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1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.[a]

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
and sinners will come back to you.

14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices.
If I gave an entirely burned offering,
you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.[b]
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.

(Common English Bible)

child-ashes

If there’s one aspect of Presbyterian worship I did not understand and did not appreciate as a child and adolescent it was the weekly prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. This was partly because I was a good kid—a diligent student, a pleaser… I was not overtly rebellious. Never have smoked a cigarette. Didn’t like doing ANYTHING that might upset the authority figures in my life. So in the too short moment of silence in every worship service I’d rack my brain trying to find something to confess… and I usually couldn’t. So I didn’t see the point. And besides… EVERY week we’re told our sins are forgiven already… so why bother? This practice of self-examination and confession, embedded in our weekly worship, seemed useless, redundant… When a friend in college told me her favorite season of the church year was Lent… those 40 days and nights often dedicated to the practice of self-examination and confession… that season which we have just entered once more— when she suggested that Lent was her favorite season I thought she was crazy. If a few minutes of it every week was too much for me… a whole season seemed absurd.

My how things change. Now I engage in this practice of self-examination and confession almost daily. And it just might be my favorite part of weekly worship. I’m still not an overtly rebellious person. I’m still, apparently, basically good. I still don’t like upsetting authority figures… or anyone really. But I know that I fall short of the glory of God, as do we all, daily. I know that if I examine my life through the lens of the 10 commandments, I have ample room for growth. Heck this is obvious even if I attend only to the greatest commandment— actually two commandments— that Jesus identified— “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Some days are better than others, but my love is frail, complicated, dis-ordered… I have endless room for growth in love. I am a sinner.

There it is. The most basic practice of confession. Saying those words– right out loud. I am a sinner. I have sinned. I sin. Our scripture reading today is one of the most developed explorations of that basic confession in the whole of the Bible. Psalm 51 is what scholars call a prayer for help. All the prayers for help in the Bible contain complaints of trouble, petitions for help, expressions of trust and praise. And we’ve got all of this in this Psalm… and yet it is different than many of the other prayers for help. While the Psalmist frequently complains of troubling circumstances, saying things like “change my situation, so I may praise you.” What this Psalm says, repeatedly is “Change me; I am the problem.”[i]

The first two verses of this Psalm use every Hebrew word for sin. There are three Hebrew words for sin, just three, and all of them are in these two verses. The most common Hebrew word for sin is chatah, which most literally means “to miss the mark,” “to go astray.” The second is avah, meaning literally “to act wrongly,” and the third word is pasha, “to rebel.” Now this third word is actually used a lot in this Psalm.[ii]The translation of scripture from which I read renders pasha as “wrongdoings,” the Bibles in your pews say “transgressions,” another scholar suggests the rebellion should be made more obvious in the translation— and he says “rebellious acts” is a better way to translate pasha. For example, where the translation I read says “Wipe out my wrongdoings” he writes “Delete my rebellious acts.”[iii]

I rarely use Hebrew in the pulpit… It’s not our language. I’m mentioning it today only because in the FIRST verses, in practically one breath the Psalmist uses every word for sin available to him. So this is a comprehensive confession. It speaks of concrete, bold rebellion (the heading on it suggests it is David’s prayer after he has claimed Bathsheba as his own and arranged the death of her husband—and act in which he boldly violated so much of God’s moral law in the 10 commandments). So this Psalm speaks about overt rebellion. But it also speaks of a sinful condition, a baseline experience of being, to some degree, estranged from God throughout the course of one’s life. Frankly, I think this is all verse five is trying to express when it speaks of being sinful from one’s mother’s womb. Theologians across Christian history have gotten lots more out of that verse, but all that is is a basic confession of the human condition. From the beginning of time, and from the beginning of each of our individual lives, we have missed the mark; we have gone astray; we have rebelled; we have acted wrongly.

