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St. Paul’s – Advent 2 – 12/5/2021

What have we been hearing in the past couple of years?

We swaggered and bragged about our self-sufficiency, our competency. We’re in control! we said. Sure, the White House is clueless, but soon the government may get its act together. We’re making progress! Doing just fine on our own, thank you. 

Then…, Your cheery claims of human potency, self-help positivity, and competence… are silly, Death said. Now, I’m in charge. 

We would turn on the evening news and feel numbed by the body bags in Mexico, Monrovia, or Manhattan.

We’ve put everything we’ve got into this little business, she said. 100,000 before the end of May, fake news! 

We are so sorry. We’re going to have to turn off the ventilator, we’ve done all that medical science can.

There was Ahmaud Arbery, stalked and gunned down while jogging. We protested, we condemned, but then, so shortly thereafter, George Floyd was murdered, knee on the neck, by white men with badges. Thousands took to the streets, it really seemed as if we were at a turn in history where the people could be transforming the course of events. If we work together, if we speak out, we can accomplish so much.

We accomplished…much…but we also learned the limits of our collective powers. These problems are deep, seemingly intractable.

The Social activist says….We’re talking about four hundred years of white supremacy. We didn’t get into this injustice overnight; we’ll not get out of it overnight, says the social activist. In spite of my good intentions and commitment to the cause. I felt overwhelmed at that thought. 

We link arms and say, We’re all in this together!

Death says, No you’re not. Look at the numbers. You think health care is a right and accessibility to medical help is equal for all?

We said. We’ll be better people after this. Think of the scientific advances! Invite someone of another race for coffee. We can beat this! 

Deaths in our country alone, soaring to over 200,000 and the best we’ve got in response is a bunch of sappy, sentimental bromides?

Try saying, She’ll live on in our memories, and see if it makes up for, We’ll never hear Mama laugh again. 

Conquering Death smirks, Go ahead. Accomplish your little projects, overcome life’s obstacles, accumulate stuff, publish a book, eventually I’ll still be able to say triumphantly, ‘Gotcha.

Stock car driver Bubba Wallace, last year stood up and spoke out as an African American on the NASCAR circuit, speaking about the need for fans and drivers to do the hard work for racial justice. Bubba’s father warned him against it, concerned that his son was underestimating the virulence of white supremacy in NASCAR fans.

A few weeks later, Bubba opened his garage and found a hangman’s noose there.

We take a step forward, two steps back. Sincere people sincerely work hard to make things better, only to feel defeated and despondent.

A microscopic cell, cousin of the common cold, steals in to teach the truth the church tried to tell us on Ash Wednesday: From dust you have come and to dust you will return.

You can do anything you decide to do. The world is yours! proclaimed the speakers at high school and college commencements. The speech was given virtually, graduates watched from home, unable to hear the speech in person. Can it be that there are limits to human potential?

Yes, there are limits. And we’ve been in a season when our natural, perfectly understandable, innate limits have been peculiarly, undeniably evident. Let’s be honest: we need help. We are unable to help ourselves by ourselves. God has given us a range of competencies for most human challenges. But let us come face-to-face with a virus we haven’t met before or have us try to address a problem like systemic, historic racism, or the cancer that will not heal, or the marriage that can’t be saved and we,  as if our circumstances drive us into brutal honesty about our true condition: We need help.

Did you note? There is a theme running through all of this Sunday’s scripture. I’ll state that common theme in this way: God is coming to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. 

Especially do we hear this them in this morning in the Song of Zechariah. Elizabeth and Zechariah were very old, childless which, in their time and place meant that they were without a future because children were the Near Eastern equivalent of our Social Security system. And is there any situation more unchangeable, in that time and place, than childlessness?

And it was to these two older adults who were powerless to change their situation, that God somehow gave the news of a divine intervention, God making a way when they thought there was no way

John the Baptist, the Advent prophet who cried, Prepare the way of the Lord, has his way prepared when his aging parents get the news that they are, wonder of wonders, going to have a baby. John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,

Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,… He has brought salvation from our enemies…He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant… He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies…. the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace. 

In truth, we are not as competent and able as we would like to think. Even to those of us who are fairly well-off, there comes that time when we need help, deliverance, salvation, mercy, rescue, and guidance, all the godly gifts that are promised in Zechariah’s song.

We come here to church, despairing in our own incapabilities, stumbling in our darkness, not knowing which step to take next, or else going down for the third time, at the end of our rope, gasping for air, lacking hope for tomorrow. And here, in Advent, we are met by an active God who, according to Zechariah’s song, helps, delivers, saves, rescues, and guides.

Zechariah thought that he and his aged wife Elizabeth were now in the last years of their lives. They had hoped for a child but now there’s nothing they can do to make that happen. If there’s going to be a future for them, it will have to be not of their own devising. They must have help from outside themselves and their efforts.

And in the near miraculous gift of a child, John, this old couple receives some unbelievably good news: help is on the way. And so Zechariah breaks into song about a God who not only loves, but whose love is love in action, a God who helps, delivers, saves, rescues, and guides.

The great heresy of our time, at least in the light of the Advent Gospel, is to imagine that God is loving, caring, and empathetic without a presence, and never gets around to actually doing anything. This is the Deist God of distance and aloofness. This aloof, Deist God says from on high. I’ve set up a fine and beautiful world for them. I’ve given them the Commandments. Now, they’re on their own.

Zechariah sings of a different God, a God who is not only loving and caring but a God who is pro nobis, God for us. And because that’s the sort of God who is, rather than the distant, inactive gods we imagined, Zechariah wants us to join him in his gospel song: Help is on the way. 

Hear me now. I didn’t say that help from God always comes when we want it, on our schedule, or in the exact form that we think we must have it. God’s help is not on our demand or at our command. Nevertheless, as one of my Favorite Gospel Songs says: God May Not Come When You Want Him, But He Is Always RightOn Time We are to believe that Zechariah’s song is true. God is not only the one who has created us and the world, not only the one who loves, but the one who is being born among us, Jesus Christ, the one who helps, delivers, saves, rescues, and guides. I don’t know the particular darkness in which you may be wandering at the moment.

I don’t know which national, political, social issues cause you the most consternation and pain in the present age. I can’t know the secret challenge that looms before you that seems insurmountable.

All I know is this: Zechariah’s song is true. We’ve got a God who is coming among us as Jesus Christ, the one who, in word and deed, in his life and death, in his rising and reigning, is God with us as the one who helps, delivers, saves, rescues, and guides. Herein is our hope in an often helpless, hopeless time: Help is on the way. 

Let us pray:

Come Lord, Jesus, Come quickly. 

We wait, we hope, we yearn. 

Come, find a people who wander in the wilderness. 

Come, bring hope to folk who have given up hoping. 

Come, be light to our darkness. 

Come, speak a word into our deadly silence. 

Come, help us in those ways that we are, 

by our sin and frailty, unable to help ourselves, 

Come, and do your saving work among us 

that we are unable to do for ourselves. 

Come, Lord Jesus. 

We wait for you, 

even when we don’t know that you are that for which we are awaiting. 

Come to us. 

Amen+