Today’s reading from Luke 1 is a song John the Baptist’s father sings shortly after John’s birth. Called the “Benedictus,” it’s sung every morning in monasteries around the world.
And why not? It speaks of deliverance, of God honoring God’s promises to an oppressed people. Through whom will this deliverance come? Through his child, his little baby who will “tell the people how to be saved.” When this baby grows up and becomes the prophet his father imagines he will be, “God will give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, and will guide us on the path of peace.”
Isn’t that beautiful? A father holds his baby on a visit to the Temple and sings this song, dreaming of all the child will become, knowing the future is in the hands of his tiny son.
Now, before you start idealizing old Zechariah and fretting about all the times you don’t see such potential in the children in your life, it might be helpful to hear what happened before Zechariah breaks into song.
One of the Temple priests, the elderly Zechariah, had been chosen by lot to enter the Holy of Holies to offer the annual sacrifice for the Jewish people. While he’s in there, the angel Gabriel appears and tells Zechariah that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth will have a son. They are to name him John. Through this child, Gabriel says, many people will find hope.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for a baby for a long time. They had years, maybe decades of “no’s” in response to their prayer. So, it makes sense that when the “yes” finally comes, Zechariah has some trouble wrapping his mind around the idea. “Huh?” he says. “Elizabeth and I both are pretty old. How’s that going to happen?”
I confess to finding Gabriel’s response harsh. For this tiny bit of doubt, Zechariah is struck mute. Harsh or not, a silent Zechariah emerges from the Holy of Holies, goes home to Elizabeth, and she conceives. I wonder what that was like for Zechariah, receiving the answer to his decades-old prayer and not being able to share the news with others?
After John is born, according to Jewish custom, his parents take him to the Temple to be circumcised—think baptism, but with lots more drama. As the family leaves the Temple, the people ask the child’s name. Elizabeth says “John.” The people are puzzled, “But you have no relatives named John! Shouldn’t you name him after Zechariah?” So, they turn to Zechariah— the text actually says they were “motioning to him” to see what he would say. The man was mute, not deaf. Anyway, they ask Zechariah, who asks for a writing tablet then writes: His name is John.”
As soon as he writes it, “Zechariah’s mouth is opened and his tongue freed, and he begins to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?”
Zechariah answers the people’s question with the song we heard and sang earlier, the Benedictus: “And you, child, shall be called the prophet of God, for you will go before the Lord to prepare God’s ways, to give knowledge of salvation to the 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.”
We can learn a lot from Zechariah’s story. He longed for a child…which was in itself a good thing. But those nine months of waiting, nine months of no talking, nine months of listening…he used those months to reflect deeply on what having a child would mean, what it would call forth from him and Elizabeth, what it would mean for the world for him to raise this child in ways that honored God’s calling on the child’s life. The time of waiting prepared Zechariah to be an even better parent than he would have been otherwise.
And if God’s best hopes for the world were to be achieved, if the people were to find salvation, the baby about to be born needed some amazing parents, parents who would love the child for who he was, parents who would raise their child to know God, parents who would teach their child how share God’s love with a hurting world. Harsh punishment or not, those nine months of silence gave Zechariah the time and space he needed to become the parent his future son needed.
And once the baby was born? That’s when Zechariah began to listen. When Zechariah tells his little baby, “And you, child will go before the Lord to prepare God’s ways,” he was acknowledging that he didn’t have all the answers. So often we like to think–since we’re grown up adults and everything—that we have all the answers and that it’s our responsibility to lead children to those same answers. But Zechariah’s song suggests instead that wise adults pose questions to children and wait for them to lead us to the better answers. It is the children who will save us.
I want to share with you the prayer Danielle Cahn wrote for the Interfaith Thanksgiving service a couple weeks ago: Dear God, Thank you for blessing this world with eager and open-minded youth. Please help the adults in their lives to teach them to look from every perspective and be an example of tolerance toward every culture, race, and religion. It is the mission of today’s young people to change the world, but it is their leaders, teachers, and guardians who decide whether that change will be for better or for worse. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
As adults, we have the power to empower children to lead us into a better, more hopeful future. Right?
It’s been another hard week of violence—San Bernadino, Savannah. I worry about what the world’s children—even the children we know—are learning these days. You’ve probably heard the statistic that there have been more mass shootings in our country this year than days. You’ve probably also seen the graphic where the United States far surpasses all other countries when it comes to gun violence deaths. What are our children learning from the regularity of violence? What are they growing up to believe about the world? Who are they becoming?
While I worry about children, in general, I don’t worry so much about the children in our community. I think we do a great job of teaching our children the way of peace. I want to share a post Holly Ward Sinquefield made this morning: Long post ahead, but I hope you will read it. I Heard let there be peace on earth today. I have heard this song millions of times as we sing it at the end of church service every Sunday but today I listened to the words. I thought about the world we live in today, I got sad, I got happy and I can’t get it out of my head. I looked up how the song originated. “They first introduced the song to…The young people were purposefully from different religious, racial, cultural and economic backgrounds, brought together to experiment with creating understanding and friendship through education, discussion groups, and living and working together…” That, that is how I want my world to be.
We work hard here at Pilgrimage to model extravagant hospitality. Every conversation I have with the children in our midst I come away impressed all over again with their strong sense of what is right, what is peaceful, what is loving.
But still. With the internet—even with v-chips and parental controls—all of us, including our children here at Pilgrimage, suffer a constant barrage of violent images. And because we are forgetting how to talk to one another—really talk to one another— on the whole in our society, we’re losing our ability to keep our emotions in check. Everybody’s fuses just seem to keep getting shorter and shorter…which means people are exploding more often and more loudly than they used to.
And when I hear stories of what high school can be like these days—bullying, cyber-bullying, mis-use of cellphones—it doesn’t much sound like high school is a place where our kids might learn better ways of peace. I know– high schools aren’t war zones; a lot of great teaching and community-building happens in them. But it just seems like our children—and their teachers and parents—have to be on guard all the time.
It’s that guardedness that worries me. What is that guardedness doing to us? What is it doing to our humanity? What is it doing to our children and their humanity?
So, here’s the good news for today. I don’t have to come up with the answer to violence in our world all by myself. In fact, if Zechariah’s song to his baby son John has it right, then the best thing I can do–the best thing any adult can do–to find the way to peace is to build relationships with children and young people. Get to know them. Take actions in the world that keep their welfare in mind. Create safe spaces for children…so their imaginations can roam free. Because it is their imaginations that will dream up new ways of saving us.
I want to share two things with you in closing. The first is a piece written by Dorothy Law Nolte called “Children Learn What They Live.” The second is a song by Cynthia Clawson called, “What about the Children?” May each give you insight into how to “respond to the words” of today’s Scripture so that, for you, they might become the word of the living God.
Children Learn What They Live
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
Cynthia Clawson singing “What About the Children” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8a2KKlJnsU
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen. (c) 2015