Can There Be Peace?

Scripture can be found here

I’m wondering how many of us know the story of our birth? I know a little of mine, and as an adoptee, I have a bittersweet mixture of stories told me by my parents who raised me and my birthmother who made that possible. My mom told me the story of waiting for the phone call. She knew about a month in advance that I was coming, but the timing was for some reason vague. After three weeks of jumping every time the phone rang she drove her car sixty miles to Philadelphia and took refuge at my grandmother’s house, where someone else could answer the phone. Years later, my birthmother filled in the story by telling me she’d watched a beautiful sunrise while she labored. They all remembered the day I went home in great detail.

One of my favorite birth stories is from fiction—television fiction, to be exact. It’s the story of the birth of Rory Gilmore, of “The Gilmore Girls.” Lorelai, Rory’s mom, tells Rory the story every year on her birthday, in hair-raising detail. Lying in bed next to her teenaged daughter, Lorelei begins in a whisper, as if reciting a fairytale:

“And it's so hard to believe that at exactly this time many moons ago, I was lying in exactly the same position…” 

And Rory sighs, “Oh, boy. Here we go.”

The story that follows involves Lorelai’s commentary on the size of her stomach and her ankles; the fact that she was “swearing like a sailor on leave,” and a description of labor and delivery that has probably lowered the birthrate among young women of a certain age.

In the middle of it all, Rory wonders aloud “whether the Waltons ever did this.”

Biblical writers only provide birth-stories for those considered the most important persons, characters central to the great arc of the biblical narrative; in other words, any time a birth is described in scripture, we should pay special attention. Today, that person is John the Baptist.

John’s Birth story kicks off the gospel of Luke. It begins when we meet his father Zechariah, right in the middle of a busy workday. Zechariah is a high priest, and this is the day for his once-in-a-lifetime act of service: entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred space in the Temple, to make an incense offering.

An angel is waiting for him. The angel is there to tell John that his wife, Elizabeth—who also bears a most impressive priestly lineage—will have a baby. And John will not be just any baby—the angel tells Zechariah that John “will be great in the sight of the Lord,” and that he will have the power and wisdom of Elijah, turning many people back to God. (That’s what the word “repentance” means. Turning around.)

It’s is a wondrous announcement, but there is a problem. Elizabeth is post-menopausal, and Zechariah is, therefore, skeptical. As a high priest, surely he knows the stories of Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel and Hannah—all women who gave birth with the help of divine intervention. But who among us can believe that something so biblical could happen in our family? Zechariah can’t. So the angel takes away his ability to speak, returning it only after John’s birth.  

Following in the footsteps of the ancient biblical matriarchs, Elizabeth gives birth, and she and her neighbors rejoice. And yes, Zechariah rejoices too, a skeptic no longer. A prophet is born. 

Almost as soon as he can speak again, John’s father sings an ecstatic song of praise to God. 

(Luke is the gospel most like a Broadway show: for at least the first several chapters, people regularly break into song.)

He sings:

“Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel;

you have come to your people and set them free.

You have raised up for us a mighty Savior,

born of the house of your servant David.
Through your holy prophets, you promised of old

to save us from our enemies,

from the hands of all who hate us.                                        ~ Luke 1:68-71

This song, like so many words of prophecy in scripture, sees something that is not yet here, but which is inevitable. It will happen, this promise of salvation from enemies, from those who hate God’s people. Despite living under the harsh occupation of the Roman Empire, Zechariah believes it, because he’s seen how God works. We believe it because we’ve seen how God works. And yet… Zechariah goes on:

You promised to show mercy to our forebears,

and to remember your holy covenant.

This was the oath you swore to our ancestor Abraham:

to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

free to worship you without fear,

holy and righteous before you,

all the days of our life.                                                            ~ Luke 1:72-75

I can’t share this passage with you without recalling that within the past month, a synagogue called “Tree of Life” was attacked, and eleven people were killed by a white supremacist who hated the fact that the people there were trying to support refugees seeking asylum in our country. I can’t share this passage without remembering the other places of worship that have known gunfire, including the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine people were killed after welcoming a stranger to their bible study. I can’t share this passage without tears coming to my eyes, at this promise of God’s people being able to “worship without fear,” all the days of their life. That is a day we are still waiting for. That is a peace we are still waiting for. 

Then, Zechariah sings directly to his son:

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,

for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,

to give God’s people knowledge of salvation

by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”             ~Luke 1:76-79

Quite a few years ago, I was a new mother during Advent—Ned was born just about six weeks before Christmas. One Sunday morning in December his father and I took him to church for the first time. As we were driving, he said to me, “I feel like I finally get Christmas.” 

On this second Sunday in Advent, I feel like Zechariah gets Christmas—in some ways, just like every parent who has ever had a child placed in their arms for the first time. He gets the wonder of a newborn child, a child he never thought he’d have. And after his long period of waiting in silence, he understands, not only the joy of this birth, but the unending possibility that accompanies a new life. He understands the wonder of God’s provision, the kind of provision that cannot be anticipated. And he understands the vital connection between the past—his past, his wife’s past, his people’s past—and the future God is in the midst of creating for all of them.

We will meet John the Baptist many times in the gospel of Luke.

We will meet him about 30 years later, as in today’s second reading, the slightly wild-eyed prophet preaching a baptism of repentance—turning our lives around.

We’ll read that Jesus submitted himself for that very same baptism, and that God blessed it with an emphatic “Yes!”

We will learn that John has been carted off to jail, because he dared to rebuke King Herod for defying law and tradition by his marriage. 

And even when he is not physically present, we will find him… invoked in a conversation about how disciples ought to be, how they should or should not eat, should or should not drink.  

Jesus will invoke him as he talks to the people about what a prophet is, and isn’t, what one does, and doesn’t do.  

From prison, John will send his own disciples out with a question for Jesus: Are you the one? And they will bring him back the answer his heart has been longing for. 

We will meet Herod who jailed John, and later killed him. We’ll learn that news of Jesus gives Herod a sickening feeling that John has risen from the dead.

We will hear Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, because that’s what John did for his disciples.

John haunts this gospel, in a way, an undeniable presence right up to the very end.

But for today, we have the story of his birth, a birth that gave the world a foretaste of another birth that would come soon after. For today, we have his father’s confidence that the work of this child would change the world, beginning the long, slow process of making his people free to worship without fear. For today, we have the ecstatic song of a new father singing of a peace that eludes us, but which God has promised:


“In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”             ~Luke 1:78-79

Thanks be to God. Amen.