The gospel according to Luke is the only gospel that starts with an extensive narrative about John the Baptist’s conception and birth (maybe it can be viewed as a ‘prequel’ to the story of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth). The first people we hear about (after some general introductory notes) are Zechariah and Elizabeth, a devout, yet childless couple, whose prime days to have a child are over. Zechariah is a minor priest in Jerusalem. One day, as he is chosen to serve in the holiest of holies in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him, announcing that he and Elizabeth would have a son who would prepare the way of the long-awaited Messiah. Zechariah is skeptical – how can this be? – and because he doubts, he is punished with muteness.
Indeed, Elizabeth becomes pregnant at her advanced age. And Zechariah can’t talk. However, once the child is born and about to be circumcised, Zechariah is overcome by the Holy Spirit – and words just tumble out of him. And what he says has become known as ‘Zechariah’s Prophecy’. First he joyfully praises God, who is about to redeem Israel through a mighty savior. But then the tone of Zechariah’s proclamation changes as he now talks to his newborn son – we now hear some tender words. ‘And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways’. And then Zechariah closes with the words, ‘to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet in the way of peace.’
What Zechariah’s words express is the longing for salvation, for redemption, for liberation. And circumstances are dire. The Jewish people are under the strict and often brutal rule of the Roman Empire. Even temple affairs are effectively controlled by Rome – any high priest has to be approved by the Roman Emperor and is pre-screened, so to speak. Doing the bidding of the Romans are a number of vassal kings and rulers in the region. And we get a taste of those political circumstances in the beginning of today’s gospel, in which Luke goes on and on about which person rules over what territory in the Holy Land as John comes to the Jordan to fulfill his father’s, Zechariah’s, prophecy.
John may not be the Messiah, but he is to prepare the way of the one who sets God’s people free. John is to shine a light into the darkness and onto the way of the Lord. That’s his destination from birth. Quite a tall order for a little child, don’t you think?
But of course John doesn’t have to fulfill the prophecy right away. He has to grow up, he has to grow in spirit and in wisdom before he can give light to all who sit or walk in darkness, before he can prepare the way of the Lord. We get the feeling that God is not about instant gratification and immediate and hasty results. With God, things take time. Things develop and grow. We may not be able to see the ultimate outcome, but we have hope – hope that, someday, God’s promises will be fulfilled. And so hope is like planting the seed that one day will grow into a mighty tree. Hope is like taking the first step in the darkness of the night – with confidence that the morning will come.
Give light to those who walk in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet in the way of peace.
Yes, these words are originally spoken to the infant John – but I can’t help feeling that these words are an appeal to all God’s people, including you and me. It may seem like a tall order to us – who are we to illuminate and prepare the way on which Christ is drawing near and coming into this world? Who are we to bring hope into the world as it walks in darkness and in the shadow of death?
But then we are the light of the world – Jesus himself says so. We are destined from the moment of our baptism to let our light shine. We are destined from the moment of our baptism to be bearers of hope in all we say and do.
And, God knows, our world needs hope. Our circumstances are dire. From climate change to ever growing poverty to a pandemic that just can’t be conquered to senseless violence – just this week, we had yet another school shooting that took the lives of four young people and injured so many more in body, mind, and spirit – there is so much that is awry in this world. We are East of Eden, far from paradise.
But: the reality of God’s kingdom breaks into this world. Through acts of love, care, and kindness. Through calls to justice. We can feel the presence of God Immanuel when people let their light so shine, no matter how great and seemingly overpowering the darkness.
Advent is a time of waiting. Advent is a time of hope. Advent is the time of the year to reflect on the disparity between what is and what will be. It is a time to reflect on the tension between how the world is and how God envisions it to be. Advent is a time to reflect on the tension of the ‘already here’ and ‘not there yet’. Advent, at least in the Northern hemisphere, happens during a time when the days get shorter and darker. Advent reminds us of the realities of evil and suffering and death – and of God’s promises of redemption and liberation. What gets us, what gets the world from here to there is: hope.
It is planting the seed. It is taking that first step in the night. It is letting our little light so shine with defiance and courage.
And so Zechariah’s words transcend time and space and urge us today: Give light to all who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet on the way of peace. Amen
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