An Uncommon Restoration
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets, which have been since the world began;
That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us.
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham, that he would give us;
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear;
In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.” (Luke 1: 68-75)
These words of Zechariah, and also Mary's song, the Magnificat, have got me questioning, looking deeper this Advent and Christmas season. The burning question in my mind is how? How did Jesus' birth accomplish the raising up of the humble and meek, the filling of the hungry with good things, the deliverance of his people from their enemies, the fulfillment of God's oath to Abraham?
All to often, I fear, we, living centuries later, have lost touch with the scene upon which Jesus arrived: the desolation of Israel, and their longed for deliverance. We make Jesus out to be this white-looking guy who could have been born anywhere, at any time, and accomplish the same thing- a universally applicable atonement for the personal sin of all of mankind (or at least the chosen). While this might satisfy the dogmatic, systematic brains of 15th century theologians and their modern counterparts, it would hardly have been comforting to a Jew living in the first century under Roman oppression and longing for the consolation of Israel. Imagine telling Mary, or one of the shepherds, or Simeon, or any one of the people who experienced such joy at the news of Jesus' birth, that the salvation they were promised amounted to nothing more than having each of their personal sins paid for, like the time they stole a fish or lusted after their neighbor's spouse. That would be like telling them to forget about Israel's problems. Why not just be glad that they were allowed go to heaven when they died? It sounds preposterous. They knew the Law, the Psalms and Prophets, that God freely forgave the sins of the contrite. And the hope of bodily resurrection had given strength to many Jewish martyrs before them. But what they longed for was a forgiveness on a national level, to see Israel once again restored to God's right hand as chief among the nations. Because they knew that Israel's God was King of all the nations, and that Israel was his special people. And they knew that Israel had fallen from God's favor.
But now they knew that God was doing exactly what they were hoping for! We are told that Zechariah was full of the Holy Spirit when he spoke these words, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” A new Exodus was underway! God was once again baring his arm and preparing to unleash his might. And this time it would be nothing less than a new creation. A new covenant order under a new Adam for a newly defined Israel.
But it still is odd the way he did it. He sent a messenger to a peasant girl, telling her that she was the highly favored one to bear his Son. He chose a common carpenter to provide a home and vocation for him. He announced his young prince's arrival to a band of simple shepherds. And for royal companions he provided fishermen, thieves and outcasts. When the time drew near for the kingly heir to take on the powers of the nations, his steed of choice was a little donkey's colt, hardly tall enough to lift his feet off the dust. Last of all, our ruler elect was given over to the fate of all the failed Messiahs before him, a Roman crucifixion.
Where was the promised deliverance? Was it the resurrection? Yes, but this meant more to his followers than a promised afterlife. It meant that God had once again mocked all the strength of man, the rulers of the nations who exercise dominion over people. Like Egypt and Babylon before, Caesar was mocked, Pilate was mocked, Herod was mocked, the chief priests and the chief theologians were all mocked. God defeated them all and all their ideologies. They could not keep this nobody from Nazareth down. The one who promised that the meek would be the ones to inherit the earth. The one who taught his followers to look to God alone for protection and sustenance. The one who offered the ultimate freedom from their enemies- by teaching them to love them. This one, this son of Abraham, was raised from the dead, was exalted as king over all the nations and ascended to God's right hand.
But why were his followers so persecuted? And why are they still, at least those who have chosen not to align themselves with those in power who promise protection and freedom in exchange for patriotic faith? It is because, like Jesus, we must be made perfect through suffering. When we let go our grasping for property, for food and clothing, for comfort, for life, then we allow ourselves to be wholly possessed by love. A love so perfect that it is willing to die for those who are enemies. And that is what we were when Jesus Christ died for us.
But it is more than a willingness to suffer wrong. Throughout history, one nation after another has risen, and fallen. Yet God continues to bless the earth with rain, with seed time and harvest. He blesses the way of the simple. He gives strength for work, and sleep at the sun's going down. He gives us children and laughter, bread and wine, communion with himself and community with his people. Massey Shepherd, Jr., recalls Mary's song and its fulfillment in this context. He writes, “In the outpouring of his Spirit upon his church the disciples knew themselves partakers of the age to come, and to “have tasted the heavenly gift” (Heb 6:4-5). And in the loving fellowship of service one to another, now centered in the holy banquet Table, he had truly “exalted the humble and meek” and had “filled the hungry with good things”. “ And he continues, “It was characteristic of the simplicity as also of the depth of our Lord's discernment that in leaving us a memorial of himself, he should choose, not some strange and exotic ceremony, but an action universal in human experience- the family meal. He took the most obvious symbol of common life and made it the supreme sacrament of his life.” (Massey Shepherd, Jr, “The Worship of the Church”, pg 146, the Seabury Press, 1952)
Here, then, in the most ordinary of places, is the perfected order for the divine social life. To discover this people have fought and slain, argued and died, and written constitutions and all manner of laws- all for vanity! Because it is only when we change and become like little children that we will hear Jesus calling and beckoning us to freely sit down with him and eat and drink as kings at his table. It is only when we are joined to him as family that we will learn to work together in love and peace, reaping the good of the earth for the good of all with thanksgiving, and offering ourselves to him who gives us himself for food and drink and life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)
May we all let our feet be guided into this Way. Amen.