This Psalm speaks of both sins (lowercase s, and plural) and Sin (capital S, singular)— sins being the individual acts or failures to act which fall short of God’s glory; Sin the distorted condition that generates these particular acts. I love how T.S. Eliot expresses this distinction in his play The Cocktail Party. There’s this scene in which the character Celia Copplestone is trying to explain to a counselor her sense of guilt. This sense of guilt, it didn’t come from committing immoral acts, “sin in the ordinary sense” as she understands it. She says:

It’s not the feeling of anything I’ve ever done,

Which I might get away from, or of anything in me

I could get rid of— but of emptiness, of failure

Towards someone, or something, outside myself.

And I feel I must… atone— is that the word?

Can you treat a patient for such a state of mind?[iv]

The Psalmist in Psalm 51 is confessing both this general condition, of which Celia speaks, and particular, concrete acts of rebellion. He’s confessing all of it. I am a sinner, through and through, he’s saying.

But that’s not all that he’s saying. In fact, even if from the outset he’s offering a comprehensive confession of his sin, he’s making an even more powerful statement about God’s character— the God he knows, the God he worships, the God to whom he is now appealing is a God of mercy, steadfast love, compassion. The first words of this Psalm are what? “Have mercy on me, O God.” The presumption is that God is merciful. One of the most basic confessions of God’s identity cherished by the Israelites is found in Exodus 34:6 “The Lord! The Lord! God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness.”[v] What is the rest of the first verse? “1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love! Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!” Mercy, Faithful love, Compassion… it all echoes this verse from Exodus. So while in two verses we hear the ENTIRE Hebrew vocabulary for human sinfulness, in just ONE verse, we have nearly complete reflection of the most basic Hebrew understanding of God’s goodness.

And later in the Psalm, much later, the Psalmist begs God to stay with him, to remain in him by God’s Holy Spirit. Here’s the remarkable thing… The psalmist is saying, basically, “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.” Which means that God is still there. The Holy Spirit is still within him. Even after horrible deeds have been done. Even in the midst of an underlying, distorted condition. The Psalmist even suggests that the most horrific rebellion he has carried out has been carried out in God’s sight… God was right there all along. God’s presence is steadfast. This is what we sing about when we sing of amazing grace— a love the precedes our wrongdoing, and survives our wrongdoing, and transforms our wrongdoing. This is the God we worship. And this is the ground of the practice of self-examination and confession.

We don’t search our souls in order to feel badly about ourselves, but rather so that we might honor and nurture a relationship with the God who never abandons nor forsakes us. It is because the Psalmist knew God to be a God of mercy, loving kindness, compassion— that the Psalmist could be totally honest, and humble with God. When we engage in self-examination and surrender to a loving God an honest confession of wherever we have missed the mark in a given day, or a given life— we are affirming that there is one who forgives us, who loves us, and who can and will help us to grow and to change. The Psalmist says “Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!” Change me!

I engage in self-examination and confession when I believe that there is a loving power who will help me to change and to grow. This is why we’re assured of God’s pardon every week… and why we say prayers of confession every week. Because in the mirror of God’s grace, we realize our brokenness; in the face of God’s faithful love, we realize the fickleness of our love; in the light of God’s mercy, we realize our need. And as we engage this practice again and again, whether in worship or in our own acts of reflection and devotion, we begin to experience the power of God’s steadfast presence and love to change us, to help us to grow, to restore us to joy…

Pastor Rebecca and I have decided to focus on spiritual practices all throughout this season of Lent, for the whole of March, both in worship and in Adult Ed (starting next week). But it doesn’t seem sufficient to just talk about practice… better to actually engage the practices we’re teaching. Of course we’ve already prayed prayers of confession today, but I’d like to invite you to practice self-examination and confession once more in this hour of worship.

And I have a twofold exercise in mind for us to engage. Our Ash Wednesday service was cancelled due to weather— what a month it has been—so we missed our worship together on the first day of Lent. But this is the first Sunday of Lent— and it seems appropriate to impose ashes today. This is an embodied enactment of humility and repentance. When a cross is smudged on our forehead and we hear the words about our origin and destiny in dust, we realize how fully our lives depend on God’s mercy.

