Rev. Dr. Scott Herr

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Please read: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 1:5-25

We begin this first Sunday of Advent with a strange text, especially after all of the royal pomp and ceremony of last week’s Christ the King Sunday… I love the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth because it is a poignant story, a story of longing and lament, and this is the way the church always begins Advent. Wearing purple, lighting candles, and singing songs that have a beautiful melancholy is a way of remembering that we are a people who lament the brokenness of our lives and world. We are a people longing for the Kingdom of God to come near.

Luke writes that Zechariah is a priest belonging to the order of Abijah, and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. That means that they are first class religious Jews. They have qualifications and they have character. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were both “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” So far so good...

“But,” Luke writes, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years….” That little but changes everything. For a first century Jew, to be barren implied that God was not pleased with you, that your marriage is not fruitful, and no matter what people said in public, there inevitably would be private concerns about why there were no children. Indeed, Elizabeth talks about the “disgrace I have endured among my people.” Perhaps that’s why Luke goes to such trouble to clarify that they were “living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

Zechariah was taking his turn serving as the priest in the temple, but it’s significant that it was by lots that he was chosen to offer incense as a prayer offering in the temple. His peers may have looked down upon him, but being chosen by lot was a way of experiencing God’s mystical choice, that somehow this childless old man was the one to offer the prayers while the whole assembly of the people prayed outside. In the silence of the temple, God spoke to Zechariah…

The altar of incense was just in front of the curtain before the holy of Holies, that most sacred space in the temple where the very presence of the Lord was thought to dwell. Keeping the incense burning was a symbol of the constant prayers being lifted up by the people, a pleasing and fragrant offering to the Lord. I can’t imagine what could have gone through Zechariah’s mind as he stood alone in the Temple… “Lord, I know you hear the prayers of your people. I know that you can do mighty and great things as you have done of old… Do great things for your people today. Forgive. Heal. Redeem and restore…”

He would have given up long ago on his prayer for Elizabeth to receive a child. That was a request whose appropriate time had long since past… And so it is a double disorientation when the angel Gabriel comes and announces that Elizabeth is “with child.” Gabriel’s name means God’s strength, and he helped Daniel to interpret dreams and according to Muslim tradition dictated the Koran to the prophet Mohammed… He also will speak to Mary later in a dream… Well, confronted with Gabriel’s presence, the old priest is “terrified.” He’s thinking, “No! This can’t be happening…!” To which the angel gives Zechariah the game plan… But the priest is skeptical, as we religious types are known to be at times (“How will I know that this is so?” long hand for “Are you kidding me? Prove it!”), and Gabriel gets a little cranky. Because Zechariah dared to ask for a sign, something to give some assurance that this wasn’t some crazy incense induced hallucination, Gabriel causes Zechariah to hold his tongue until the baby comes…

I think Zechariah was still a praying man, but he had long since abandoned hope of having a son. He was an old man, now. And Elizabeth was also “getting on in years…” I imagine that Zechariah’s prayers were for his people, and the nation of Israel that was now occupied by the Romans. They were an oppressed people, heavily taxed by the Emperor and a new census was in the works to extract even more from this unruly people… I have a picture in my office of a Hassidic Jew praying at the wailing wall. I love it because it reminds me that the Jews are still longing for the Messiah to come. The picture reminds me of Zechariah, because I’m sure that he was praying for the Messiah to come, to usher in the Kingdom of God for his people…

The theme of all of the gospels, argues N.T. Wright, is that in Jesus Christ God is announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand… And in the meantime, the prayers of the righteous and faithful people of God like Zechariah and Elizabeth are prayers of lament and longing… a crying out to God that things are not the way they are supposed to be, or at least not the way we had hoped for them to be…

It was Kathleen Norris, I believe, in her book Cloister Walk, who noticed in the worship of the Benedictine sisters where she began worshipping, that they actually read through all of the Psalms, and not just part of the Psalms. She realized that we Protestants use a strangely “sanitized version of the psalter,” often skipping the raw anger or despair that is part of so many of the psalmist’s prayers.

