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The Nights Before Christmas -- Luke 1 & 2 (Fourth Sunday in Advent)

This Advent, we’ve been inspired by this image that NASA tells us is a photo of a star-birthing region. We have wondered at the God who creates all this, and who comes to us in human flesh. Standing in our lives and our world, we’ve been thinking about and reflecting on the Advent Hope of a Starlit Night.

Today, we’re going to enter into the stories from the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke that tell us of those months leading up to the birth of Jesus, those days and nights, filled with wonder, and hope, and love – the messages from angels, the silences, the songs – Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds watching their flocks at night.[1] We’ll hear their stories, and we’ll wonder together how they experienced the Hope of a Starlit Night – and the joy and the love and the promise of peace. SLIDE

We’ll start with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, two people well-along in years – who receive from an angel some life-changing news:

Luke 1:8-20 8 Once when Zechariah was serving as priest before God during his section’s turn of duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of God to offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.

11 Then there appeared to him an angel of God, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of God. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to their Sovereign God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know that this will happen? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Zechariah is a man of words. He is a priest, immersed in the words of the Scriptures - the Torah – and as a priest, he has responsibility, on behalf of the people, for the words and actions of worship. On this day, his job is to enter into the holiest parts of the Temple, while the people wait; to offer the incense sacrifices to God; and then to emerge and speak a blessing on the people. But on this day, Zechariah’s world grows silent.

Zechariah enters into the holiest place. He performs the ritual – and in the midst of that – an angel appears. (Now, remember, in Scripture, angels are fiery messengers from God – so they almost always say, “Be not afraid.”) “Be not afraid, Zechariah,” the angel says, “Your prayers have been answered. You and Elizabeth have prayed for a child, and you will soon have a child. You both will be filled with joy and gladness – the whole world too. And this child of yours will help set the world right. He’ll turn the people toward God, and parents toward their children’s hope.”

But Zechariah is old, Elizabeth too – and so he says, “How can this be? I am old.” To which the angel replies, “And I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I’ve been sent to tell you this good news – your prayer, answered – but because you’ve faltered – you’ll be silent until these things come to pass – as they surely will.”

Zechariah... is given some time to think.

Imagine what that must have been like. Zechariah comes out from the Temple. Instead of speaking a blessing – he makes signs. The people are perplexed – and Scripture says that he goes home. Home from Jerusalem to Elizabeth, to their house. He can’t tell Elizabeth what happened – maybe he scratches it out in the sand. He can’t do his priestly duties – so he’s there in the house. Day after day. He watches Elizabeth – sees for the first time – how hard she works – tretching what little they have to put food on the table – sometimes with enough also for the widow next door, and sometimes even for the children down the street.

A few weeks in, maybe Elizabeth suggests he get out of the house. And so Zechariah ventures out into the streets. He has time to see the things he has always rushed by. He sees folks in the marketplace doing their best to make a living. He sees the poor – children begging for food because there’s not enough to eat. He sees folks pushed to the margins – those whose bodies are different – those who can’t walk – or can’t see. He sees the people he’s pushed out, enforcing religious rules of who is in and who is out. He moves among themnow as one who can’t speak – and compassion stirs within him.

At night, after dinner, Zechariah reaches across the table and squeezes Elizabeth’s hand in gratitude. He helps her clear and clean – and when she has drifted off – he is still alert to the sounds of the night – so he walks outside – into the crisp, cool air. Zechariah looks up at the starlit sky. He sees the stars and moon that God has set in place – and he wonders at the God who created all this – the same God who sends angels with tidings of good news to an aging couple who had given up hope.

Zechariah thinks of the child who is on the way – this child he thought not possible – and he prays for the things parents pray for – love, and safety, and health – a life of meaning and happiness. In the expanse of the starlit night, Zechariah experiences God’s tender mercy deeper and broader than he has ever known – God’s tender mercy breaking into the world even now, to those who hurt and hope, guiding the whole world into the way of peace.

And while Zechariah stands there and wonders and hopes, he notices that Elizabeth is standing at his side. She noticed he was gone, and has come out to find him. She wraps her arm around his waist; he puts his over her shoulder; she leans into him – and they stand there together under that starlit sky – full of love, and tender mercy, and hope.

Meanwhile, not too far away, under that same starlit sky, Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary sleeps. She’s about to awaken to a day unlike any day she has known before:

Luke 1:26-38 -- 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mary wonders what kind of greeting this might be – this message from this fiery messenger. “Yes,” she says, “Let this be unto me as you have said – but what?”