Further, you all got a small piece of paper from an usher earlier in the service. I hope you’ve kept track of that. I invite you to take a few minutes in silence, honestly admitting your need for God’s mercy, and, if you’re willing—I invite you to write on this paper an expression of the sin that you need to release to God’s mercy; a burden you’re carrying that you need to let go; a wound in you that needs healing.

And after you have taken this silence, and written down what you need to release, I invite you to come forward, receive the sign of the cross on your forehead from Pastor Rebecca, and then release your paper to the candle flame in the candle I will be holding. LET IT GO and watch it disappear in flame.[vi] And see in that flame how brighly God’s love burns for you.

flash_paper

NOTES ON WORKS REFERENCED IN THIS SERMON

[i] This paragraph was particularly influenced by the notes in The CEB Study Bible, published by the Common English Bible Editorial Board in 2013, general editor Joel B. Green. Another key influence was: James L. Mays, Psalms, in the series: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching , (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 199, 202.

[ii] I am grateful for Barbara Brown Taylor’s lucid discussion of these terms in her short work Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), 48-49.

[iii] I am referencing here Mitchell Dahood’s commentary Psalm 51-100 in the series: The Anchor Bible, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company), 1-3.

[iv] This scene was brought to my attention by Bernhard W. Anderson and Steven Bishop, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, 3rd Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Lousville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 77.

[v] Again, I’m indebted to The CEB Study Bible for this insight. And I am citing the CEB translation of this verse from Exodus.

[vi] I am grateful to the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Larissa Kwong-Abazia, for introducing me to flash paper and this use of it in the context of worship.

IMAGE SOURCES

Image 1- http://theprayinglife.com/tag/ash-wednesday/

Image 2- http://internationalmagicseller.com/en/products/accessories/flash-paper-50×20-html.html

A sermon on Ps. 139, Common English Bible, in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached in the Bridge at First Presbyterian Church Elkhart this morning, Sunday, January 18, 2015.

There’s a certain theme that’s popular in Christian music. I want to say that it’s particularly a trait of contemporary Christian music, but… it goes way back. I can sum up this theme by singing a line from a song I am confident we ALL know, an oldie, but goodie—

“Jesus loves me this I know…”

jargueso.blogspot.com/2012/09/jesus-loves-me.html

jargueso.blogspot.com/2012/09/jesus-loves-me.html

Jesus loves ME. That’s the theme. The particularity of God’s love for me. I think this is easier to sing, sometimes, than to believe. A lot of things can make it hard to believe that the creator of the universe, the savior of the universe, the sustainer of the universe— LOVES me.

I would imagine this might be especially true for historically or currently oppressed people. I don’t have to imagine it really— I’ve heard African American brothers and sisters in Christ speak of the self-hatred that comes from growing up in a racist society—the loathing of the darkness of their skin, the texture of their hair… the sense that there is a real limit to what they can accomplish in a lifetime because of the prejudice they encounter on a daily basis…

and then there is the violence within African American communities— an acting out of self-hatred surely. For generations African Americans were told that they were a cursed people; that they weren’t even fully people. Though those messages have died down, African Americans are still suspect in our society— more likely to be accused and convicted of crimes, or even killed because they appear threatening. Yes, sometimes African Americans break laws and commit crimes, as do all people, but people of color are disproportionately suspect for criminal activity in our society.

With this kind of baggage, I think it could be hard for people who have experienced this sort of marginalization to say “Jesus loves me. God loves me.”

do-you-love-me-image

It can be hard for far lesser reasons. But tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at Canaan Baptist Church a community choir that is almost entirely African American (save for about five of us) will sing in honor of the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and do you know what will be the main theme of the songs this choir will sing? JESUS LOVES ME. Every song, really, is about the exquisite particularity of God’s love for each person. And oh my goodness, I hope you’ll come tomorrow night, you will be blown away by the singing. There’s no hesitation or doubt in the affirmation of the love of God in Jesus Christ for me on the part of this choir. It’s breathtaking, really.

