Love: Christmas is Spiritual

Luke 1:67-79

This may come as no surprise to some of you, but I’m a big fan of musicals. When I was a little girl, I must have watched The Sound of Music and The Music Man hundreds of times. Some people don’t like musicals because they think it’s weird that people just burst into song in the middle of regular life. And that’s a fair point. Because often in a musical, the song doesn’t drive the plot forward. You could do the whole show without the song. Very often, the songs in a musical are designed the highlight an important moment. They are times to pause and emphasize that something important is happening. 

That’s what I want you to imagine as we read this morning’s verses. They don’t drive the plot forward. They are designed to make you pause and highlight an important moment. And they have a little bit of foreshadowing for what’s coming later.

Last week we heard the song that Mary sings after she learns that she is going to be the mother of Jesus. That story is the filling in the sandwich that is Luke chapter 1. And the bread on either side of that filling is the story of the birth of John the Baptist. Born to Elizabeth and Zechariah, a childless couple in their old age, a couple who both come from the line of Jewish priests stretching all the way back to Moses’s brother Aaron, a couple who are both filled with the Holy Spirit and speak prophetically about their son and his purpose in the world. Their son, John, whose name means God is merciful. 

This week we are going to hear the song or the prophecy that Zechariah gives at the naming ceremony of his son. For just a minute, the action slows and the spotlight narrows on a proud father, a deeply devoted man, who has a vision of the future. Here’s what he sings. This is Luke chapter 1, verses 66 through 80.

Zechariah, John’s father, was filled with the Holy Spirit and he spoke prophetically:

“Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and effected redemption for his people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David– just as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient times—
salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us:
showing mercy to our ancestors and remembering his holy covenant,
the vow that he make to our Abraham our ancestor
     to give us the capacity to serve him—
free of fear, rescued from the hand of our enemies—
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to ready his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins
owing to the compassionate mercy of our God.
By those mercies a dawn will visit us from on high
to shine on those who sit in darkness and in death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:67-79

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

Last week I told you that Lukes gospel announcements that Christmas is political. The birth of Jesus is the birth of the revolution and because he came, real life circumstances will change. This week Luke’s gospel announces that Christmas is spiritual.

In our culture it’s hard to understand how something could be both spiritual and political. One is personal and private and the other is communal and public. My spiritual commitment is just about me and Jesus but my political commitment is about what I think should happen in the world. In our culture, we sense a strong separation between what is private and what is public. And we have an ongoing tradition of a separation between the church and the state. So how can Christmas be both spiritual and political?

What we are going to see this morning and indeed all through Luke’s gospel for the next several months is that in the Christian worldview, the separation between what is spiritual and what is political doesn’t really exist. Remember what I said last week: the gospel is not partisan; it doesn’t belong to any one political party. But it does have real life implications for the way our systems should work, especially when it comes to power and hierarchy. The gospel is political, and the gospel is also spiritual. The gospel of Luke shows us how the spiritual and the political are connected. Jesus came to change everything.

Let me show you where we see that in the song of Zechariah. He starts by saying that Yahweh God has arrived and has effected redemption. This word “redemption” is one of several different metaphors that New Testament authors use to explain how God saves us. We think of redemption as something spiritual. But this word redemption in the ancient world refers to the cost of freeing a slave. The redemption was the amount needed to buy freedom. It was the ransom. So the first thing Zechariah says is that with the arrival of Jesus, God is paying the price of freedom for God’s people.

The next part says that God has raised up a horn of salvation, some of your translations might say “a mighty Savior.” Let me just pause here to tell you that throughout the Old Testament, a horn is always a symbol of strength, probably because strong animals have horns. This mighty savior is going to be a descendant of King David, because long ago God promised that King David’s dynasty would last forever, although obviously that hasn’t been the case for hundreds of years. Basically, Zechariah is saying that God is keeping God’s promises. What is happening now is the fulfillment of years of prophetic poetic promises.

And what kind of salvation is this going to be? What will it consist of? It will consist of God showing mercy to our ancestors, which means that the mercy God is showing us reaches back through time. And it will also consist of God remembering God’s covenant, God’s promise to Abraham, which was what? That all of Abraham’s descendants would be blessed to be a blessing to the world. That was God’s part of the covenant promise. That is what God has remembered and what God is doing now.

And what happens when God fulfills this promise? When God fulfills the promise that we are blessed to be a blessing, we will have the capacity to serve God without fear. To serve God without fear in holiness and righteous. Jesus came to give us the capacity to serve God fearlessly. Not afraid of God and not afraid of the forces that stand in opposition to God. Fearlessly. All our days.

