Sermon for Advent II: Luke 1:68-79
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
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Jim Wallis tells the following story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa.
Back in the 1980s, during the darkest days of apartheid when the South African government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.
St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.
But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly.
“You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods, and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
With that the congregation erupted in dance and song.
The police didn’t know what to do. Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness will always triumph over evil in the end.
Today’s psalm reading is taken from the Gospel of Luke, a song that we call the “Benedictus.” John the Baptist’s father Zechariah sang these words in an outburst of praise at the naming ceremony for his son, who would become the one who introduced the Messiah to Israel.
It is a song of victory. It is a song of salvation. It is a song that celebrates that:
- good will win the day over evil,
- peace will win out over violence,
- mercy and forgiveness will triumph over judgment,
- light will overcome darkness,
- God’s faithfulness will outlast human sinfulness,
- life will emerge from death.
These are big concepts, and I think sometimes they are hard to wrap our heads around. Even stories like the one about Archbishop Tutu comes from another place around the world that is foreign to us. We hear the words of this song of Zechariah and it is filled with big, theological words like redemption, salvation, covenant, holiness, righteousness, and so on.
But there’s another word here in this song that I love that brings all of this down to earth. In the first line of this psalm, our New Revised Standard Version says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” I’m not sure why the new version rendered it like that when the old translation had it just right. Here’s the way the original Revised Version said it, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” That is exactly what the word means. God visited us.
In order to bring us all of these rich blessings that Zechariah sings about and that we have a hard time grasping, God came in person and paid us a visit. God came to us in Jesus. God met us on our turf. God entered our world. God knocked on our door. God came personally to sympathize with us and meet our deepest needs. God visited us in Jesus. We may not fully fathom salvation and redemption and light overcoming darkness, but we can picture this: God paid us a visit.
So we can talk about how good will win the day over evil, how peace will win out over violence, how mercy and forgiveness will triumph over judgment, how light will overcome darkness, how God’s faithfulness will outlast human sinfulness, and how life will emerge from death, but we won’t really get how that will happen until we grasp that God set that all in motion by a simple act of utter humanity: he visited us. A baby was born. God showed up personally and went to work.
God in Jesus showed up when we needed him. He spoke to us. He listened. He touched and healed the sick. He comforted the brokenhearted. He set prisoners free. He sat down at the table for meals with all different kinds of people. He criticized and challenged unjust systems of religion and government that were hurting the people right in front of him. He was willing to go out of his way to welcome and help foreigners. He took children in his arms. He gave dignity to women. He helped widows. He fed hungry people. He was patient and forbearing toward those who didn’t always get it, who tried and failed, who kept making mistakes. He comforted the bereaved and even brought their dead loved ones back to life to show them there is an ultimate hope.
God visited us. It was down-to-earth, face-to-face, person-to-person that God brought salvation to this world. A baby was born, grew up in a family in a small town, and walked the roads of his land talking to people and helping them. It was as simple and human as that.
In Advent and in the coming Christmas and Epiphany seasons, this is what we emphasize. Emmanuel — God with us. God paying us a visit. God coming alongside us in our lives to make us new in Christ.
And if we are paying attention, this is not only our salvation, but it has also become our calling. It becomes the template for our lives too, as those who have died and risen with Christ.
If we want to show the world that good will win the day over evil, that peace will win out over violence, that mercy and forgiveness will triumph over judgment, that light will overcome darkness, that God’s faithfulness will outlast human sinfulness, and that life will emerge from death, well, we do it the way God did in Christ. We visit our neighbors. We make ourselves available to others. We enter the world of those around us and show the sympathy and empathy that comes from identifying with them personally and becoming friends.
One politician that I really like these days is Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska. The reason I like him is because he goes back to basics. When he looks at the hyper-partisanship and bickering that is going on in our country today, he is wise enough to know that politics is not the problem and politics is not the answer. And so he writes and speaks about more fundamental matters.
In his most recent book, Ben Sasse says, “If America is going to survive…we will have to find a way to restore the bonds of community that give individuals a place in the world where they can enjoy the love of family and friends, express their talents, and serve others in fulfilling ways.”
Sasse puts his finger on the root problem, in my opinion. He argues that “the local, human relationships that anchored [our public lives and our politics] have shriveled up.” Now, we find ourselves “alienated from each other, and uprooted from places we can call home.”
To use the word I’m emphasizing in today’s sermon, people aren’t visiting with each other much these days. Other things have replaced the interpersonal interaction that nourishes and strengthens our bonds as individuals, families, and communities. We are detached and lonely.
But — “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.”
Redeemed and made new in Christ, may we too live in this way for the life of the world around us.