Scripture says – that Mary gathers her things and heads to the hill country to the home of Zechariah and her cousin Elizabeth, someplace she feels safe. She walks in the house – and Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb. Elizabeth lets out a shout: “Blessed are you among women! Blessed is she who believed the promises of God!” Mary sings out a song to God, and they embrace – laughing and crying all at the same time. The house is full – full of joy, full of love, full of life. When Zechariah comes back home, he finds the two women wrapped in conversation, exuberant, overflowing. And he greets them with a silent smile.

Mary stays with Elizabeth and Zechariah – helps Elizabeth get ready for the coming birth. Mary settles into the rhythms and routines of their quiet house – even as she holds and ponders the angel’s words. At night, when her elders have gone to sleep, she climbs up onto the flat roof of the house – and thinks on these things there. Mary hears the echo of the angel’s voice – looks up at the starlit sky – and what she sees there – in the stars and constellations, amazes her. As she looks up, she sees empires falling like a shower of stars in the night. She sees the powerful pulled down from their seats of oppression. She sees Orion lay down his sword and bow; Andromeda freed from her chains. Mary looks up into the starlit sky and sees the poor and hurting soothed and lifted up; bodies and spirts healed and made whole. She sees the hungry filled and fed – 4,000, 5,000, a multitude – from all the corners of the earth – gathering at a table where everyone has a place and everyone has enough.

Mary looks up into the starlit sky – as she rests her hand on her belly and feels the child within her move – she looks up and what she sees is a New Creation – coming into being even now. She sees the stars and moon that God has set in the heavens – and she sees stars being born – an eternity stretching back and reaching forward farther than she will ever comprehend. She sees a re-ordering of the world she has known – where the powerful no longer harm, and the powerless no longer hurt. What Mary sees in that moment – what she experiences in the stars of the night sky and in her embodied life – is God turning the world rightside up. PAUSE

Mary stays with Elizabeth and Zechariah until their son is born. They name him John – Elizabeth’s direction – confirmed when Zechariah scratches in the sand – “His name is John... do what she says” – and Zechariah is then freed to speak and sing his own song.

And Mary goes home. We know the story from there. She and Joseph head to Jerusalem to be counted in the Emperor’s census. They travels a dry and dusty road – Mary, great with child – and when they arrive – they find shelter in a stable, because there is no room for them in the inn. They settle – and as night falls, Mary prepares to give birth. Not alone. We know that elsewhere under that starlit sky, there are shepherds keeping watch over their flocks:

Luke 2:8-13 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

The shepherds are out here in this cold, starlit night – out in the fields. As one writer has said, we don’t find them at night in the shelter of houses, but out, under the canopy of heaven.[2]

And why shepherds? It’s a bit odd. This good news comes first not to kings or wise men, but to shepherds. In the hierarchical world of Roman occupation, shepherds would have been down on the lowest rungs. They weren’t held in high esteem. They lived with sheep, often seen as shiftless, grazing other people’s land. But remember Mary’s vision, Mary’s song, of the powerful being pulled down, and the lowly lifted up. The shepherds are among the lowly being lifted up. So of course, of course, this good news comes to them – this good news is for them. “Good news, of great joy, for all people.”

What are their hopes as they sit with their sheep under this starlit sky? Maybe they hope for a bit of warmth. A bit of food. Maybe their hopes are for their sheep – that they survive the night – that no predators attack. Or maybe their thoughts are back with family they’ve left elsewhere – their children they’re working to feed – their lives clinging to the edge of bare subsistence. As they shiver in the night, they hope for the well-being of their families, for health and healing, for peace in a world of violence, for freedom, for a little bit of joy – some good news for those they love, and for the whole world too.

This Advent, we have been thinking about the Hope of a Starlit Night. We’ve thought some about the blessings and challenges of the night – the rest, the restlessness – the particular tender mercies that persists through the watches of the night – the longing for freedom – the love and life that pulses on, when evening comes and the world grows still.

We find all that here – in this moment with the shepherds out in the hills under the canopy of the sky – with Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah – all of them then – all of us now, standing together in the complexity of our lives, in the troubles of our world – standing here together on these Advent nights looking up in wonder at the starlit sky. We bring to these Advent nights the particularity of who we are – each of us – our life, our loves, our hopes, our longings.

And, gathered together, there is something deeply human that we shareour humanity with all its troubles – surrounded and filled with grace, and peace, and love, and hope, and joy – our humanity, the place where God enters into this world to save us from everything that would do us harm – where God comes now and all the time to set the whole world free. These Advent nights before Christmas – we have heard this story before – so many times that we know it in our bones. And we tell it again to each other because we know this to be true – now and always and forever:

God is already here, and always on the way.

© 2022 Scott Clark

[1] For general background on Luke 1 & 2, see Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995). [2] Martin Luther, “To You Christ Is Born,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2001), pp. 222-23.

Photo credit: NASA, used with permission


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