I spent Monday studying Psalm 139 and then I went to this choir rehearsal and sang these songs and I was bowled over by the resonance between the ancient song captured in Psalm 139 and the contemporary singing of this choir. The first thing that struck me as I slowly read each verse of this Psalm is the back and forth of the you and me. You have examined me, You know me. You and me, me and you, again and again. All sorts of pop love songs kept jumping to mind as I sat with this Psalm- you and me and me and you… two of us riding nowhere… I will always love you. 

For the first 18 verses the Psalmist speaks of being absolutely, fully known by God, and this knowing, though it exceeds human capacities for knowing, it’s not ultimately a distant knowledge, but rather a deeply intimate knowledge. The word love never appears in this Psalm, but this knowing that takes the form of relentless, inescapable presence, of the careful intricate weaving of our very being, this has always suggested love to me. Nothing I can do, nowhere I can go, nothing about me will every put me out of God’s reach. This is unconditional love. This is steadfast love. This is amazing love. Love for me. (And you.) This message of love is worthy of prayerful meditation. I think, actually, the classic children’s book “The Runaway Bunny” is an excellent invitation to meditation on this message. I’ve put it over at the prayer station and encourage you to spend some time with it.

Often times when this Psalm is read in worship we stop at vs. 18 or sooner. Or we jump from vs. 18 to vs. 23. Verses 19-22 with their talk of enemies, and hatred, and violence… they seem to disrupt the glorious praise of this intimately knowing and loving God. They are jarring. But these verses reveal the painful circumstances of the Psalmist’s life. Being known and accompanied by God has not protected the Psalmist from experiences of conflict. Most scholars think that the Psalmist has been accused of unfaithfulness or idolatry and composes this Psalm to affirm his close relationship with God. And when he appeals at the end for God to examine and know him… after already affirming that God has done that and does that all the time… it does seem quite likely that he is asking the only one who does truly and completely know him to vindicate him, to restore him, to establish justice for him— in the face of what he believes to be false accusations against him by people who don’t and can’t truly know him.

That’s the thing about being human. There are real limits on our knowing. It is particularly difficult to know other people, and to be confident in our knowledge of other people. We read people through our particular lenses. It is hard to know people on their terms. It can be very difficult to know whether someone is being genuine or deceitful. We cannot see into one anothers’ hearts and grasp fully our multiple, complex motivations. Sometimes by listening deeply and carefully to one another for a number of years, we overcome some barriers to interpersonal knowledge. But as those who have been married for number of years can attest, sometimes the longer one is in relationship with another, the more mysterious that other becomes.

Because of the limits on our knowledge we often operate on assumptions. We fill in gaps, sometimes in an educated, careful way, often impulsively and unconsciously. And often we don’t examine our assumptions and we can be rather protective of them. They are ways that we make sense of what often seems like a senseless life. But sometimes accumulated assumptions cause real trouble between human beings. Often, I think, negative assumptions ground our experience of having enemies in this life— we assume ill will, poor character, hypocrisy, ineptitude… and we act out of these assumptions. And those we have assumed these things about defensively assume a host of negative things about us… and for them too, behaviors follow assumptions… and conflict erupts.

Right now, in America, when it comes, particularly, to white-black relations, I think a whole lot of people are feeling falsely accused, and threatened, and estranged from one another.

Peaceful demonstrators march on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month, Aug. 2014 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Peaceful demonstrators march on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month, Aug. 2014 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Though we have officially overcome segregation; though we have elected an African-American president; the racial divide in this country has not been overcome. Many often point to participation in Sunday morning worship services to make this point— the most segregated hours in America.

I think it is empowering, in the face of all this discord and unrest, for each person to affirm the very real, very present, very particular love that God has for him or her— for me.  For you. I think this is why the singing of the community choir for the service tomorrow night is so powerful. I think it’s why whenever Christians sing this old, old theme it is so powerful. I think the fragile nature of human life and human community explains why this has been a beloved Psalm for generations.

