Summary: This world is full of darkness and sadness, which is why we need Christmas. As Zechariah proclaims, Christmas is when God's light breaks into the world in Jesus Christ and sets the stage for a whole new world.
You know, it’s been kind of a tough week, hasn’t it? Monday morning, the big news around the globe was a massive hostage situation in a coffee shop in Australia. By Monday evening, we were getting word that a man in Pennsylvania had shot and killed five people and was on the run. Tuesday morning, the breaking news was about a massive Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan; over 125 children and teachers were killed. It was right around this time two years ago that Sandy Hook school here in the U.S. was attacked, and the lives of students and teachers were taken. All of this is pretty hard to take in, isn’t it? And this is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” “the happiest season of all!”
Yet, here we are; perhaps feeling like this season is more of a time when everything seems to go wrong. In fact, we’ve even started offering explanations as to why it seems so many “snap” at this time of year. Maybe, we say, it’s because people go stir-crazy being cooped up indoors because of the cold weather. But that doesn’t explain the hostage situation in Australia, where it is rapidly approaching the height of summer. Perhaps, then, it’s all the stress of culling together the “perfect Christmas” with limited finances. But that doesn’t explain the Taliban Muslim group attacking a school in Pakistan. Well, then, maybe it’s because there are fewer hours of daylight, and the darkness just deepens any feelings of depression. Again, that doesn’t explain every situation, but I do think it brings us closer to what we are dealing with here. But here’s what we need to understand. What we are facing is not a problem of darkness in the physical sense; rather, it is darkness in the spiritual sense.
This morning, we come to another of the “first carols of Christmas.” This time, the song of praise is on the lips of the priest, Zechariah. And what Zechariah is celebrating above all is how he sees light at last overcoming darkness. Zechariah is the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist. At the point at which he breaks out into this song we heard a few moments ago, Zechariah has been mute for nine months. You see, when the angel Gabriel came to visit Zechariah with the news that his wife, who was beyond childbearing age, would conceive and bear a child, Zechariah didn’t believe it. So, as a result of his doubt, Zechariah was struck dumb until eight days after John was born, when he was circumcised and given his name. It was when Zechariah confirmed that his child would be called John that his tongue was finally loosened and he broke out into this song of praise. And what Zechariah is celebrating is that he sees at last God’s fulfillment of his ancient covenant promises to deliver and save his people, and that Zechariah’s son John will be the one to introduce the saving Messiah to the world.
Zechariah says that John will be a prophet of the Most High God, preparing a way for him, and telling people how God, in his immense compassion, will save the people from their sins. Zechariah shares this vision of God bringing light to those sitting in the shadow of darkness and death, and guiding people on the path of peace. As you all are well aware, people expected the “Most High God,” the Messiah, to be a conquering hero; someone who would sweep into the world and quickly vanquish Israel’s enemies. The Jews fully expected that their enemies would suffer the same violent fate they had been suffering for generations. But when Zechariah begins to prophesy (the first prophecy among the Israelites in over 400 years), he tells a different story. His son, John has come to show us the path to Jesus, and Jesus is coming to show us the path to peace; not by overthrowing the enemies, but by dispelling the darkness of the world.
Certainly, we all want Christmas to be a happy, joyful time. And we put a lot of effort into making that so. We talked a few weeks ago about the “perfect Christmas,” and all of our manufactured attempts to create something “out of this world,” when really all we need is to celebrate God’s coming into our midst through Jesus Christ. But here’s the thing about celebrating Christ. In order for us to celebrate who Christ was and all that he did, we have to understand exactly what it was that Christ accomplished. And Zechariah pretty much sums it up for us here. Christ is the light of the world, who has overcome all darkness.
While I was in seminary and working at a church in Alexandria, Virginia, I had an opportunity to get to know a wonderful and amazing woman who was a part of that congregation. She was a veteran of the first Iraq war and the divorced mother of three rather rowdy boys, who gave her far more trouble than she ever deserved; she worried over them constantly. Then, sometime in the second year I was working at the church, this woman was hit by a car. It was one of those fluke sorts of things. It happened in the middle of winter. The roads were icy and she was walking along a sidewalk. A car came along and lost control on the ice. It slid straight toward where she was walking and ended up pinning her to a parked car. The doctors had to amputate her right leg. She spent months in rehab at Walter Reed Hospital. One afternoon I went to visit her, and I noticed that just like always, she was in amazingly high spirits despite the fact that she had just gotten news of further delay on her prosthetic. As I sat and talked with her, I finally asked, “How do you do it, Rosemary? How do you keep your spirits so high when it seems like everything is going wrong?”