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Luke 1:5-20, 24
The title of this sermon refers to God’s preposterous promise, repeated again and again throughout history, to save us from ourselves. To turn the world right-side up. To restore humanity and all creation to our original blessing and wholeness and unity of relationship, and to do it all in the most unexpected ways and through the most unlikely people.
Through a childless couple so old that they laughed when God told them they’d have even one child, not to mention more descendants than there are stars in the sky. Through a scheming, no-good thief whose twin brother was out to kill him. Through a spoiled brat left for dead by his jealous brothers. Through a fugitive murderer with a speech impediment. Through any number of flawed kings, wild-eyed prophets, and courageous women, some of them not even Jewish.
And through an unwed pregnant teen-aged girl and her baby boy, the one who was born in a barn during Roman occupation and fled to Egypt as a political refugee, the one we celebrate as God’s Word of Love made of flesh and bone just like ours, God as one of us. The one who showed us who God is and who we are. The one who taught and healed and ate and hung out with all the wrong people, causing trouble everywhere he went. The one executed for his radical love; the one whose resurrection proved another of God’s preposterous promises: That love is stronger than death. That love always wins.
It is the fulfillment of God’s preposterous saving promise in Jesus that we remember and celebrate at Christmas. Advent is about trying, once again, to get our heads around that and then, when that proves impossible, once again, simply opening our hearts to the wondrous miracle of it. Advent is also about making room for God’s preposterous promise to be fulfilled in and through us—once again in unexpected ways and through unlikely people. And to remember that it sometimes takes a very long time.
But at times like these—in the wake of yet another mass shooting, amid charges of terrorism, with so much hateful political speech, still more revelations of racist police violence, and the frightening reality of climate change—it is not only God’s promise that is preposterous. At times like these—not only in the world but also in the challenges of our own lives—our faith can look pretty absurd, too.
Lighting the Candle of Hope when we’re feeling anxious and fearful about the future can seem almost ridiculous. Lighting the Candle of Peace amid anti-Muslim rhetoric and new threats of war can feel downright foolish.
Truth is, our faith is always somewhat laughable. We hope for what we cannot see, after all. Against all the evidence, we continue to trust that love will win, that this broken world will be made whole again, that all the untold power of heaven and earth was born in a poor baby 2,000 years ago and that it can be born again in us today.
This is why we come together to tell the old, old story and to sing the sacred songs. This is why we proclaim that we are God’s hands and feet. This is why we invite everyone we can find to gather ‘round a table to partake of a love feast. And yes, this is why we light candles and sing carols and line up to decorate a fake tree with representations of angels and stars, mother and child, Magi and shepherds and cows. It is poignant not only because we are young and old, failing and vital, skipping all the way or walking haltingly with a cane or walker, or coming forward in a wheelchair. It is poignant not because it is sentimental but because it is an act of faithful defiance made beautiful by love and hope. Because every time we light a candle we proclaim that Jesus is the light no darkness can overcome. Because every time we say Christ will come again we proclaim that he is already and always here.
In these days when a New York Daily News headline screams that “God isn’t fixing this,” our fragile faith proclaims that God’s tender mercy has indeed “fixed” things before, and that, working through people like us, God’s light will—once again—break into our world, break into history, and guide our fearful hearts and stubborn feet into the ways of peace and love.
But let’s not kid ourselves; it is not easy to believe that. Much of the time it’s hard to trust that God is even here, much less that she will fulfill her preposterous promises, much less that this earth is, in fact, redeemable. Much of the time we place what hope we have in political programs or new technologies or the human spirit, all but forgetting the Spirit that enlivens and empowers us all.
It was no easier for Zechariah and Elizabeth, but they did their best. They kept the commandments, went through the motions, did their religious duties. But they had all but given up on God’s promises—and at their age, who could blame them? Maybe they had given up even on prayer. They had been waiting so long—for their own children, for a savior, for Israel to rise again. But it had long been clear there would be no children, and Rome’s stranglehold on Israel grew only tighter and stronger. They accepted that this is how things were and that this was how they would ever be.
Still, they went through the motions of faith. They showed up. They followed the rules. They pledged. When his number came up or the ELT called, Zechariah went to work, entering the most sacred place to offer incense and prayers to God while the people prayed outside. It was risky business, being in God’s presence. He just wanted to get out of there.
So when an angel appeared, Zechariah was terrified. And when the angel told him his prayers had been heard and that Elizabeth would bear a son who would become a great man of God, he couldn’t believe it. It was preposterous.
After a lifetime of longing and prayer, Zechariah’s imagination failed him. He couldn’t grasp the possibility of a different future. He could no longer open his heart to the promise of joy and gladness. He just couldn’t take “yes” for an answer.
And so Gabriel struck Zechariah—a priest, a man of words, no doubt—mute. He would not speak again until his son had been born and he has named him John, which means “God is gracious.” Just wait and see, Gabriel told Zechariah. God’s promise would be fulfilled in God’s time.
Now it would be easy to view Gabriel’s action as punishment, but I prefer to understand it as remedy, as mercy. A time of waiting and preparation for what it was to come. The first Advent, if you will. Unable to talk, Zechariah was forced to listen. Unable to take charge, he had to trust. Unable to do God’s work, he could only let God’s Spirit work in him.
After nine months of watching new life take root in Elizabeth, Zechariah was changed. He had been filled with wonder. After a lifetime of telling people the stories of God’s faithfulness, he had experienced it in his own life. When his son is born and named and Zechariah’s tongue is finally loosed, he is overcome with joy. He can’t keep from singing praises to God.
Taking John’s face in his hands, he sings the song of every parent: a song of preposterous promise, a song of possibility, a song of the wonder this child, every child, is, and what wonders this child, every child, will do.
And so it comes to pass.
This miracle child, like every child, comes into his own—which is so different from anyone expected. Instead of going to college, he moves to the wilderness. Instead of praising his mother’s cooking, he eats bugs. Instead of following in his father’s religious footsteps, he speaks with prophetic authority, telling people to turn their lives around and get right with God.
Get ready, he says. Make room in your hearts for God to do a preposterous thing. Prepare the way of the Lord. God’s salvation for all people is on the way.
Prepare the way.
Yes, I know the days are growing darker and shorter. I know the news gets worse by the day. I know your struggles continue and your prayers appear to go unheard and unanswered. I know how tempting it is to give up on God’s tender mercies, to forget about any dawn breaking forth, to scoff at the hope of a new day.
But I also remember something Nelson Mandela said: “One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.”
So this Advent let us make room in our hearts. Let us prepare the way of the Lord. Let us remember God’s goodness. Let us remember that the unimaginable has happened before. Let us befriend the deepening darkness, keep silence and watch and wait for the coming light, all the while imagining how things can be different—in our lives and in the world. Let us learn to take “yes” for an answer.
May our faith be as preposterous as God’s promises. May we be as patient with God as God is with us. May our hope be as preposterous as God’s love. And may God guide us all into the way of peace.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.