Cultivating Love

Luke 1, 1 Corinthians 13

This morning we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Throughout the seasons of Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent we will be studying the Gospel of Mark. But Mark is not a gospel to study during Advent because it has nothing about the birth and early life of Jesus. Mark is an adventure novel that starts up in the middle of the action. So this morning we are going to spend a little time in the gospel of Luke instead. This is the spiritual biography of Jesus that we read most often at Advent and Christmas. But this morning we are going to read a story that we don’t always get to hear. Although it’s a New Testament story, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear some very Old Testament themes in it. Like an older couple who have no children and are promised a miracle child. And a prophecy. And especially the theme of waiting. 

So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book

Scripture Reading: Luke 1: 5-25, 57-80

Narrator 1: In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.  Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Narrator 2: Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: 

Angel: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”                         

Narrator 1:  Zechariah asked the angel:

Zechariah: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 

Angel: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Narrator 1: Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. She said:

Elizabeth: “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Narrator 2: When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, 

Elizabeth: “No! He is to be called John.”

Narrator 1: They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

Zechariah: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David as he said through his holy prophets of long ago,
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Message— 

Advent is a season about waiting, and it’s very appropriate that Christians have a season devoted to the spiritual discipline of waiting because we humans are so bad at it. Or perhaps I should say we just hate it so much. When we are waiting, we usually don’t have any other choice and so the question becomes HOW are we waiting? What is the state of our hearts and minds and spirits as we wait? Are we angry and impatient? Or are we using the waiting time to try to cultivate more hope, peace, joy, and love in ourselves and in the world? 

I really sympathize with Zechariah in this story. As a priest he is responsible for ordering worship that keeps his people connected to God as they wait for the arrival of the Messiah and the redemption of their nation. There’s a span of more than 500 years between last week’s and this week’s story, and the people are still waiting for what they believe God promised them. Yes, some of them came back from Exile. But not all of them. And they never again had a king from David’s line to sit on the throne. And they were never again as powerful and influential as they once were. So they kept waiting. 

Zechariah and Elizabeth had been waiting at least 25 years for a child. If we assume Elizabeth was in her teens when they got married, which would have been common, and in this story she’s old enough that a pregnancy is unlikely but not impossible, it’s been a couple decades at minimum. So when Gabriel announced that a baby’s on the way, I understand Zechariah’s skepticism and hesitation. Zechariah responds with, “How do I KNOW this is real?” And you know what Gabriel says? Gabriel says, “What I have brought you is good news. You don’t get to know ‘know.’ You only get to ‘trust.'” The English word used here is “believe,” and I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I’m saying that’s a very cognitive, brain-oriented way to translate a word that also means faith and trust. 

So back to the question for us this morning: “How are we waiting?” Because most of us are waiting for something. I know I am. Sam and I are waiting for something very specific, and to be honest with you, I’m getting tired, and I’m getting impatient. And I would really like to KNOW exactly when this baby is coming. But I don’t get to know. I only get to trust. 

See, anxiety and impatience and skepticism take up a lot of room in our minds and in our hearts. They create what we might call sideways energy. Instead of putting our energy into something creative and restorative and productive as we wait, all that good energy is leaking out sideways in our anxiety and our impatience. Some of us may even feel a little bit angry that whatever it is we are waiting for hasn’t happened yet. 

This morning I want to invite us to consider what it would be like to wait with a sense of trust instead of a sense of resentment. Let’s imagine together what we could do in our waiting if we had access to all of our good energy. I imagine that what we could do in our waiting would be to cultivate some love. 

Which sounds really nice. Everybody loves love. Love is great! We love to talk about love. But the invitation for us in a season of waiting is not simply to talk about love, but to do love. And that is not always so easy. Even with the people that we already love, much less with all those other people. Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies is the most difficult and the most revolutionary of all his invitations. This is the one that will actually change the world. And it’s the hardest because it’s the one where we personally have the most to lose. Because when we truly love, there is simply no room for our ego. 

Imagine with me for a second someone who just really bugs you. Maybe it’s someone to whom you are related in some way and in the next several days you will have the wonderful opportunity to practice this spiritual discipline in person. Maybe it’s a national figure, someone you’ve never met, but you’ve already made up your mind about this person. Maybe it’s just someone at school. But take a second. I’d really like everyone to have someone in mind. 

OK, got that person? Now ask yourself what it would be like for you to be patient with that person. Not eye-rolling, not snarking, but allowing them to take the time that they need for whatever they’re doing. What would it be like for you to be kind? That word has the same root as the word Christ. What would it be like for you to act as Christ would act towards that person? What would it be like for you to be not easily provoked by that person? To not let them get under your skin? And here’s the one that gets me: what if you absolutely did not keep track at all of anything they did wrong? 

Let’s be honest, that would not be easy. That would take all the energy we had, because we would have to constantly be thinking about that other person and allowing our own egos to die a little more each moment. Friends, the only way to cultivate love is by loving, by doing the concrete things that demonstrate to other people that we are invested in their welfare, in their shalom, in their wholeness, in their peace.

One reason Advent is such a powerful season for Christians is because it reminds us that we are still waiting for Jesus to arrive. He came once, and as we wait for that each year, we remember that we are still waiting for him to come again and make everything new. One day Christ will come again to set everything right and do away with all of our ugliness. No matter what else we are waiting for, we are all waiting for that. And we have a choice about how we wait. We can be skeptical and wonder if he’s ever really coming. We can be impatient and anxious and spend our time complaining about the state of the world now. Or we can trust that although it’s been a very long time, God will make good on God’s promises. And we can use this waiting time to cultivate love in our lives, for the sake of the world that God so loves. Amen.

Reflection:

We trust that God is love
and that we are called to love one another.

We will act with patience. We will be kind.

We will not envy, we will not brag,
we will act with humility.

We will honor others
and let them have their own way.

We will not be easily angered
and we will keep no record of wrongs. 

We will not delight in evil.
We will rejoice with the truth. 

With God’s help we will bear all things,
trust all things, hope all things, endure all things.

We will not love with only words or speech.
We will love with our actions and in truth.

For we are persuaded that God’s love never fails.

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