Scripture: Luke 1:68-79
Imagine an oppressed people. Imagine an empire that is bent on progress at all costs, one keeping those that have position in that position, and people spending all they have just to appear to have status in the empire. Imagine religious groups bent on keeping some sort of handle of influence over the people that they serve; yet losing a grip with each passing moment. This is the setting of the greatest science fiction stories. The story of Dune, Star Wars, and many others all has a similar theme. The theme where the balance of power is tipping, hope is cast on a redemptive person, betrayal, romance, and sacrifice.
There is a reason these themes make great stories; it is because these are the stories that drive our lives. They are not just stories in books, on stage, and on the silver screens; they are the stories in that we all find ourselves in. These stories allow us to escape for a moment from the struggles of our own lives and imagine just for a moment that we are in someone else’s shoes. It is this stepping outside of ourselves that allows us to rethink our lives and our approach to life.
We think of stories as being something that is untrue. Early in our educations we are taught the difference between fiction and non-fiction. In our minds fiction is not real they are fantasy and non-fiction is factual reality. For the most part this is true, but have you read a good story? The good story is one that mixes the fiction and non-fiction. A good story is one that is a parable, one that teaches as well as entertains. Star Wars speaks of a balance between the forces of light and dark. Dune speaks of greed and the control of scarce resources. Star Trek speaks of the explorative curiosity of humankind (well humanoid kind). All speak of philosophy, theology, science, sociology, desperation, and Hope.
Myth and legend are stories, stories based on fact but also embellished with entertaining aspects to keep the attention of the audience. My favorite authors or Novelists actually spend most of their time researching the ideas in their stories, so that they can present the facts within their stories and educate their readers. Michael Crichton, the author of the novels Jurassic Park, Sphere, and State of Fear would study areas of quantum physics, environmental science, and genetics to such a degree that in his stories he would actually site the sources he used. One of my newest favorite writers Kathy Reich, whose character inspired the TV series Bones, is an actual forensic anthropologist in real life, and at the end of each of her books she will enlighten people in the science of her trade. These myths, or stories shaped cultures. They inspire higher learning, as well as new ideas of social interaction. The Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Hindu all had stories that encouraged their people. Universities grew out of the influence of the great writers of antiquity. The basis of our western civilization has developed in part out of the stories and myths of Plato. We look at these stories and mark them as fantasy but even these fantastic stories give hope and encouragement to all.
A story can be used to assist in the teaching of the masses, although it is sometimes hard to glean the facts from the creativity. We can learn powerful truths from the writings of William Shakespeare or CS Lewis. Those that scoff at the power of a story, fail to recognize the ability the storyteller has in shaping the world. Where would we be today without Narnia, and Middle Earth?
A new hope, the theme that inspired a generation in the movie Star Wars, is a myth that is much like those of the ancients. The quest of the Jedi is not that different than the desires of many cultures that are ruled by totalitarian regimes. That same theme are present in our world today even though we are informed that the story took place long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. This new hope is the theme of the New Testament.
The writings of scripture are mainly story. Do not get me wrong I am not saying that scripture does not convene truth, but much of scripture is written in literary forms. There are poems, parables, narratives, fantastical apocalyptic stories, and legal descriptions. These literary forms shaped a nation, and changed the world. During the period of time between what we say is the closing of the Old Testament and the New, the leaders of the people of Israel studied the scriptures. They knew many of them by heart, but even in the vast amounts of study there were aspects of these scriptures that they could not fully grasp. The prophets caused the greatest struggle. They had a history and a future that seemed to strangely apply to their present situation. To look at prophecy is often like looking at one of those 3-d posters what looks like a bunch of spots until you squint and unfocus your eyes, then once you get a glimpse of what lies behind it suddenly becomes clear.
Zechariah is one of those men that saw the picture behind the surface. The prophets of old would often speak in cryptic forms giving some sort of surface message that would catch the original attention of the people. These surface messages included things like agricultural failure, weather patterns, and military battles. When these surface messages are the reason many included the teachings of the prophets in scripture, but there were cryptic messages lingering behind the surface that many knew were there but they could not quite make out. These are the reason many refused to accept them as authoritative. The Pharisees readily accepted the teachings of the prophets, while the Sadducees only accepted the books of the law. It is not any wonder why there were different preferences in the two major groups because one focused mainly on temple worship ordained in the books of Moses, where the other group focused on cultural influence that enjoyed and used the expanded cannon.
Zechariah was from the priestly order of Abijah. At first glance we may think of this as being something like a denomination or religious group, but the priestly orders were basically groups that would rotate and cycle through the year. There were twenty-four courses that would 2 times during a rotation as well as during the mandatory feasts so they would serve in the temple for a total of 5 times a year. The order of Abijah was the eighth in that rotation. These priests would serve for only 8 days. So we have a priest, serving in the temple. We do not know much about Zechariah, except he served in the temple and had a remarkable experience there.
