Every Advent, I feel two competing impulses, two competing tones. These competing tones are represented in my imagination by two songs.
The first of these is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The song speaks to me, in its words and its minor key, of longing, even of lament. Although the last phrase is “Rejoice,” with the assurance that Emmanuel—or God-with-us—shall come, I still feel in the song a gathering-together of all the world’s deep sorrow and injustice and need for cleansing and redeeming and mercy. Advent gives us an opportunity to live into this reality of our desperate need for God’s tender compassion, and I don’t think you need me to give you a list of recent headlines to prove that we have a lot to lament and long for—a lot to be freed from.
The other song is from the musical Godspell. (Do you know Godspell?) It’s the John the Baptist song at the beginning of the show: his voice rings out, a cappella, slowly, singing, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (I would sing it for you, but my range isn’t that good. Can anybody do it for us?) The song begins with this repeated phrase, but after a while instruments come in, and the pace picks up: it’s an up-tempo, joyful song, just that repeated phrase, over and over. In the 1973 film version, John the Baptist’s voice echoes out in the wilderness of the city, and folks from all walks of life hear it and leave behind what they’re doing and find him at a fountain. And they jump in—it’s a baptism scene, and he is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in preparation for the Messiah to come—but these people are splashing and laughing and playful, like children all over again.
Mournful longing—and joyful activity. Two songs, and two sides to Advent, this season during which we pay special attention to how we are “freedom bound.” These two songs also speak to our lectionary texts on this second Sunday of Advent. These texts—from Malachi, Luke, and Philippians—invite us into three overlapping stories: first, the story of God’s covenant with the people of Israel; second, the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah; and third, the story of the universe, a story in which all of us find ourselves. All three of these stories showcase painful, extended longing. But they also showcase joyful hope that the Lord is coming.
The first story, the story of God’s partnership with Israel, is highlighted for us in the Old Testament reading from Malachi, a prophetic promise that God will send a messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. It’s a promise to continue the covenant Yahweh made long generations past with the Israelites, a promise of blessing. If we imagine the situation of the people receiving this prophecy, the promise is even more vivid: the Israelites had finally returned from exile and been restored to the land God had promised their ancestors Sarah and Abraham. They ought to have been full of joy and faithfulness. Yet in the book of Malachi, God speaks out against corruption among the priesthood, religious and moral laxity, injustice against workers, widows, orphans, and refugees, an overall lack of faith in God’s promise to reward righteousness. And still, despite the people’s failure to hold up their end of the bargain, God reminds them “I do not change.” God promises fulfillment, promises to send a messenger and to come to them. Now this promise of future arrival isn’t entirely comforting: indeed, the Lord will bring judgment, like the harsh soap that washes soil from newly-shorn wool, or the fire that melts away impurities from gold or silver. Who can stand when this Lord appears, we are asked in verse 2.
This is a question we must ask ourselves as well. It’s easy enough to read the sins described in Malachi and pat ourselves on the back: most of us aren’t sorcerers, and we’re certainly not priests offering second-rate animal sacrifices in the temple. But how do we treat those around us? What do our habits of thought and speech and action say about the desires of our hearts? How do we implicitly, without even thinking about it, contribute to the oppression of the vulnerable—in subtle racism, in blatant disregard for who made our clothes or picked our grapes? How often do we give in to the sin of apathy in a world supersaturated with injustice? What chains bind our hearts?
These are difficult questions. The introspection this season asks of us—the introspection this text asks of us—is hard and painful work. We find ourselves bound by chains of sin within our hearts, or stuck perpetuating injustices we don’t know how to fix, or sometimes, oppressed by others’ sin and injustice. We are left to cry out, in a minor key: “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free / Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”
But there is good news wound through even the judgment warning of Malachi: “Return to me,” God says later in chapter 3, “and I will return to you” (vv. 6, 7). That is an image of mercy if I’ve ever seen one: mercy as compassion, mercy as forgiveness. This is the story of God’s faithfulness to God’s chosen partner-people, a story of patient, steadfast love in the face of rejection. It is a story of promised freedom from oppression, and freedom from the bonds that cause us to oppress others. The Lord’s promised coming brings with it not destruction but purification: the wool is not destroyed in the washing, nor is the gold destroyed in the refining. Instead, they are made ready to serve their purposes to bring warmth, to bring beauty to this world. The wool and the precious metal need to be set free from the impurities that hold them back from serving these purposes. God’s promised future arrival, preceded by this prophesied messenger, is not a promise of arbitrary punishment, but a promise to bring freedom.