So far Zechariah has been prophesying about Jesus, but now he begins to speak about his son John. John, whose name means God is merciful, John’s calling is to prepare the way for Jesus. He will do that by proclaiming salvation, giving the people the knowledge of salvation, telling them salvation is possible. This was John’s mission. Before Jesus had any kind of public ministry, John was inviting people to repent, to change, and to demonstrate that change by being baptized, which was a symbol of the forgiveness of their sins. Hence his title, John the Baptist. John was proclaiming salvation and forgiveness of sins before Jesus. This is important. Before Jesus went to the cross, he told people their sins were forgiven. And before Jesus told people their sins were forgiven, John was baptizing people to demonstrate that their sins were forgiven because of the compassionate mercy of God. 

That’s the key right there. The compassionate mercy of God and I want to pause here for just a minute. I’ll be honest with you guys that this section is hard to translate. It’s clear that someone is giving the knowledge of salvation to God’s people. It’s clear that there is forgiveness of the people’s sins. And it’s clear that there is compassionate mercy from God. How all those things are connected and what order they go in is hard to suss out in the original language. But we spend a lot of time and energy on this, on HOW salvation works precisely, what order things must happen in and the mechanisms God uses. But I’ll tell you that because nobody actually speaks this language anymore and because you can never perfectly translate one language into another, there’s quite a bit of room for disagreement on the HOW of salvation, on the mechanics. Here’s what I think we can focus on: the compassionate mercy of God. And just to prove to you how tricky language can be, what that literally says is “through the guts of mercy of our God.” Guts. Luke uses this word only one other time and when he does he’s referring to real intestines.

We talk about emotions being in our heart. In the ancient world, people talked about emotions being in their guts, which makes sense if you think about what emotions feel like in your body. The most intense emotions, we feel in our gut. And here Luke says that God’s mercy comes from God’s guts. This is the spiritual message: we are being saved, we are being set free from all our enemies, we are being renewed in our calling of being blessed to be a blessing. We are being forgiven. And all of that comes about because of God’s gut-level mercy. Think about this: forgiveness costs somebody something. When we forgive, we choose to absorb an offense or an injury. Forgiveness means giving up our right for revenge. Instead we pay the cost ourselves.

So when God forgives, it costs God something. Please please don’t jump straight to Jesus on the cross dying for our sins quite yet. That’s not what I’m saying. There’s more to it than that. Just for a moment, think about God’s love for us. This is the week in Advent when we talk about love. To love someone is to be made vulnerable to them, isn’t it? The people who can hurt you the most are the people you love the most. That’s the risk we take when we choose to love. God’s love for us makes God vulnerable to us. We can hurt God through the choices we make about how to live in the world, how we treat others, how we treat God. That’s what it is to love.

And so when we hurt God, as we inevitably do, and God forgives us, that costs God something. God absorbs the injury in Godself instead of taking revenge on us. Why? Because God loves us. Because God is merciful. There’s that word again. It’s shown up in our readings every week for a month now. Mercy. As in “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Mercy is one of the key attributes of God. It’s a small word with huge meaning: covenant loyalty, faithful lovingkindness, pity compassion, goodness, favor. The name John means God is merciful. And mercy is the emotion that resides in the guts of God. Because of that gut-level mercy, God is willing to absorb the hurts we dish out. God forgives, God absorbs the injury instead of taking revenge on us. That’s the knowledge of salvation.

What happens to us when we finally get that, when we finally understand what kind of salvation God is offering us, when we finally trust that it’s real and we don’t have to earn it? Let’s look at the end of the song again.

Through the gut-level mercy of our God, 
the Sunrise from on high will come upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet in the way of shalom.”

What happens when we are saved? Light. Banishing our darkness. Breaking forth on us who are just sitting in the dark because we can’t see where to go next. Salvation is the dawn, pushing back the darkness and illuminating the path to shalom, to peace, to wholeness, to God’s intention for the flourishing of all creation. Shalom is God’s dream for the world. When we are saved, rescued, healed, we are free to pursue God’s dream for the world.

The word forgiveness is the word release, and we are going to talk about it quite a bit in a few weeks. To have our sins forgiven is to be released from our sins. In whatever way you are still trying to pay for your sins by shaming yourself or trying to earn God’s love, the message is that you are released from that. Stop it. It’s not necessary. God is merciful. 

We must be released because we can’t pursue God’s dream for the world if we are still in bondage to sin. We can’t pursue God’s dream for the world if we are still shaming ourselves. We can’t pursue God’s dream for the world if we are deliberately harboring unforgiveness for someone who has injured us. We can’t pursue God’s dream for the world if we are still afraid of God. This is a spiritual message: by the gut-level mercy of God, we are released from our sins. Why? Here comes the political message: so we can get busy pursuing God’s dream of peace for the world. So we can serve God fearlessly, taking on the power structures that block God’s plan of all creation flourishing. Christmas is political. And Christmas is spiritual. Transformed people will transform the world. Be released from your sins and set your feet on the path of peace for all the world. Amen.

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