In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“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.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
A colleague of mine recently had her very first baby. She was so excited. She and her husband had waiting for years for the right time in their lives, in their careers, to welcome a child. All through the pregnancy, she was beaming. Excited for her life as a mother. Scared for how it might change her life. But mostly, excited.
She and her husband were healthy, the baby was healthy, the pregnancy went about as you would expect. No worries, right? And this September, she gave birth to her beautiful, perfect baby boy, Jack.
Forty-five minutes later, she learned from the doctor on staff that Jack has Downs Syndrome.
Moments like these mark us. When what we have grown to expect based on our experience of the world is replaced by the surprise that life so often throws our way. My friend—she was overwhelmed. With love for this baby, this perfect, baby boy. With grief for the future she expected, but also concern for this child whose life would be harder than it had to be. With fear for herself, and her husband—how would they do this? Could they do this?
But they didn’t have time to wonder. Jack was healthy, mom was healthy. There wasn’t much more to be done than to take Jack home, love him, and figure it out together.
There are so many things in this world that we cannot possibly prepare ourselves for. We can imagine what they will look like, but we cannot guarantee a thing. All we can do is get on the ride and buckle our seatbelts. All we can do is make a choice: to enjoy the life we have been given, or see it as something to suffer through.
In our scripture this morning, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives are dealt a surprise twist worthy of the movies. A cloud of angels and incense accompany the dumbstruck moment in which these righteous and good people learn that they will be parents. That the child they have hoped for is coming. He’s just coming a little late.
Funny side story about age—when my mother became pregnant with me, she was 34 years old, which at the time was still considered, well, old. Her doctor made the mistake one day of referring to her as an elderly primigravida, and let’s just say that was the last time he said that in front of her.
Anyhow, back to the story. It is easy to imagine how happy, how joyful, Elizabeth and Zechariah must have been, but the truth was probably more complicated. In Jesus’ day, childbirth was downright dangerous. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, or the old, or the frail. Consider that today, in this modern age, 830 women die every day from childbirth related complications like bleeding, infection, high blood pressure, and delivery complications. And the WHO has found that the risks only increase as women get older.
Elizabeth almost certainly knew this. She may not have had a child herself, but surely she had helped her aunts, her cousins, her nieces through pregnancy. And she almost certainly buried a love one who didn’t make it through. She may desperately want a child, but she may very well also be terrified.
We don’t often acknowledge this reality in our reading of Scripture. We prefer to skip over the practical considerations of pregnancy and childbirth, and go straight for the pink-cheeked babies. We prefer to ponder Zechariah’s muteness and pass Elizabeth by. I guess a dumbstruck husband is more interesting than a elderly pregnant woman. But it isn’t entirely honest. When we do this, we forget that Elizabeth was a real person who endured real risks in bearing John. That she may well have risked her own life to be faithful to God.
I also suspect it is no accident that Elizabeth happens to be related to Mary. It is no accident that these two faithful women find within themselves the chutzpah to bear the enormous risk of bearing John and Jesus. Their gift is that they do not have to do so alone. Scripture tells us that they spend much of their pregnancy together, and I wonder whether they do not draw strength from one another, and encouragement to receive God’s will for them with joy in that time.
And indeed, when the child does come safely, there is plenty of joy, and love to go around. Zechariah, finally able to speak, utters his first words, and they are a love song to the God who has safely delivered John and Elizabeth from the perils of pregnancy:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon 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 hand of our enemies,
Might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
The amazing and life-changing Good News of the Gospel is this: the same God who watches out for elderly pregnant women and vulnerable babies watches out for all of God’s people. God’s redemptive story continues, in you, in me, as we wait and watch for Christ to reveal himself in this time, and in this place.
What will Christmas look like this year? Probably not so much like a baby in a manger. Or maybe he will. Perhaps he will look like my friend, who this week, after months of complicated feelings of love mixed with fear, took her precious child Jack to church for the pageant practice. She laid Jack in the manger and was called away for a moment. When she returned, her heart caught in her chest at what she saw: the children, crowded around the manger, in awe of a beautiful, perfect, precious child, a gift from God himself.
Love was born on Christmas day. May it be so for us.
This month, I will be preaching and teaching on questions that have come from the pews–we are calling it the “Ask Me Anything” sermon series, and so far the questions I have received have proven quite interesting. Initially, I had conceived of this as an opportunity for folks to ask questions about our faith and praxis. What has been interesting to me, however, is that the questions have been theological. Turns out that the folks in the pews sincerely want to know: what does it mean that we do this, and not that? What does it mean when we talk about this faith claim?
Inevitably, I have been turning to the reformed tradition and heritage of which the Presbyterian Church is a part as I have explored the questions that have been raised. Truthfully, I often do not take the time to go back to our Book of Confessions or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, but if this series is any indication, I believe I may have to make a better practice of it. For it has be thoroughly enjoyable to explore the family tree of our faith.
Now, if you had told me in seminary that I would gladly spend my afternoons reading through John Calvin, I might have looked at you askance. Back in seminary, the Institutes was one in a long line of required reading that generally fell into the “historical” section of my list. I was far more interested in reading contemporary theological works by Brueggeman, Cavanaugh, Yoder and Gustafson.
Perhaps I have grown in my appreciation for my own tradition, but as I sit with Calvin this time around, I find myself pleasantly immersed in his approach to interpreting the tradition. I am enjoying exploring what he has to say, wrestling with the implications of his theology, but more often than not, I find myself nodding along in agreement. And occasionally, I find myself surprised by just how contemporary he sounds.
