12.06.09 Afraid of the Dark No More, Luke 1:57-80; Psalms 86:5-13 Sermon Summary
In every life, at some time, darkness enters. The determining factor in whether our lives will fulfill God’s best intention is not that our lives remain light all the time, but how we deal with the darkness. Zechariah’s story helps us to remember not to be afraid of the darkness.
Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah. He was one of the priests who rotated Temple responsibilities at the time of Jesus. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the first priest. They were, according to Luke, a righteous and elderly couple, but they were childless. One day, while serving in the Temple, Zechariah receives a vision and a promise that Elizabeth would bear a child. And because Zechariah asked for more assurances before he would believe, he was made mute until the child John was born.
I can’t be too hard on Zechariah. He lived in dark times. Rome occupied the land he believed was promised to his ancestors. While they didn’t interfere too much in the religious affairs of the Jews, their presence tainted the national self esteem and posed a continuous threat to their religious freedom. But I believe Zechariah suffered under a darkness other than Rome. I believe when Zechariah received the promise of John’s birth, he thought of Abraham.
Abraham and Sarah were another older couple who received a miraculous child. When Isaac was about 12 years old, Abraham believed God had told him to bind him and offer him to God. This “test” of Abraham’s faith ends when God provides a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac, sparing the boy’s life.
I believe Zechariah thought of Abraham because when John was born and he received his ability to speak once again, he sang a song, and included in that song is the line, “this is the oath you swore to our father Abraham, to save us from our enemies.” God made several iterations of his promise to Abraham, but only on this occasion, when Isaac is spared, does this aspect of the promise surface. What Abraham learned, and what Zechariah remembers, is that God gives, but God is free to take back.
This reality marks a dark lining to the joyful fulfillment of the promise in the vision: John is born, it is true, but God could take him away just as he did Isaac. Zechariah lived in dark times, but he also had to contend with this particular darkness. And in that darkness what he chooses to remember is God’s deliverance.
Many of us are dealing with darkness this morning. I know, because I’ve been praying with you. Some of us have health concerns. Some are natural and ordinary, but some are acute and unexpected. Either way, that’s a darkness in our lives. Some of us are darkened just now by estranged relationships. Whether it’s a hot situation where you’re not speaking with one another, or a cold one resulting from drift, the estrangement is magnified during the holidays. That’s a darkness.
Many of us are suffering under an economic darkness. We can’t give as generously, support our favorite causes as much, or we find that just making ends meet is harder this year. That’s a darkness. And some of us are experiencing a darkness of faith this Christmas. We are asking ourselves, how many more years can I do this, believe this? We’re in a dark place.
John’s message in this darkness, foreshadowed by his father Zechariah’s song, is this: God’s light is about to dawn. In the Daily Prayer of our Presbyterian worship book, this passage is recited every morning. And the way I have it memorized is, “In the tender mercies of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”
Zechariah believed this promise was about to come true, in his dark time, and in his personal darkness. He must have thought of God in terms of Psalm 86:15: “God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This refrain occurs in five other places in the Older Testament, in the Psalms, in the wisdom literature, in narratives. This suggests that it was an independent liturgical formula, something everyone would have memorized, like many of us have the first verse of Amazing Grace memorized.
I know some of us hear that God’s light is about to dawn in the darkness, but we would argue that our darkness is too deep. Psalm 86:15 says that God is “abounding in love and faithfulness.” In the image of Paul, no matter how much darkness abounds in our lives, God’s grace abounds even more. God is always faithful, if not always on time. Our darkness is never too deep. God’s light will arrive eventually.
Still, some of us believe our darkness is deserved. As a result of our sins, we believe, our lives are dark and deserve to stay dark. But John’s message, according to Zechariah’s song, is “to proclaim salvation for God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.” God’s salvation is revealed, like light shining in darkness, when God forgives our sins. Our sinfulness serves to reveal God’s nature—God’s compassionate, loving, forgiving nature.
I believe we are not to be overly preoccupied with our sins. I believe we are to move from whatever our sins may be to focus instead on God and God’s nature. And because Psalm 86:15 says that God is “slow to anger,” I believe that means we have time. If you life is dark because of sin, and you’re concerned about that, you still have time. God is slow to anger. God’s light will shine in your darkness.
So John’s role or purpose, his message is simply this: God’s light is about to dawn. Here in the season of Advent, it’s about waiting for that light to dawn. Today we are either to hear John’s message, because our lives are dark, or we are to proclaim it, because we live in a dark time. We can either receive John’s message, or give it away. In other words, we are to either believe John, or to become John. Because what John represents is true: God’s light is about to dawn in the darkness. Amen.
For Further Reflection
- What kind of darkness is in your life right now? How would your perspective of that darkness change if you believed God’s light was about to shine in it?
- In your life at this juncture, are you called to hear and believe John’s message, or proclaim and become John’s message?
- What thoughts about God do you have “memorized”? What images of God are fixed in your mind? These are the thoughts and images that you use to interpret the events of your life. They’re also the thoughts and images you use to interpret the Bible. What if Psalm 86:15 became your governing thought and image? How might that change your outlook on life and the Bible?