In the 400-some years that passed between the prophecy of Malachi and the fulfillment we read of in the book of Luke, things did not get easier for the Israelites. The need for freedom, for deliverance, only grew. These were centuries of war and difficulty, centuries when the people saw their promised land occupied by imperial Rome. Not to mention the waiting: their God had promised to send a messenger, a new prophet Elijah, had promised to come to them and save them—and where was this messenger? Where was this Messiah?
And here we come to the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Our passage from Luke 1 is Zechariah’s song after their son John is born—that John is John the Baptizer, about whose ministry we read in Luke 3, that messenger the New Testament writers insistently interpret as the one promised in Malachi. Elizabeth and Zechariah were an ordinary couple living in ordinary—which is to say difficult—times. People in an occupied territory, trying to make a life, heartbroken over their infertility, righteous yet disgraced because they lived in a day when childlessness was viewed as a sign of punishment. And God steps into their story, answers a prayer they had probably already ceased to pray, and grants them a child. When this child is born as promised, everyone who hears of it rejoices because, as the Gospel writer describes it, “the Lord has shown his great mercy to [Elizabeth].”
This gets me every time: the way God’s merciful fulfillment of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s deep personal longings intersects with the fulfillment of a promise made centuries before to an entire people. John the Baptizer, the Lord’s messenger who would declare his arrival, could have been born to anyone. But he was born to a couple who had waited and waited, and who had been judged by society, and who were at the point of giving up hope. In one sense, Elizabeth and Zechariah are a vivid pictures of the Israelites: they had waited and waited, they had been judged (and oppressed) by their Roman occupiers, they were at the point of giving up hope. In another sense, it’s crucial that we remember that these two were individual, particular people, because this teaches us something true about our own lives. Our stories, with their pains and their joys, intersect in mysterious and powerful and unpredictable ways with the stories of the people around us, the stories of the universe. We should never discount that.
But back to Zechariah’s song in Luke 1: the man has been mute during Elizabeth’s pregnancy because he doubted Gabriel’s announcement that the couple would conceive (can we really blame him?). But at John’s naming ceremony he is given back his voice, filled with the Holy Spirit, and compelled to speak a prophetic song. And what a song! In it, Zechariah echoes the Psalms and the prophets, drawing a connection between his miraculously-born son John, the Messiah John would herald, and the promises God had made to the people of Israel. Zechariah’s song repeats, again and again, that God is to be praised because of the way the covenant—finally, at long last, after such years and years of waiting—is being fulfilled. It’s a song about how God’s favor, redemption, salvation, and rescue have arrived, and are arriving, and will arrive. It’s a song about a God who frees from both outward oppressions and inward sins. It’s a song about a God whose character shines forth in this keeping-of-promises. And that is a character, a heart, of tender mercy, of tender compassion.
Zechariah’s song—his story, with his wife Elizabeth—speaks to the arc of the Israelites’ story, and God’s ancient covenant with them, but it’s also a song for all of us. This oath God swore to Abraham was a promise of blessing, yes, a promise (as my Old Testament professor Dr. Miller always used to say) of land, nation, and leader, but it didn’t end with the people of Israel. We see that in both of this morning’s passages from Luke, and it brings me to the third story I mentioned, the story of the whole created world. This is the place where our story—yours and mine—intersects with Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s and the Israelites’. Because God’s promise to Abraham, which we read about in Genesis 12, was never just to bless his family or his people: “You will be a blessing,” Yahweh says to Abram. “All peoples on earth will be blessed by you.”
The story of God’s covenant with Israel is a story of blessing and preparing a people to bring light into the world. This seems to be the way God prefers to work. John’s ministry began, in fulfillment of Malachi, with his preaching a baptism of repentance—and forgiveness (those who ask receive, those who seek find): and with the promise that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” we hear him singing, and the call is for all of us, and it’s a call of joy. When we turn from our sin, God is waiting with a heart of mercy, waiting to free us and fill us with purpose. As Zechariah says in his song, God’s rescue comes so that we might serve him. It is for freedom that we are set free, set free to share the freedom. We receive mercy so that we may in turn be merciful. This is God’s intention, recorded from the very beginning, an intention that blessing in one story should overlap into the next story and the next, in a glorious ripple effect of redemption.