Take this little nugget, for example, which I came across in Book 3, on the section on prayer:
Love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (4.10.30)
In this particular instance, Calvin is speaking of love as a guide in our decisions respecting church government and worship. He argues that we need church constitutions, that they provide a necessary good. However, discipline and tradition do not exist for the sake if themselves. Rather, we ought to understand them as tools, aids on our journey towards our ultimate end of union with Christ. And according to Calvin, this means that sometimes we must be willing to leave behind traditions and practices that get in the way of our calling to love.
Let me just pause at this moment and reflect that Calvin sounds awfully modern here. For how often have we heard “love” thrown about in the contemporary church as the answer to nearly every problem? How often do we encounter criticisms of our tradition and its heritage which include the claim that the reformed church, and calvinism in particular, was rigid and cold, even cynical? And how often have Christians accused one another of mis-using love, of ignoring scripture about judgement and condemnation because the love of Christ sounds easier?
And yet here is Calvin intoning about love being our guide. Here is our spiritual forefather reminding us that our practice and our government ought to be ruled by love. That love may challenge us to change, to evolve, to move in new directions that are unfamiliar and perhaps even intimidating. But, he reminds us, we will do it not because it is popular, or on-trend, or culturally acceptable. We will do it because it has its root in love.
And that, friends, is why I will continue to read a 500-year old tome of theology. Because it turns out that sometimes you need to hear the wisdom of those who came before you. Sometimes you need to be reminded that the struggle of the church has deep roots, and that those who came before you have truth to share. And you will be better for pausing to hear it.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Gospel of John 15:1-8
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
When is the last time you felt truly and completely loved?
Odds are that you weren’t loved by an institution, or an object. You were loved by a person. You were loved in relationship.
That is the truth that we come face to face with in our scripture this morning. That love isn’t done in the abstract. Love, according to 1 John, is lived out between people, who choose to be in relationship with one another, to abide with one another, to know one another rather than to pass each other by.
Now I don’t have to tell you all that if you know somebody long enough, you can probably come up with plenty of reasons why NOT to love them. Time together exposes our humanity, our brokenness, and shatters the myth that we can do no wrong to one another, or that love will be easy.
Which means that perhaps the challenge of our time is getting to know one another. We are so busy, it is often easier to pass one another by, to wave from the front seat of the car at our neighbor, but never truly get to know them, to love them, to abide with them.
I say all of this because I have heard a rumor lately around our little borough. From more than a few corners of our little town, I have heard that we aren’t all that friendly. Rumor has it that we talk about one another more than towards one another. That we are quick to report one another, and slow to knock on one another’s door and say hello.
You can think what you will about how true or not this is, but there it is. Some of our own neighbors have experienced this town that you love as a place that is lacking in the relationship department. And you may agree or disagree with them, but either way, here’s what I think. I think that this says less about the people who live here, and more about the reality that perhaps we haven’t taken the time to know one another. There has been so much change in the community of our borough in the last ten years or so, and at the same time, our lives have gotten busier, and busier, and busier. We don’t have as much time to build relationships, and so we don’t. We settle for superficial ones, we know one another’s names but not each other’s hearts. The consequence being that many of us are lonelier in the crowd than ever before.
One of the things that people in this church often say about themselves is that they see this community as a family. They find love and acceptance in these walls. They feel known. Which makes me wonder whether we are perhaps in a unique position to minister to our own community. Perhaps our calling right now is to choose to love, by taking the time to know our neighbors as individuals and as beloved children of God, loved first in Christ.
We live in a world right now that is crying out in violence, and mistrust, and brokenness. And so much of the pain that we see on the television, as close as Baltimore and as far from us as distant continents, has its roots in broken relationships. In people who no longer trust one another, nor believe the best in one another, because there is so much evidence to the contrary. And when people do not know and trust each other, they are less likely to respect them, more likely to see the worst rather than the best of intentions in every little action.
Celeste Fremon saw this first hand when she lived and worked amongst the Mexican gangs of Los Angeles. She is a writer who was interested in the work of Father Greg Boyle. Over many years embedded in the projects with Father Boyle, she came to know the gang bangers as complex people, began to love them, to care about them. She became the sort of person she never could have imagined—someone who would run towards gunfire, because it meant someone she loved might be hurt. And she came to see firsthand how the breakdown of relationship—in the family, in the community, in policing—is at the heart of the problem. And how real relationship, real love and affection, can begin to heal young men and women who for most of their lives have felt expendable and worthless.
Do you see where I am going here? Relationship becomes the cord that holds us together, or the one that tears us apart. It is the life blood of our community, the heart and soul of our life together.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
When we choose to love one another, when we go out of our way to build real and honest relationships with one another, then we find ourselves close to the true vine, to Jesus. We draw near to God, and abide in God as God abides in us. We bear the fruit of healing and healthy community that reflects the love of God back upon one another and to the world.
We draw near to God as well in this community whenever we come to the table. For at the table, we put aside the things that keep us apart from one another, and we remember that we are inextricably linked to God and one another. At the table, we renew our baptismal promise and affirm our oneness in Christ as we find nourishment and encouragement in the elements of bread and cup.
So here’s my suggestion for this week. Get out in your front yard, and get to know that neighbor you always wave at but rarely speak to. Invite them to dinner. Go for a walk. Find out what they are passionate about, and see if you don’t plant the seeds of relationship and community when you do. Be the sort of neighbor that you wish you had, and see if in doing so you don’t create the kind of community that we all need.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Amen.