A song for those in need
Sunday, December 3, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00
Three millennials sat on a bench outside the Pluralism Centre on Sussex Drive in Ottawa at the end of June. The three of them were conversing about the events of the day before, comparing notes. I was at the end of the bench, somewhat separated from them for a moment, but I listened to the three of them. All of them had attended the Millennial Summit for Faith in Canada 150 that I’ve mentioned before. Each of them were reflecting on events of the day before. One of them was called Zara. Zara was a Muslim from Vancouver, who had come a long way to attend the event. She brought with her a great passion for her faith. Sitting next to her on the bench was Bhante, a monk within the Buddhist tradition. He had also come from some distance, but I don’t know the exact place, and was wearing his monk’s robes. Sitting next to them was Alex, who was from Ontario, a graduate student at Oxford University at Brasenose College. The events of the day before were characterized by a profound discussion about the spiritual importance of light.
What was fascinating was that all three of them brought to the discussion a fascinating insight into light as it relates to faith. Zara talked about nur, nur being the light of God in Islam, hence the reason why we have the Noor Centre on Eglinton Avenue, here in Toronto. Bhante talked about light in the imagination emanating from the Buddha, and quoted a magazine, “To me, the purpose of faith is to help everyone go from darkness to light, and from light to light.” Alex, the Anglican, surprised me. He did not talk about what I thought would be the classic text of light. Rather, he referred to today’s passage from Zachariah and Luke Chapter 1: “And a new dawn of salvation will rise upon us.” I then entered into their discussion, for that day, I was going to be presenting. I was fascinated by their views and their outlook. I spoke to Alex afterwards, wondering why he was so clear on the Zachariah Song, and why what we know as The Benedictus, was so important. The point he was trying to make was that the light is incarnate in the Son of God, and that a new dawn had arisen when Christ came, a new dawn that rises and sets and seals itself on the world. The light for him was not an idea; the light was not imagination; the light was concretely in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. We all went for coffee and compared notes, and it was clear that Alex was very profound. Bhante and Zara listened carefully to him. Why? Because light is a powerful thing, and the reason Zachariah wrote this incredible prayer to his son shines so brightly amongst the constellation of Christian texts because it speaks freely of the essence of the things that we believe.
Zachariah wrote these words to his son, John the Baptist. He saw that his son would serve the Most High God, and he would do so by preparing the way for “the new dawn” that was to break upon the world. He knew that the Messiah was coming, and that his son would be the one to prepare the way for the arrival of the Son. He, of course, had no idea of the suffering that John the Baptist would experience as a result of preparing the way of the Lord, for he hoped simply that his son might fulfill the wishes and the dreams of Israel and the new dawn that would come from the salvation of God. It was a magnificent passage! Whenever I read The Benedictus I think, forgive me, of Michael Buble’s song, A New Dawn, A New Day, A New Life for Me, originally written by Anthony Newley in 1965. I think of his words in that incredible song and it becomes my ear-worm for the sermon, because it was in many ways Zachariah’s song for his son: a new day, a new dawn, and a new life for everyone.
So what is its power this Advent? Is there anything that Zachariah, in writing this song in first century Israel, says to the world now that is prophetic and powerful? Why would we even bother reading the words of Zachariah today? Because the themes, the ideas, the power it conveys is timeless. His words are powerful in themselves, because they speak of lifting oppression. Be under no illusion, first century Israel and Judah were dark places. They were being governed by the Romans, and as we know from Scripture, the Romans were not particularly benign to the people of Israel. There was an accommodation of sorts between them, but the power of Rome, the power of Caesar rested upon the people of God, who had been liberated many times before, from the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and even the Greek power of Alexander the Great had left it imprimatur on the souls of the people of Israel. And then, along come the Romans! Zachariah believes that the coming of the Messiah would take away the oppression that was on his nation. It was more than just a physical and a political oppression, it was spiritual in nature. Oppression often holds people down and subjugates them. So he is praying that his son, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for the Messiah to come and break the yoke of oppression, setting the people free.
