Malachi 3:1-4, Song of Zechariah, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip and Lysanias,
By listing those names like that, St. Luke is writing like a typical historian of the Roman Empire. St. Luke is evidently writing for a Gentile public.
And by the movement in those names from the emperor to the high priest he moves us from the global to the local, from the universal to the particular, in order to say that this particular local story has global and universal significance. And just the mention of Tiberius implies a significance is both political and personal.
You could not escape Tiberius. His face was on their coins. His life story was well known. In his childhood, his father had to surrender his mother Livia to Caesar Augustus for his new wife, and thus Tiberius became Caesar’s stepson, although they never liked each other. Tiberius led his stepfather’s legions from Spain to Germany to Armenia, putting kings on thrones and crowns on their heads. He earned the Roman titles of Lord and Savior. For dynastic reasons, Augustus made him divorce the wife he loved and marry his stepsister, Julia, beautiful and cruel and shamelessly profligate. Augustus adopted him as his heir, and Tiberius succeeded as Caesar in A.D. 14, the most powerful man in that part of the world.
Fifteen years after that, when John the Baptist stepped up, Tiberius was a famously miserable man. By this time he was living in self-imposed exile on an island – while still in power. He hated the city of Rome, he hated its Senate and its populace, he hated his officials, he hated his heir Caligula, he hated his wife, he hated his life, and everybody hated him back, even though, as he knew, they’d declare him a god posthumously. He hated that too. So powerful and yet so trapped, so bound.
Neither was Pontius Pilate free. We all know the story of how he was manipulated by the crowd. So poorly did he govern the impossible province of Judea that he got recalled to Rome and there committed suicide. As for Herod and his brother Philip, they could not get free of other, but plotted against each other and slept with each others’ wives. And the high priests Annas and Caiaphas just showed what Roman puppets they were when they told Pilate that they had no king but Caesar and denied the claims of the God they served. Bondage, both outward and inward, political and personal. The constrictions of the state and the compulsions of your soul.
Freedom. Freedom is precious and rare. What kind of freedom should you be desiring? The cue for freedom is from the Song of Zechariah, which we just read. This is the Zechariah who was the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest, and he was old. He and his wife Elizabeth had had no children. Like Abraham and Sarah. They represented the emptiness of everyone in Israel, their lives of quiet desperation.
But then Elizabeth, in her old age, like Sarah, got pregnant, and when she gave birth to John, this song came out of Zechariah’s mouth. It’s a freedom song: “God has come to set his people free, free to worship him without fear, all the days of our life.” You see, Zechariah had always to do his priestly duties under the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers from their fortress on the Temple wall.
Today is the first in my little sermon series on the songs of Advent. I mean the songs we call the Canticles. A canticle is a hymn taken from the Bible but other than the Psalms. St. Luke gives us four of them: the Canticles of Zechariah, of Mary, of the Heavenly Host, and of Simeon. It’s like St. Luke sees the first two chapters of the Gospel as a musical, and his characters break out in song. The birth of Jesus means new songs from old men and young women and from angels too. It’s no wonder that Christmas is such a musical holiday–St. Luke started it.
I recite the Canticle of Zechariah every morning when I pray, along with many millions of other Christians who follow the great tradition of Morning Prayer. We do this because of the wonderfully contradictory thing it does: it gives us words to pray, at the same time as silencing our own thoughts and putting at rest our need to come up with our own words. It’s liberating. Already in the morning.
The canticle is in two parts, with the eyes of Zechariah heavenward, and then looking down at his son. The first half is the song of an old priest recalling the past and its promises and prophecies, as from Malachi 3, now suddenly to be fulfilled. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.” “Baruch Adonai Elohey Yisroel.” He’s quoting the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple. He sings of freedom several times: free from our enemies, free from the hands of those who hate us, free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship without fear, free to be holy, and free to be righteous in God’s sight.
This is that outward public freedom, the political freedom from oppression, which is very much the interest of the gospel. But to attain it the gospel never offers an outward political strategy (other than the church being the church), but rather the inward freedom of your personal liberation by the forgiveness of your sins, and the dawn upon your darkness to break the shadow of your death, and to guide your feet into the way of peace. It makes the political personal.
And I love how personal it gets. “And you my child.” It’s sweeter in Spanish, “Y tu niño.” It gets that personal every morning in our prayers. Me too, God’s child, you too, this freedom is for you.
What freedom should you desire? The freedom of worship, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, the freedom from want, the freedom from fear. The thousands and thousands of refugees remind us how rare and precious these freedoms are, so you dare not take them for granted. And Biblical people must desire these political freedoms for all the people of the world.
Freedom from guilt, freedom from unforgiven sin. This is offered to you for the taking, and no government can take it from you. You get this freedom through repentance. That’s the message of Advent as a penitential season, that repentance is not a burden but a liberation. You recount your sin to God as a way of giving it up to God, who takes it away from you, and replaces it with light.
I’ve been asking myself all week what is the freedom that I’m most desiring. And it came to me that what I desire is the freedom to keep believing, in spite of all the misery and violence that seems unabated in the world. The freedom to worship, not because of any restrictions by the government, but because of the noise of guns and cries of the children and the grieving of the nations. How can we still say that God is good? How can we say that Jesus is Lord? Where’s the evidence of it? The world makes no less sense if none of it is true. Some things make more sense. Not all, but some.
These things can be argued; you could argue for all the good work in the world that so many Christians do, but so do many who are not Christians, and look how much damage Christians do. Why does God allow God’s own people to be violent and racist and sexist and homophobic and Islamophobic? So what I desire is my inner freedom to still believe and our communal freedom to keep on worshiping.
Freedom from frustration, with the church and with the nation, and even frustration with myself. Freedom from the festering of anger and the cultivation of anger and being possessed by anger. Freedom from fear for the planet and fear for our future. Freedom from the darkness that thickens every morning with the news. Freedom in all of this to still believe, freedom in all of this to say that God is good, freedom to maintain that forgiveness still is right.
Freedom to trust in God. Freedom to wait on God. Freedom to worship God while waiting for God. Advent is for both repentance and waiting. Longing. Desiring.
You want to wait but not as passivity.
You want to be silent but not as denial.
You want to be still but not as dead.
You want the freedom to say Yes in all the Negation.
You want the freedom to be joyful anyway.
You want the freedom to believe that God is love, and that love wins because God wins, and it does take mental freedom to believe that. God gives you the freedom.
God waits. Love waits. That’s what love does. You have the room and the time and the space to cultivate your longing and desiring. Do it. The greater your desire for God, the more you will know God’s love.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.