But I think that we’ve only done half the work we need to do if we stop with the affirmation that Jesus loves me, that God loves me… There’s another great children’s book called “Old Turtle and the Broken Truth”—that’s over at the prayer station too. 0-439-56638-XIn that book it is suggested that a great truth fell from the sky and when it fell it broke. Human beings found the shimmering fragment of the truth which communicated “You are loved” and the possession of this truth led to great conflict and destruction among humans— everyone vying to possess this truth. By the end of the book the other half of the truth is found… that finishes what the first part started you are loved and so are they image “You are loved, and so are they.” And this whole truth— of the particularity and universality of love– was healing for the planet.

This is what I hope we’ll hear today as we mediate on this Psalm. The God who has examined me, and known me, who has knit ME together in my mother’s womb, who loves ME… examines every me, knows every me, knits together every me. Human life is infinitely precious in God’s sight. Every human life. Every me. This is too much for us to comprehend. Other translations of this Psalm say things like “This knowledge is too great for me. I can scarcely take it in.” But in a life of faith we can seek every day, more and more, to trust in God’s love for us— and to realize that this love is for the world, for the cosmos— every person we meet is as much an object of God’s love as we are. No matter how irritating he is. No matter how infuriating she is. No matter how ignorant he is. No matter how mean she is. No matter how broken he is. No matter how lost she is. No matter what accusations he or she makes against us. Every human life is a gift from God, sustained by God, held in God’s presence. If only we could let this awareness be our first assumption about our fellow human beings. If only we could let it be the assumption that corrects all our other assumptions, that shapes our interactions. I am loved, and so are they. Let’s start there.

I’d like to close today by sharing a snippet of a sermon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  in 1968—

I wish I had a recording of it in his voice… but I draw what I share from sermon notes archived on-line. After affirming that God IS love in eternity… contrasting human beings who love with the God who IS love he goes on to say…

“Notice secondly that God so loved the world. In other words, God’s love has brea[d]th. It is all inclusive. It’s a big love, it’s a broad love… Jesus came on the scene saying “Our Father” meaning that he is everybodies Father. God’s love is to[o] broad to be limited to a particular race. It is to[o] big to be wrapped in a particular garment. It is to[o] great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God. This fact has been a ray of hope and has given a sense of belonging to hundreds of disinherited people…

“All of the hate in the world cannot destroy the universal effect of God’s love. Along with its brea[d]th, it is personal and indi[vidu]al. God loves infinitessimal Me.”

I was charged to remember this and to write it down.  Because some days I will seriously wonder…

And, in fact, if I remember why I said yes… it might help me to grumble a little bit less when I am getting EXACTLY what I signed up for.

I ultimately accepted this call because it seemed more challenging, stimulating, and invigorating that the other opportunity available to me.  I accepted this call because energy coursed through me every time I talked with members of the committee.  I accepted this call because the people on the search committee shared bits of their hearts with me– their pain and their faith– and I fell in love with them.  I accepted this call because it puts me in a good location for future pursuits in bi-vocationality. I accepted this call because I was promised a co-pastor.  I accepted this call because it seemed WAY riskier than my alternative– and somehow, it seemed, God’s call was on the side of risk rather than stability or comfort.

Two months in I have to say that it is immensely challenging.

But that’s exactly what I wanted.

And I am still falling in love with the people.

And that’s exactly what I need.

The colleague who was scheduled to deliver the charge to the co-pastors at our installation this past Sunday had a family emergency and was unable to join us.  Thanks be to God for another marvelous colleague who was already planning to be there who pulled together a BEAUTIFUL charge at the last minute.

I asked her for a copy of it, and particularly for the prayer she offered at the end of it, and I want to record it here for my future reference…

1. Remember why you said yes.  Write it down.  (that will be the next blog post.)

2. Joshua 1:9- “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (This was very much the message of the sermon as well– FEAR NOT.)

3. Our county is known for it’s creative, entrepreneurial character– she attributes this to the Holy Spirit.  We were charged to foster it.