Walter Brueggeman talks of “Israel’s countertestimony.”[1]  Although we are called to give witness to the ways in which God has acted in history to redeem and restore, the Jews - and I believe Christians today - are called to give witness to that which God has yet to redeem and restore. Being faithful in our worship and living means confessing our personal and the world’s collective sin and brokenness… We too often shy away from the deep pain of loss and the profound longing and lament that is appropriate in the face of the suffering of our world. Too often we rush through confession in worship, forgetting, as Thomas Merton once wrote, “When God tells you of a sickness, it is because He means, at the same time, to provide a remedy!”[2]

Today, perhaps we need to consider that lament is an important part of rediscovering true worship and real hope?… The desert fathers called it “penthos,” that is, bringing to mind the reality of the judgment and nearness of the “end of time.” Penthos was sometimes called the “gift of tears,” and involved a double-movement of the heart: “penthos or compunction is the way believers accept both judgment and mercy simultaneously.” “Like the call to repentance in the gospels,” it “demanded a fundamental reorientation of one’s entire being, so that one would be prepared to enter the world of the kingdom of God.”[3]

So when’s the last time you had a good lament? What do you need to lament? I lament… the brokenness of our world. I lament my sinfulness, my fearfulness and narrow-mindedness. I lament long hours of work at the expense of my family. I lament the loneliness of this city for so many people. A friend who knows the curator of the Grand Palais said the Edward Hopper exhibit now showing has attracted the largest crowds ever, even more than the Monet exhibit last year! Why? He says it is very probably because so many people identify with the themes of urban loneliness that Hopper tries to capture in his paintings… (Nighthawks)…

I long for authentic community that includes the outsiders, and breaks down walls of prejudice and exclusion. I was recently at an event that was advertised as being for the general community, but it turned out it was geared only for Christians: A dear Jewish friend came and was not able to fully participate. I felt a deep sense of lament seeing him on the outside looking in!

I lament that in so many places there this is crushing warfare, violence and abuse. Our church has members from Syria, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo… I lament the suffering caused by natural disaster, like the tsunami that robbed thousands of lives in Japan last year…

I lament the frailty of health, the suffering of cancer or illness that afflicts both young and old alike… I received news this week of an old friend in Zurich, husband, father of two teens, who went out to play soccer with some of his office mates, and had a massive heart attack and died… I lament the brokenness of relationships, of divorce and loss of jobs that affects so many today.

The Lamenting Prophet, Jeremiah, affirmed, “the Lord is our righteousness.” And Gabriel proclaimed that the Lord would turn the hearts of parents toward their children, the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord… But too often when God speaks to us (like Zechariah, even in worship!) we often turn in disbelief and doubt… I lament how difficult it is to practice what Eugene Peterson calls a “long obedience in the same direction”, learning to believe the good news when God’s messengers actually give it to us!   

I guess the bottom line is that authentic lament is a necessary part of authentic hope. We can't hope for something more if we don't grieve what is lost, if we don’t  long for the way it’s supposed to be....

When I asked my friend Rabbi Cohen to help me understand lament, he told me: Rebbe Na'Hman once gave the following parable: A king sent his son to a faraway land to study. The prince returned to his father’s palace thoroughly versed in every branch of wisdom.

 

Once the king gave his son instructions to take a certain huge, heavy stone, like a millstone, and bring it to the top floor of the palace. On account of its being so huge and heavy the prince could not even lift the stone. He was very upset that he could not fulfill his father, the king’s request.

 

He was upset for a while, until the king explained to him what he had intended. “Did you think I would ask something so difficult of you—to pick up the stone as it is?! Even with your wisdom, could you possibly do it?! That’s not at all what I had in mind. What I wanted you to do was take a sturdy hammer and strike the rock, smashing it into little pieces. Then you would be able to take the rock to the top floor.”

 

Na'Hman explained that God has commanded us to “lift our heart with our hands to God in Heaven” (Lamentations 3:41). But our heart is a “heart of stone” (Ezekiel 36:26), a very heavy stone! There is no way of raising it up to God except by taking a hammer and breaking and smashing the heart of stone! Then we will be able to raise it.

 

So what is the hammer -- it is the lament of repentance and faith, and the actions of a repentant and faithful heart.. We must hammer away at our hearts with words of prayer and acts of loving kindness and compassion, like what God has shown to us…

As we come to this table on this first Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that like Zechariah and Elizabeth, there is much lament and longing that is a part of waiting for God to fulfill God’s promises. But even when God does speak, too often we are too hard-hearted (or hard-headed!) to hear… This table reminds us that despite our brokenness and helplessness, God draws near to us. Here the Kingdom is close. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a way of God lamenting the sickness of our world, but at the same time providing the cure… It’s a reminder that Self-giving love still hammers away and can break even the hardest of hearts… And until we can give ourselves fully to this One who calls us forth to love as he first loved us, we lament and we long for something more… And so we enter into another season of praying and waiting, lamenting and longing, hoping and living toward the coming Kingdom of God!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] F.W. Dobbs Allsopp, Lamentations – Interpretation: A Bile Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), 24.

[2] Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G. Toth, eds., Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2009), 25.

[3] Montaldo and Toth, 27.