This sermon was prepared for Chapel at the United Theological College / La Seminarie Unie for November 16th, 2016. It was based on the following Sunday’s lectionary (Proper 29).
In the Luke passage, we hear Zechariah speaking to his newborn child. We hear, in this old man’s voice, both the expectancy of a father who looks at his child, so full of potential and the expectancy of a Jewish man of God waiting for his Messiah.
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. (Luke 1:76-79 NRSV)
Darkness. The shadow of death.
A nation oppressed by empire; a people searching for their identity through God’s covenant with them. John the Baptizer was called to be the voice crying from the wilderness “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”
Because God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness
In the Jeremiah reading today Christians hear a foreshadowing of Christ’s ministry:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness. (Jer. 23:5-6)
Of course, the writer likely wasn’t imaging a wandering tradesman from Nazareth when these words were taken down. However, the Messiah figure, whom Christian believe to be Jesus of Nazareth, would be in his mind.
Messiah, a saviour king, who would come to restore Israel to its rightful place in this world—a special place for God’s chosen people.
The metaphor of the shepherd speaks of gathering a scattered flock, bringing them back home, and caring for them—ensuring their safety—so that they are able to prosper. It also brings to mind Psalm 23, images of compassion, prosperity, and righteousness.
As 21st century Canadians, we don’t hear a call to exiled community members—we don’t have the recent memories of the destruction of Jerusalem in our mind—we don’t live in fear of a foreign power. However, for Jeremiah’s listeners, this was their reality—oppressed by Assyria, they were a nation conquered and scattered.
Then, for 1st century Jews, these distant memories lived on as their reality under Rome—they were a nation that had been living in darkness—a nation that had been living under an oppressive regime.
You and I, however, still experience oppression, violence, and pain in our world. We still experience darkness, as communities, as individuals, and, as mortal beings, we live our lives under the shadow of death. And, there are those in our world who these words—promises to a people oppressed and scattered—reflect the desires of their own hears.
We think of new friends we’ve made in our communities who have fled their homes—they are called by many names: refugee, asylum-seeker, migrant. In their own stories, they have insight into these ancient ones. Ancient stories filled with timeless human emotions of fear, desperation, and hope.
And, some of us have sat on the other side of the table. We identify better with the Assyrians and the Romans. Maybe not through our own direct actions, but certainly through our communal history as peoples of privilege.
During the sentencing of a young Cree woman, named Josephine, in Toronto this year Ontario Justice Nakatsuru spoke of the darkness of Canada’s colonial legacy, saying to Josephine:
The trauma you suffered may not be unique to indigenous offenders. But it is unique how these traumas have been created or contributed to by the colonial legacy of our country. By some deliberate policies and laws of our nation. By overt and systemic discrimination against indigenous peoples.
The line between your identity and history as an indigenous person as well as the effects of the injustices done to indigenous peoples and your breach is direct and obvious. […] The life you lead as a young woman. With its dangers. Its lack of meaning. These problems are ones that many in the indigenous communities face. They are problems that have their origins in the way indigenous people have been treated.
The shadow of death falls on us all in different ways, sometimes it is circumstance, sometimes it is our own body that feels like it is betraying us, and often it is at the hands of other people.
But, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness
This king figure, whom Zechariah and John, point us towards… This shepherd who their ancestors waited for—expectantly… Would come and transform us through a message of peace.
However, in our story, today, we have yet to meet this figure. This week we are still in the liturgical season of Ordinary Times, next week marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of our journey through Luke’s account of the conception and birth of the Messiah figure.
For now, we are left to contemplate the promise God provided the Jewish people through Jeremiah, through Zechariah, and then through John. The promise of a shepherd. The Most High. A figure, who…will bring the break of dawn…bring light into our darkness…bring a new pathway of peace.
And so, as Advent draws near we imagine ourselves as those scattered sheep, waiting to be taken home.
Justice Nakatsura, at the close of her sentencing of Josephine made this statement:
It is the most natural of human instincts to want to go home. Even when memories of home are at times tinged with sadness, fear, or regret. Because I am not talking about someone’s actual home. Or a home from one’s childhood. We all nurture in our heart the idea of “Home”. The idea of home is about a place of safety. A refuge. A sanctuary. Where love resides. Home is a place of hope. A place of potential. A place where every one of us can feel like we can become better. Every one of us has such a home.
And, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness
The Good News of our gospel story is that, in the midst of all this darkness: this violence, pain, and oppression, there is a God who cares enough about us, who values us, who hopes for us.
This light, we will soon discover, is a light of hope, a light calling all of us towards a home, filled with relationship, safety, and potential. A light breaking through our darkness, like the rays of dawn cutting through the night.
Thanks be to God.