4. Love the people.  Love each other.

5. Pray for the people.  Pray for each other.

6.Prayer of St Teresa of Avila

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.
Theresa of Avila

So a church member asked me today, with puzzlement, because I posted a memory from C’s birthing process dated to that day on FB.

“No,” I replied, “She was born on the 5th.”

“But your post…”

“Yeah, well, in my mind her birth story begins that Sunday.”

“You were in labor all week?”

“Not exactly.”

I just skimmed through the birth story I wrote up in her first year of life… and it indeed the written story begins on that day. That day when we noticed you had dropped, when there were signs your head was engaging.  That day began with me waking up on Advent one re-writing a verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”-

O Come, O Come, Sweet Child of Mine

and bring to us your light divine.

For we so long in darkness did dwell

until the gift of you on us fell.

Rejoice, rejoice sweet child of mine

shall come to bring light right on time. 

I am in awe of the week of birthing (o.k. so only 73 hours of pre, early, and active labor– in which I slept three hours.)

… but every year I find myself sifting through thousands of photos for holiday projects and wondering why I don’t organize photos at the end of every month…

And that is why today’s blog post is no longer than a facebook status update.

image from this lovely post about silence-- good reading... beautiful image-- dominicchurch.org/2014/10/11/silence/

image from this lovely post about silence– good reading… beautiful image– dominicchurch.org/2014/10/11/silence/

Several years ago I heard a sermon on this passage that didn’t sit well with me. The sermon interpreted Zechariah’s muteness following his angelic encounter as punishment for his lack of faith in the promises of God. I can see how the preacher got that from the Bible story— Gabriel says “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” That “because” word suggests the imposed silence is a consequence of Zechariah’s unbelief. Can we interpret this as a punitive consequence? Sure. But need we hear it as a punitive consequence? I think not.

As I have shared with some here already, Kevin and I endured a four-year fertility struggle before we were blessed with the gift of Caroline. Four years, that sounds rather paltry. But four years is 48 months– 48 consecutive months of cycles of hope and disappointment, each disappointment more crushing than the one before. Even a one-year struggle to conceive leaves scars; every additional year the scars deepen. I share this memory, this testimony, because we’ve just entered into the season of Advent— a season of improbable pregnancies, of expectation, of hope— and if anyone in this community is currently in the midst of a fertility struggle, or even in the midst of supporting or loving someone in such a struggle, these can be painful stories to hear. It seems to be inevitable… when one deeply desires a baby, everywhere one looks one sees a pregnant belly, a babe in arms, a stroller… and then when one comes to church and hears about old women conceiving, and virgins conceiving… well, it can all feel like just a bit too much.

I think though, that the experience of infertility is what allows me to read Zechariah’s response, and eventual silence, differently than some of my colleagues might. It is surely this experience that leads me to interpret his silence more as a gift than a punishment, to interpret it as a wholly fitting response to the promises he heard.

Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were “getting on in years.” Later in the story Zechariah uses this phrase again to describe his wife and flat out calls himself an old man. The angel suggests that the promises he is bearing are answers to prayer. Elizabeth says at the end of the passage that her miraculous conception has taken away the disgrace that she had endured among her people. Endured. This disgrace, this shame… it has been an enduring experience, a lasting experience. They are getting on in years. For years they have wanted to conceive new life. For years they have prayed. How many consecutive 12-month cycles of hope and disappointment did they endure? Surely more than my four. 10? 15? 20?

Zechariah is fulfilling his priestly duty when the angel shows up. He is doing what he has done countless times before. He traveled to Jerusalem from the hill country outside the city to stay in the temple for a period of priestly service. He was selected by lot to burn incense in the holy of holies, the innermost part of the temple, while the people of Israel prayed in the outer chambers of the temple. It strikes me that just as Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for YEARS for a child, so too had he been carrying out these priestly functions for YEARS. The angel’s appearance disrupts the continuity and stability of those many years. And what the angel says is even more disruptive. Gabriel offers BIG promises— by my count- five of them— or four expansions on one main promise.

