December 9, 2012 – Advent 2B
Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
© 2012 Evan D. Garner
Sermon audio is available here.
I’m in trouble. And I bet you are, too. According to the National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers website, I have a “prepper score” of 14. That means my family and I would survive for about a week following a cataclysmic disaster. Honestly, the only reason it’s that high is because Elizabeth is a nurse. As I went through each question of the survey, the reality of my unpreparedness kept sinking in more and more deeply. How many gallons of water do you have stored? Does my Brita pitcher count? How many firearms do you own? I wonder how well I could defend my house with a pellet gun. Do you have any nuclear, biological, or chemical protection gear? Yeah, right.
The show Doomsday Preppers is wildly popular, and I think that’s because there are a lot of people out there who worry about the end of the world as we know it. But I like Doomsday Preppers for the same reason I enjoy watching South Park: it’s fun to see people get things so out of proportion that I then realize how I do the same thing in other ways. Honestly, I have zero desire to be prepared for a terrorist attack or a nuclear holocaust. I don’t want to be one of those fanatical few who live to repopulate the earth after 98% of the rest of us are gone. I don’t need a “bug-out location” or training in the use of tactical arms. But those aren’t the issues I lose sleep over. The kinds of things that keep me up at night don’t make for good reality television.
I set three different alarms on the Saturday night before Daylight Saving Time. I get to church at least two hours before the service to make sure everything is in place. I send Elizabeth e-mails to remind her of things she invariably remembers to do on her own, and I make lists on post-it notes to remind myself of things I’m already too worried about to forget. I always park in our garage so that people don’t drive by and wonder why I’m not working hard enough. I lie in the dark mentally replaying every phone call and e-mail exchange to make sure that I didn’t say something that might have been taken the wrong way. Actually, now that I think about it, being unprepared for a “global cataclysm” might have its advantages. I’d be too busy hauling water up to our house from the Tennessee River to care about all those other things.
What are you afraid of? I’m not talking about spiders or public speaking or heights. I mean those fears that really consume your life—those deep-seated anxieties that force you to take irrational steps to make sure that you’re in control of them. What is it that has you lying in your bed at night really wondering what it will take to make sure everything will be ok? If National Geographic were to make a show about your obsessions, what would it be?
Two-thousand years ago, a priest named Zechariah had a vision while he was serving in the Temple. An angel of the Lord appeared and told him that his wife Elizabeth would have a son who would grow up to be a great prophet—one who would prepare the people of God to receive their savior. But that was a hard thing for Zechariah to believe. First of all, his wife was an old woman who had never been able to have children. But, more importantly, the people of Israel had been stuck in a bad place for so long that a vision like that must have seemed impossible.
For over 700 years, Israel had lived under the tyranny of one neighbor after another with only brief moments of independence interspersed between rulers. Most recently, they had suffered for sixty years under the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire, who had squeezed just about every remaining drop of hope from their hearts. “How can this be?” Zechariah asked the angel, unable to imagine a world in which the promises God made to their ancestors were a reality. And, because of his doubts, the angel struck him dumb.
For nine months, Zechariah was unable to speak a word. Finally, on the day his son was named John, his mouth was opened, and his tongue was freed, and Zechariah broke out into a song like none that had been uttered among God’s people for generations:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets God promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us,
To show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
He sang those beautiful words of hope and promise to a people who had almost forgotten what it meant to live without fear. For centuries, God’s people had endured the oppression of their neighbors. Every day, they walked down the street with eyes downcast to avoid the ire of an occupying soldier. Every night, they wondered what sort of government might come to their aid if they needed help. Those kinds of fears, when they take hold in your heart and are passed on from one generation to another, make it hard to believe that anything could ever change. But the birth of John the Baptist meant that a whole new era was coming.
Throughout the bible, God’s promise of salvation is articulated in ways that make a difference to the people who hear it. To Abraham and his wife, God promised to multiply their descendants and bring them to a new land. To Moses and the captive people of Israel, God promised to free them from bondage in Egypt. To Joshua and his fellow warriors, God promised to lead them in victory over their enemies. Over and over, God assures his people that he will save them from whatever threatens them—that he will deliver them from the source of their fears. But sometimes we find ourselves in a long stretch of time when the fulfillment of God’s promises seems like such a distant memory that we can’t even remember whether it’s possible anymore.
It is into that place of doubt and fear that God sent his son. To a people who had forgotten what it meant for God to fight on their behalf, God sent a message of hope that transcended any and all of the threats around them. To us—to a people consumed by worry and anxiety—God reveals his compassion and love like the dawning of a new day. God sent us Jesus so that we would know just how much he loves us. That was the message the angel gave to Zechariah. That was the hope that his son John the Baptist came to preach. God’s son took upon himself all of the brokenness of the world so that his people would no longer have to dwell in darkness or cower in fear. Instead, Jesus shows the world that there is nothing that can overcome God’s love—no fear, no anxiety, no crisis, not even death.