Date: December 5, 2021

Bible Text: Luke 1:57-81 |

Between God’s promises and their fulfillment, we live as if they are already true.

If we set aside the “a long time ago and in a land far away” setting, the age of the parents, the temporary muteness, and the mysterious prophecy uttered for just a moment, this is a very relatable story. There’s a newborn. There’s a ceremony, a naming ceremony, like a baptism or baby dedication, or some other ritual celebrating the child’s birth. 

The creative team at A Sanctified Art, whose work we’re using this Advent, includes these beautiful images in their devotionals. In the entry on this passage in tomorrow’s, there’s a stunning depiction of this scene as she envisions Zechariah as a much younger man cradling his plump baby of a son. It’s a touching, tender moment. The artist, Hannah Garrity, writes: 

In this image, Zechariah holds his baby boy. He speaks a blessing, a berakah (the Jewish prayer of blessing expressing gratitude and praise to God)... The intimate love of a father with his newborn son is captured in this pose. Patterns of water pour over John’s little shirt. Zechariah sees what his son will become and begins to speak his future into being from the start. As dawn breaks over Zechariah’s shoulder, his prophecy foretells God coming into the world—of light dawning in weary spaces.

Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, friend, or some other person in the web of relationships, maybe you’ve had a moment like this. You’ve cradled a child and thought about the past behind them that stretches even farther back than you can imagine, about the lives of all the ancestors who preceded this tiny new life, the sheer marvel that circumstances aligned in each case to result in the child before you this very instant. Your heart leaps as you think about the priceless little treasure in your arms. 

And then you start to think about the future. You think about the personality that will emerge. You think about what they’ll be like when they grow up. And you start to verbalize — maybe in a formal blessing, or just plain ol’ speculation — who they’ll become. “You’re going to be the President of the United States,” an ambitious grandparent might say. Or “I’m holding a brilliant, creative artist in my arms, or a record-shattering athlete.” Or maybe not even anything extraordinary, but you start to speak the baby’ s personality into being, “You are strong. You are smart. You are joyful. It’s going to be hard keeping up with you!” 

The future has already arrived in your words. It’s already happened, in a sense, because you can picture it. You can feel it in your gut. Between God’s promises and their fulfillment, we speak as if they are already true.

“What then will this child be?” Elizabeth and Zechariah’s neighbors wondered aloud, given the unbelievable circumstances surrounding John’s birth. 

It’s odd what Zechariah says, what he prophesies, in response to their question. Luke likely borrows these words from an old hymn sung in the early church or a hymn followers of John the Baptist, the Essenes, a group of ascetics near the Dead Sea in ancient Palestine, sang. It follows the pattern of other blessings — fast forward back the Old Testament and to Hannah’s song about her baby who’d grow up to be the prophet Samuel — and sings about the saving power of God. He sings about God fulfilling the covenant made with their ancestors. He sings about God rescuing God’s people from the mess they’ve made. He sings about God delivering them from their enemies. He sings about an anointed heir taking back the throne of David from the Romans and their “puppets.” Zechariah sings these lyrical (and audacious) words:

Because of our God’s deep compassion

the dawn from heaven will break upon us,

   to give light to those who are sitting in darkness

    and in the shadow of death,

        to guide us on the path of peace.

Zechariah does what many people do: attach his hopes for his people to the child cradled in his arms. The baby becomes a representative of the world for which he yearns. 

Zechariah lays the foundation for what is to come. Between God’s promises and their fulfillment, he speaks as if those promises are already true.

If you think about it, we sometimes put a lot of pressure on the little ones, on the young people in our lives. “You are the future,” we say. It’s true of course, but so often we pass the proverbial batons for some pretty hefty needs to future generations. Cure cancer. Eliminate racial inequality. Remedy climate change. We expect a lot from those who come after us. We put a lot on their plate. 

As I read this story this week, the song from the musical Hamilton, “Dear Theodosia”, kept playing in my head. That’s the number during which adversaries Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr sing about their newborns, Phillip and Theodosia. Their hopes for their kids parallel the hopes for the newly independent nation:

You will come of age with our young nation

We'll bleed and fight for you

We'll make it right for you

If we lay a strong enough foundation

We'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you

And you'll blow us all away

Someday, someday

At our best, in these moments we are conscious of the world we are passing on, the world they’ll inherit. Not just the children we might raise as parents but also the others in our lives — loved ones and strangers alike, relatives, neighbors, kids in the community — at our best we’re conscious of how we’re shaping them. Congregations, when we’re nurturing our younger ones in the faith well, follow through on the promises we make at a baby’s baptism over the long haul. We recognize that we have a responsibility, that how we treat young people has a huge impact on the world they and we live in. Of course, I don’t need to explain this to a church where 90% of people have worked in education at some point or another!

What foundation are we laying for them? 

I know I’m not alone in worrying about that, especially this week with the news of yet another school shooting, this time in Michigan. It’s such a tragic story, made all the more tragic because it was preventable in several ways. What’s even more frightening and sad is how routine these shootings have become, how “business as usual.” The theme for the Second Sunday of Advent is always peace, and it seems gun violence consistently gets mentioned on these Sundays because the incidences are so many, because peace seems so far off. 

But it doesn’t have to be, does it? I don’t have the solution to it, but I know in my heart that another way is possible. I hold onto God’s promises with a white-knuckle grip that “The lion will lay down with the lamb” and “they will beat their swords into plowshares.” I hope we will take a cue from the grown-up John the Baptist and repent of our ways of death, that we will forge our weapons into something more useful and life-giving. I cling to the promise that in the myriad shadows of death our feet will be guided on the path of peace; that as some folks say, “God will make a way out of no way.”

But for that to happen, between God’s promises and their fulfillment, we live as if they are already true. The world we hope to create for our young people, we have to believe and think and speak and pray and work as if the dawn from heaven, that faint pinpoint of light, will break upon us at any moment. 

I’ll close with a story Adam Hearlson, a pastor in Philadelphia, shares... 

In the most troubling days of apartheid in in South Africa, the government began shutting down political anti-apartheid rallies. Amid this persecution, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead of a political rally. Held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, the service attracted worshippers from all over South Africa. It also attracted hundreds of police who surrounded the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.

As Tutu began preaching, the police entered the cathedral armed with guns and lined the walls. Some took out notebooks and began to record Tutu’s words. Tutu remained unintimidated. At one point in his sermon he turned to the police and said, “you are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost, since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance. Faith in the coming fulfillment of the promise inspires courage to be the type of people who travel “the way of peace.”