If the temple was dominated by the Sadducee order of Jewish tradition, then it actually makes this story pretty remarkable. If the Sadducees were mainly focused on the books of Moses, and gave little to no credence to the prophets then Zechariah would most likely be Sadducee. This would give us some insight into his doubt when an angel visited him while he served in the temple. We know he doubted and because of that he could not speak from the day of the visit until the day that his son was born.
What we read today is the blessing He recited over his infant son. All at once all of the law and all of the prophets came into focus. He saw laying before him the beginning of a new hope. He tenderly looked down at his son, the son he and his wife Elizabeth waited so long for, and he spoke with great emotion.
“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 the 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.” (Luke 1:76-79 NRSV)
A new hope is upon them. I remember very vividly the first time I held my son, the emotion that I felt that day; I sense in the words that Zechariah spoke. I can imagine that he said these words with tears of joy in his eyes. That day I held my son, it felt as if the meaning of life suddenly began to become clearer. Not that it became crystal clear but I was beginning to see some shapes just under the surface. Zechariah was in a place just like that; he had devoted his life to serving in the temple. If you wanted to know the deeper meanings behind all the temple process Zechariah could tell you. Yet in this blessing you can sense that suddenly in the matter of moments every one of those ceremonies suddenly began to deepen. The prophets became more authentic.
A new hope is upon us. The priests and the rabbis of the first century were all very aware of the social tension around them. It was very clear that something big was on the verge of happening but they really could not place what that was. For some they delve deeper into the prophets to see if maybe God spoke when their ears were closed, some focused on religious service, others just thought if they adapted then maybe they to ward off the trouble at least for a time. The dawn from high will break upon us. Dawn is the start of something new. The beginning of creation was marked with light; we mark the start of the day by the coming of first light.
Dawn marks the beginning, and the new hope is rising. Today many are looking at life very critically. Our culture is full of skeptics. For a skeptic the only source of authority is experience, first hand observation. But along with that is the thought that even though something is observed they do not believe that what they see as truth can be relegated to others. This leaves us as people of truth into a new day; we seem to be sitting in the darkness in the shadow of death. What we hold as most important is challenged in ways that we just do not feel equip to handle. Before all we had to do was know the research, answer the questions better than others, but no one really cares to enter a debate anymore. Skilled debaters can still encourage people but their words do not hold the same authority as they did a generation ago. What holds authority in a culture not willing to engage in discussion? Story.
Your story is the most powerful force in today’s world. Your experience through life’s trials can encourage others to investigate for themselves. The story needs a central theme, a hope in hopelessness, and a mission to fulfill. Zechariah ended his blessing over his child by saying that God will guide our feet in the way of peace. We can have a story but in that story needs some action. Our life and lifestyle must reflect the story that we speak for our current culture to accept it as having any authority. We as a people, and as a meeting to advance into this new dawn should be guided in the path of peace. Our money and our witness must point to the direction. Our actions and our words must speak the same mission. Our religion must be authentic in theory and in practice. It does not matter if our theology is sound and well supported by scripture if we fail to promote a life with God by helping those in need in some way.
Yesterday I sat in the back of this Meeting looking over a crowd gathered to celebrate the joining of two lives in marriage. The family was emotional, but what I saw that spoke even louder than the vows uttered was the love and emotion expressed by the kids that sang. Kids whose lives were touched because one man and one woman chose allow their feet to be guided in the pathways of peace. They sang loudly the very pews shook with raw joy because they were excited to praise the God. They experienced God because people were willing to get involved in their lives. Many would have over looked them or called them a drain on the culture, they were orphans or children affected by a life threatening disease unable to fully support themselves. Yet they were here celebrating
We are involved in that in a small way, but not everyone can see that. We cannot take our sister, or our coworker to Uganda to show them what our offerings are doing for these precious children. But we can knit hats for babies and talk to the parents as we volunteer, telling them our stories and where we find hope. We can speak through our art and express where we find hope. We can cook a meal and serve those without a home. We can encourage the poor by helping them find work. We can help the undocumented workers gain full residency status by volunteering to help fill out paper work. We can be guided in the pathways of peace, or release others to serve in those areas.
The dawn from the high will break upon us; will we hide in the shadows of the past or stand out in the emerging light?
As we enter into this time of holy expectancy let us consider this blessing over this child that was destined to announce the coming of the King. Let us join with Zechariah in the celebration of hope, and open our eyes to things we did not think possible. And let us share the stories of our life in word and in deed with hope in the God that provides for each new day.