critical support.
Hala, a 37-year-old Sudanese mother, was one of these neighbors. Her husband passed away during the first wave of COVID-19 in Egypt, leaving Hala to care for their four children. Forced to support them on her own amid the widespread economic uncertainty of the pandemic, Hala soon fell behind in her rent payments. Knowing she needed some support, Hala turned to Amal School, an organization supported by StARS. Amal School provided her and her family with an emergency grant so that they no longer had to fear eviction. The school also provided Hala with a caseworker who helped her find a job. Now, her family has stable housing, her job provides much-needed income and Hala has the resources she needs to care for her family. She no longer worries about what they will eat during the day or where they will lay their heads at night.
The season of Advent invites us to journey with our historical forebears, such as Mary and Zechariah, and with our neighbors today, such as Hala. This journey is no metaphorical shift between night and day, darkness and light, but a real, lived transformation from the vulnerability we know surrounds us to the promise we know includes us. For Mary, this meant seeing the proud brought low and "the lowly" exalted by God. For Zechariah, it meant seeing the dawn break from on high. For Charity Toksang, in our first session of this study, it meant seeing the sun rise over a health care clinic in Juba, South Sudan. And for Hala and her family, it means sleeping in a home they won't be forced to leave the next day.
God meets us where we are with a promise - that we will be reconciled, that the world is being transformed, that we will live safely, securely and abundantly. God also meets us with an invitation - to participate in this reconciliation and transformation in the world.
I lift up those reflection questions again: What does it mean to feel vulnerable? (body, mind, spirit, relationships) What are some ways you feel vulnerable this Advent season? How might God use you to accompany those feeling vulnerable?
Please join your hearts with me in prayer.
God of promise, we thank you for the darkness of night and the brightness of day, for the change of seasons, the passing of time and the promised future toward which you lead your world. Be present with us and with our neighbors around the world, especially those left vulnerable by rising costs and declining opportunities. Inspire your church to be part of your work in the world, ensuring that all can enjoy the blessings of safety, security, peace and hope that you provide. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.
Rev. Elizabeth Bier is the pastor of ONE in Christ Parish, a three-point parish in Greenwood, Longwood, and Withee. She is ordained with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and has served the ONE in Christ Parish since February of 2019.Profile
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