First, main Promise- Elizabeth will bear a son who is to be named John.

Second Promise- You and many will have joy!

Third Promise- The child will be great.

Fourth Promise- The child will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Fifth Promise— The child will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.

I suspect that Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up hope for a child of their own some time before. So the first–the main, the root– promise was staggering. But the second promise, or the first expansion, the promise of joy, that was no less staggering. I suspect that the cumulative burden of disappointment and disgrace had robbed them of any expectation of, let alone experience of, joy. They probably were striving for contentment instead. Joy? Nah. Too much. Not possible. And as for the rest of it— a great child, filled with the Holy Spirit, who will turn many of the people of Israel towards God— surely for a righteous couple, a priest’s household, they could have had no higher hopes for a child to be born to them. This child was to be a carrier of hope for the salvation of their people. These were HUGE promises. Mind-blowing promises.

“How will I know?” He asks. Of course he does… these promises are spoken into an air thick with disappointment, grief, shame…. each of these emotions clouding Zechariah’s vision like the smoke of the incense swirling about him. And Gabriel responds “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Here’s how I hear his response- You can trust my words, Zechariah, because they’re God’s words. But I see that this is difficult for you. So you’ll hold these words, these promises, in silence until you can see for yourself that they are true.

I think it is a gift that Zechariah didn’t have to go home and tell Elizabeth what he had heard. What could he have said that would have sounded believable, trustworthy? Nothing. And when Elizabeth conceived her son, she kept herself in seclusion for six months— secluded with her silent husband. It seems to me that Elizabeth too, in the midst of this great expectation, needed to keep silence. We get one line out of her— one line that speaks to her awe, and her grief. Awe and grief- Awe at what is promised. Grief over what has not yet come pass, and what has transpired in all the years of waiting. Awe plus grief is, I think, a great formula for silence. When such great promises are spoken to broken hearts, silence, it seems is most appropriate. Silence leaves space and time for the words to sink in. For the recipients of the promise to come to believe…

Elizabeth was in seclusion for six months we’re told— six months is right about the time that, for many first time moms, one’s pregnancy becomes much more apparent to the world— one’s belly asserts itself. And six months is even around the time when pregnancy becomes more apparent to moms themselves, as they start to feel the baby move with some regularity… six months is a time when indeed, it would have been beginning to become apparent that these promises are being fulfilled… the day of their fulfillment is drawing near. But I know that even as my belly grew, even as I felt movement within me, even as I actively labored (6 years ago this week)— I struggled to believe that I was actually bringing a baby into the world. Even for a full month after she arrived it all felt unreal. Perhaps if I had been able to seclude myself, to sit in silence for a spell… it might have been easier to give my heart fully to the promise of the child within. Perhaps.

I know that most of us are not hoping against hope for babies right now. But all of us are the recipients of great promises— every time we come to worship, and perhaps especially in this season, we hear the promises of God— promises of grace, hope, and peace— promises of wholeness, salvation, light that darkness will not overcome, WORLD changing promises— promises of change to our personal worlds and the world as a whole. And they are spoken to a world, and a people in the world, that needs changing– a world where young people die violent deaths; a world where centuries of injustice and inequality bursts forth into angry protests and cities on fire; a world where too many people are hungry, and lonely, and afraid. Often the response to the brokenness of our world is a whole lot of chatter— and there’s a place for this. There’s a place for lament. But today I want to let this story of Zechariah invite us to claim pockets of silence in this season— moments when we sit with our grief over a broken world and our awe at the promise of its healing— sit and let the promise sink deeply in.

Hard to imagine, I’m sure, in these whirling, hectic days— but we have prayer chapel here… that welcomes your silence. Or perhaps you connect more readily with God’s promise in nature— I’m sure you can bundle up and sit by the river or walk through the woods. Or perhaps there’s a special spot in your home— where you might sit with a cup of tea. Or perhaps your silence comes on a yoga mat. However it comes… may God grant each of us the gift of silence this Advent— for this will prepare us to receive the joy that God promises to deliver.

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