What language does he use to do this? He talks about our knowledge of salvation. What he is referring to, of course, is our knowledge of God. He says that the coming of this new dawn, this new light, is a new dawn and a new light that will reveal God in a new way. Why is it needed? Because, the dominant views of God were not the views that Zachariah believed his son, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for him. Because of Alexander the Great and the Greek Empire, there was a popular belief that God was remote and detached. This God according to Plato, had no real divine attributes as we find in the bible, but simply existed as if distant from the world. If you get on a subway and talk to people about God today, I am sure you will find many people who think like the Greeks. They will ascribe to a general belief that there is a deity, but then dismiss anything in particular about that deity. They will just say that there is a god, god exists, and that is that!
In the time of Zachariah there was also a belief that God was ultimately a God of judgement and fear, a God who was waiting for you to trip-up and catch you out. The Pharisee-ism of certain leaders in first century Israel and Judah was very legalistic, to the point that it was waiting for everyone to commit a sin, and then judge them accordingly. People lived in fear of this deity that would oppress, catch them out, and judge them harshly. Did you go on the subway today? Did you sit next to someone and ask them what God is like? I bet you will find those who will tell you, “God is a God who I live in fear of. He judges. He crushes.” You will find people who believe that is the very nature of God, and that God is not only to be feared in an awesome sense, but feared in a legal sense for the sins that we have committed.
You will find others who will have, as they did in the time of the Scriptures, a cultural god, which we see in the nexus between Herod and Caesar in The New Testament. Caesar, whose power in Rome, whose overwhelming sense of victory meant that people worshipped the Emperor cult, and Herod, who was complicit and participated in the oppression of his own people because of his accommodation with Roman power. You might like the way that Herod plays the guitar, but trust me, you must never ever like Herod himself. Herod is dark. There was a nexus of cultural power that was oppressing people – the poor and the lame and the outcasts – and this powerful force was given a god-like status. If you sit on a subway and you talk to people about power today, I am sure you will find that they sometimes grant god-like status to those who possess it.
It is not a far reach that Zachariah’s words were as relevant today as they were then. This was a sense of God, but a god that was not a saving god. The saving god, according to Zachariah, would be a god who would forgive sins, a god who was merciful, and a god who acted with compassion. He saw that his son, John the Baptist, was going to pave the way for this god of forgiveness of sin, of mercy and compassion. Do not misunderstand me, Zachariah was not saying this is a new god. On the contrary, he sees this as the fulfilment of everything that the people of Israel had hoped for. He refers to the ancestor David, to the oath that was made to Abraham. He begins all of this with praise to the God of Israel. No! This is not a new god, as is sometimes suggested by theologians today of a progressive sort. They think that somehow Jesus was a new god. No! It was the fulfilment of all the expectations and hopes and even fears and dreams of a nation that their God would rise as a new dawn and a new day of salvation, and would lift the oppression.
In the nineteenth century, the great Russian writer Theodore Dostoevsky was arrested. He was charged with sedition and other things, and along with a group of other prisoners, taken to be executed. A hood had been put over his head and he was lining up ready to be shot by a firing squad. A note arrived from the Czar, not forgiving Dostoevsky, but commuting his sentence to prison in Siberia. Dostoevsky had the hood removed from his head, and traumatized, as you can imagine, was put on a train to a Siberian prison. He was decimated, destroyed and frightened. A woman was on the train, and she gave him a copy of The New Testament. As Dostoevsky, for the first time really read The New Testament in fullness, his language is quite staggering. He said, “It was in reading this that a new dawn had come upon me.” Later on, Dostoevsky would write this: “If it was ever proved to me that Jesus Christ is not truth and I had to make a choice between the truth and Jesus Christ, even then I would choose Christ.”
That was the power of the new dawn on Theodore Dostoevsky. That is the lifting of oppression! That is the power of life! It is political, it is personal, and it is spiritual.
