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5th December 2021

A New Hope- for a Re-newed Community

Passage: Luke 1;67-80


We have been thinking a lot recently about bad things that happen in life. And yes, there are a lot of bad things happening right now.
But, for a few moments, let’s think about amazingly good things that can happen.
Our reading this morning was written by a man whose life was blessed beyond his wildest dreams. Zachariah was a truly good, devout man; he was a priest in the temple, and he loved his job. Life had disappointed him, though, because he and his wife, Elizabeth, had not been able to have children. Not only was this a personal grief to them; it also carried a social stigma. In their society, people unable to produce children were considered “cursed” by God. They must have done something wrong. Zachariah and Elizabeth could not understand where they might have gone wrong. It was all very sad.

Then, just as they had given up hope, Zachariah learned that they were going to have a baby. After all these years. He could not believe it! The story goes that he was given the news by an angel, and that he flatly refused to believe it, making the angel so cross that he removed the power of speech from Zachariah until the baby was born (which does not sound like very angelic behaviour to me). When the child was born, he was named “John,” which means “God’s gracious gift” and Zachariah, now able to speak again, poured out his joy in a song. Nowadays we would share something wonderful on Facebook or Instagram. In those days, the song of joy was repeated from one person to another until everyone who knew Zachariah and Elizabeth was singing along with them. The dream on which they had given up had finally come true.
So, just take a few moments to reflect on and share with each other if you wish, something wonderful that has happened in your life, that you had hardly dared hope for: a relationship? A new job? Success of some kind? Recovery from illness- either your own or someone you love? Someone being in the right place at the right time? Just think of when life has turned out beyond your wildest dreams…….
And now let’s hear Zechariah’s story: Luke 1, verses 67-80
When John was born and named, his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a tower of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
The child, John, grew and became strong in spirit; then he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Hopefully we are all feeling a bit better now? It is good to remind ourselves of the wonderful things in life as well as the dark ones.
Let’s go back to Zachariah, as he gazes in awe at the son who has been born to him. He is thrilled to bits of course but what struck me about his song of praise is that it is not only about his and Elizabeth’s joy. He does not see his son purely as a personal gift but as a gift to the whole community. God has given this child not only to bless his parents but his nation. “You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation.” Right from birth then, John was destined to be a powerful religious and social leader.

And, I don’t know about you, but part of me, deep down, cannot help thinking, “poor kid…” I mean, we know about children growing up under huge pressure to be and to do what their parents and family expect. From royalty- you are born to rule the country, whether you think you can or not; to the professions- your father was a QC, as was his father and you must do the same, even if it means private tuition to get you through your exams; right down to poorly paid work- our family have always worked in the local mines so who do you think you are wanting to go somewhere else? A religious upbringing can also put pressure on a child to be what they are told God expects them to be; to live by the rules of the faith community even if they go against your nature; to “join up” once you are old enough because your parents and church members will be disappointed if you do not.
Imagine what it must have been like for John (whom we now know as John the Baptist,) to have grown up with his father’s song ringing in his ears. Was he ever allowed to enjoy being a much-loved only child, kissed and cuddled by his delighted parents? Was he allowed to play football and climb trees like any normal boy? Was he allowed time to chat up the girls and drink beer with his mates? Or, was it just “you are going to be a famous preacher and save your people” from the time he could walk and talk? Do you think Zachariah was putting too much pressure on his son?

Having been brought up myself in a very rigorous church community, I do know something about the pressure to meet the expectations of your faith and fellow believers. But I remembered a Hymn we were taught as children: “there’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.” And when I recall singing that hymn, I don’t remember feeling pressurised; but more relieved: Jesus has something for me to do. I did not know what it was. I had not even started thinking about the ministry at that stage. But the sense of knowing that God had a plan for my life; that God thought I was worth making a plan for; that God really believed I could do something worthwhile; for me that somehow took pressure off rather than piling it on. There is a prayer we sometimes use in our Communion Service “when we were nothing, you made us something.” “There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do” made me feel like “somebody.” There was a place in the world for me; a place in the church for me and that made me feel a whole lot better about myself.

I looked again at the end of Zachariah’s song, saying that, “The child, John, grew and became strong in spirit. In other words, he grew in self-esteem. He became comfortable in his own skin. He had a strong sense of purpose in life. And is not that what we would want for our own children? Do not we want them to stand tall, to believe that they belong in the world? Would John the Baptist really have been happier living as the pampered darling of his parents; cossetted and protected from the outside world; allowed to do whatever he wanted? We have known people like that as well, haven’t we? And they are not much of an inspiration….

John grew and became strong in spirit. He was a man with a mission. His preaching was confident and very much to the point, relevant to life at that time. He answered the deep needs in a huge number of lives, as crowds came out to the river to be baptised by him. Yet John was confident enough in his mission not to be personally proud of what looked like success in this huge popularity or to feel personally threatened when Jesus appeared, and the crowds started to follow him instead. “He must increase, and I must decrease,” said John. That was the deal. This was what he had been born for. John became strong in spirit. Life was not just about him. It was about his nation, his faith and his God. So, he was able to face hardship, uncertainty, loneliness, injustice and even death at the hands of a weak and corrupt King without giving way to despair.

Sorry to go back to “me” again but my generation -the baby boomers- were brought up by families who had lived through two World Wars and a huge Economic depression and who were determined that their children were going to have a better life. Great. We grew up in the nineteen sixties when there was a huge rebellion against Church and State, both of which institutions, it was believed, had let their people down. Add to that the sexual revolution and the winning of the battle by women to get away from domestic servitude and into the workplace – none of which I am suggesting is bad- and a culture was created which taught you that pleasing yourself and yourself, alone is the way to be happy. Unfortunately, it did not work, and it is still not working. Remember the little song- “love is something if you give it away, you end up having more. It’s just like a magic penny- hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor….” There was a lot about society and religion which needed challenging but many people have now ended up with nothing much more than themselves to consider and life is very empty, and the spirit is not strong.

What I am suggesting this Advent is that we pray for a re-newed community: a God we take seriously; a church we commit to; a world we believe we are called to serve. I suggest that we pray to become strong in spirit, as John was, so that, even in the midst of a pandemic, an ecological crisis, personal loss and uncertainty, we may still walk tall in the conviction that God has a work for us to do. We are not pampered children, sulking because we cannot have everything we want anymore; we are not fragile weaklings, helpless in a time of trouble; we are not random blobs of atoms whirling around in a turbulent universe but people of God, for whom God has a plan and a purpose, people God believes in.
“ You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Is not this what the world most needs right now? And would it not be amazing if someone could say something like this of us?