This news is good. Advent can be a time of dancing and tambourines and splashing in a baptismal fountain, because even the painful work of repentance is wrapped up in God’s mercy and the promise of freedom. And still: we are waiting. This is the already-not-yet of Advent. John has come into the world, heralding the Messiah. The Messiah has come into the world, heralding the Kingdom of God. But our world has not yet seen full fulfillment. We are still waiting for the light to break through, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like their people. We read the news, we look into our hearts, we watch our dear ones suffer with illness, we face into our own finitude, and I’ll say for myself, I feel at times that I am sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. As I told you at the outset, I swing back and forth between my two Advent songs. Sometimes—and especially recently—what feels truer is a mournful tune.
And I look around me and within me, and I ask myself, what does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord, in these difficult days? When will my nation’s leaders do something to curb the outrageous gun violence unique to the land of my birth? When will our wealthy nations curb the environmental degradation our lifestyles cause? When will refugees all have homes, when will Indigenous people cease to be murdered and go missing at disproportionate rates, when will prisons cease to be overfull, when will people cease to be judged by the color of their skin, when will hunger cease to be a problem in a world full of food? When will I have ever done enough to help, on all these fronts? When will my own heart cease toward self-protection, self-distraction, self-justification? There are times when the already-not-yet Kingdom seems awfully far away, and all I can sing is “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” If I can sing at all.
And so, what I have to offer in closing is a story—one of my stories—that I hold out as a metaphor, a reminder of why we must stubbornly cling to the major as well as the minor key.
This week, four years ago, I was in labor. I paced our Montana apartment, gripped by the strongest pain I had ever felt in my life, pain so fierce that all I could do was bend and moan and beg Jesus for mercy.
Those of you who know me know that I don’t have a four-year-old child. That day four years ago, I was laboring to bring forth a babe I already knew would never laugh or cry or breathe the air. I’d had what doctors call a missed miscarriage—Josh and I went in to the midwife for our 12-week checkup full of joy, expecting to hear a heartbeat, and instead we learned via ultrasound that the little one had ceased to grow at least a week before, although my body had given no sign of trouble. As the weeks passed, it became clear that I would have to labor in order to lay this little one to rest.
I tell this story for two reasons. First, it is my story, but many of you probably have stories like it. These stories speak of our sorrow. They speak of how we live in a world oriented toward unexpected and unwelcome death. These losses, and the longings of our hearts, are part of the world of brokenness and injustice that we lament.
But as I said, my main reason for telling this story is to offer us an image, a metaphor. There are times when we groan under the weight of this world, when we struggle and labor and in our pain and exhaustion, we lose sight of the promised light. When we look around us and within us, sometimes, we give in to the belief that our labor is in vain, that our labor is a hopeless, agonizing task that will bring no life into the world. How could we believe our repentance has any value? How could we ever think our work was meant to prepare a way for the Lord?
I have also given birth to a living child—an eight pound, nine-and-a-half-ounce living child, who was head down but face-up, meaning 17 hours of back labor, meaning 17 hours of solid pain, without relief between contractions. The pain of that labor was an otherworldly thing: the exhaustion and desperation were unlike anything I have ever experienced. But at the end of it, I held a dark-haired, wide-eyed little being, screaming with life, warm and throbbing with life and potential and mystery, and there are no words for the joy of it.
Friends, our stories are full of pain and difficulty. Our miscarriages are not always followed by live births. Our illnesses are not always healed. Our efforts do not always succeed. Our world is full of pain and difficulty. Darkness and death seem at times to be winning. But the Big Story—the cosmic story—the story toward which all of creation arcs—it ends in life. This is the core of our faith, and we see hints of it when we have eyes to see: in the casserole delivered after a surgery, in the phone call that comes at just the right time, in the testimonies of unexpected healing, in the smiles of strangers, in the magenta sunrise that asserts itself over the prairie at the end of a long winter night.
Freedom is coming. We labor for life. We work for justice and mercy around us—we do the painful work of repentance within us—in full assurance that the God who began a good work in us is able to complete it. That the God who promised to bless the world through Sarah and Abraham is a keeper of promises—that this God, on a timeframe we will never comprehend, in upside-down ways we will never be able to predict, revealed to us in a Jesus who is both tender compassion personified and also a purifying fire—this God will midwife life out of our labors. We live with all of creation in labor pains with the full assurance that By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high has broken upon us and 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—and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This is our hope. Let us cling to it, stubbornly, in these days of Advent and all the days to come. Let us sing all our songs—of longing and of joy.