Zachariah saw that his son was going to prepare the way for the new dawn of Jesus of Nazareth. It is powerful stuff! He also saw that this light would rest upon us. The language near the end of this song is of a light resting upon the people, that the new dawn would come, and like in Malachi 4 and Isaiah 9, fulfil the wishes of the people, “That a light would shine in the darkness and the darkness would not put it out.” The light would rest upon people, give them hope, peace, and salvation.
I remember years ago reading a sermon by St. Augustine of Hippo, who is one of my heroes. When I was trying to find it, I went to Google and I typed in “St. Augustine on light”. Sure enough, something shot up: St. Augustine – light! Christmas trees! Parties! Lots of bright lights! I thought about this for a moment. Didn’t sound like the St. Augustine that I know of! Parties? Christmas trees? Lots of lights? So, I looked again, and sure enough, St. Augustine was the city in Florida. Ha, but methinks there is more to this than meets the eye! I subsequently found out from Google that St. Augustine, even by National Geographic standards, is known for having some of the brightest lights in Advent and Christmas anywhere in the world, and so, I thought, how aptly named the city is, because it is St. Augustine who talks so powerfully about light, and he does so in an imaginative way. He compares the dawn of light and the arrival of Christ to the healing of the blind man at the pool of Siloam. He says, “The man who was born blind, and therefore judged as having done something wrong by the Pharisees, when he was confronted by Christ and was healed from his blindness is a representation of humanity coming to the realization that in Christ, new light, new eyes, a new dawn is being given. St. Augustine brilliantly compares the blind man’s humanity and the arrival of Christ to the opening of eyes to see the truth and the glory of God for the first time. So, humanity sees a new dawn, and associates itself with the blind beggar to whom Christ gave sight. It is brilliant! If you ever want to read one of his sermons, they are online, and they are in John, Chapter 9.
As I thought about St. Augustine and that very image, I realized that is exactly what Zachariah is talking about. He of course did not know about the healings that Jesus of Nazareth performed when he prayed for his son, John the Baptist. It was before any of the manifestations of the life of Christ, though Luke in fairness in putting it in his Gospel, knew the whole story. It is powerful to note that both Augustine and Zachariah convey that the presence of Christ rests upon us and allows us to see God in an entirely new way – a new dawn, a new day, a new life! It is also a dawn and a life that rests on us to walk in the path of that light, and that peace. I think that people need to know that God is not remote, that God is not a vengeful and a fearful God, but a forgiving and a merciful one. I think they need to know that there can be no idols in culture that can replace the wonders of God in Christ, but I think they also need to learn how walk in peace.
This week is the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion, and anyone who has grown up in Nova Scotia and in Halifax, in particular, or lived there for any period of time as both I and Marial’s family did, realizes the impact of that explosion on the entire City of Halifax and Dartmouth as well. It was the moment during World War I when two ships: the SS Mont Blanc, from France, laden with explosive cargo on its way to Bordeaux, and the SS Imo, from Norway, on its way to Belgium, collided in Halifax harbour.
The force of the explosion killed two thousand people. Thousands more were injured. A whole Mi’kmaq village was swept away with a tsunami, and the devastation destroyed the whole of the north end of Halifax. It was colossal for this historic city. This was the largest explosion that has ever occurred outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! If you go to Fariview Cemetery and other places where victims of the explosion were buried, you will see yellow stakes in the ground, placed there to commemorate them.
The sea of yellow, makes you realize the impact of the explosion on human life. When one thinks we live in a world that has the capacity to duplicate the Halifax explosion exponentially to the nth degree, and when you think of the horror of war and violence; for all our supposed progressiveness as a human race, in the way the Rohingya, and the carnage and the potential for carnage, the world needs to think long and hard about how it is going to deal with what it has at its disposal and follow instead the path of peace. It is not as if Christ has done his work and left us to our own devices. The new dawn of Christ’s love this Advent needs to be reflected again and again. The dawn that came upon us revealing the God of our salvation needs to reveal himself again in the hearts and the minds of humanity that is forgetting its way. Maybe, this Advent our hope again, as it always will be, will be in the new dawn, and the new day, and the new life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Amen.