Formations 12.15.2019: Sitting in Darkness

Otets at lb.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Luke 1:57-64, 67-80

Jim McClellan of Marin, California, is co-founder of a logistics software company. In a recent article, he discusses how he and his family have coped with the frequent power outages his state has endured in the wake of this fall’s numerous wildfires. He concedes that, compared to those who have lost everything to fires, only suffering power outages is a minor inconvenience.

Furthermore, he has discovered that the loss of light and power has offered his family an opportunity to reflect. He writes:

How much of the world, we wondered, lives with blackouts—or simply no electricity—nearly every day? We decided that it was probably around a billion people. That’s close to three times the population of our entire country, or roughly one in seven people on the planet.

That notion certainly didn’t make a cold shower any warmer, but it did create a sense of calm acceptance and even belonging which can be elusive these days. When the world is so heavily influenced by social media, it’s easy to feel both connected and isolated at the same time. But that sense of digital connection can often feel tenuous, as if it’s not rooted in anything real.

Sometimes we need to sit in darkness before we can appreciate the light. McClellan goes on to describe how his children gained a deeper understanding of the struggles of others through the temporary setback of a blackout.

It’s the same, I think, with Advent. On the Christian calendar, every season of celebration comes after a more somber season of preparation and repentance. Before we can exult in the joys of Christmas, we must walk with the prophets, John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth, and others who only longed for what we possess in Christ.

That’s how Advent sharpens our appreciation of what Christmas is all about. It adjusts our priorities by turning us away from self and toward others. It helps us be more compassionate, especially to those who have relatively little. It trains us to defer joy until the time is ripe. And it drives home the difference that Jesus makes.

With that in mind, let’s consider Zechariah’s song of praise, which says in part:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Lk 1:78-79)

God gives light to those who sit in darkness. Where do you find darkness in our world? Where do you find darkness in yourself? What do you want to do about these things this Advent season?

Jim McClellan, “Light in the Darkness,” KQED.org, 21 Nov 2019 <https://www.kqed.org/perspectives/201601139290/light-in-the-darkness>.

Discussion

• When have you experienced a power outage? How did you cope with the lack of power and light? What, if anything, did you learn from this experience?
• Note the contrasts in this passage: silence and speaking, enemies and a Savior, the nation and the individual, darkness and light. How does Luke invoke these opposites to tell the story of Jesus?

Reference Shelf

Benedictus

Zechariah’s song of praise in Luke 1:68-79, which opens with a blessing of the God of Israel, is called the Benedictus (Latin for “blessed”). According to this poetic passage of celebration, Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, will become the prophet who links the covenant of Abraham (Gen 12) with the new Kingdom of salvation about to be initiated. According to Zechariah, John’s birth exemplifies the divine faithfulness that began with Abraham and continued through King David and the prophets. Even though of priestly descent, John will serve in the prophetic tradition to prepare the way for the Lord (Jesus) soon to appear in Israel. When seen in the context of both Luke’s larger narrative about the infant Jesus and his entire Gospel, Zechariah’s hymn of praise serves also to cast John in the role of a messenger of forgiveness, a theme emphasized by the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel. Any conflict thought to have existed between the followers of Jesus and the followers of John is smoothed over by Luke’s literary diplomacy. Whereas Jesus is the Son of the Most High (1:32), John is the prophet of the Most High (1:76). Their message is the same: forgiveness. John will preach it; Jesus will bring it into being in his Kingdom.

Joe E. Barnhart, “Benedictus,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 97.

The Crowd

The crowd of relatives…thinks that they have the right to name the baby. Because none of them, Elizabeth’s relatives, has the name “John,” they try to veto her choice. Turning to Zechariah for support, they make hand motions to him—do they think he is deaf as well as mute?—and somehow communicate that they want to know his choice for a name—have they lost their powers of speech, since they, too, are disobeying the angel’s command? Zechariah solves the problem, asking for a writing tablet, and writing, “John is his name.” And they are all amazed—at what? That the mother and father had already agreed on a name? Or that they were not able to carry the day by trying to name him “Zechariah”? The point is that they are clueless to God’s plan and to how God has already been working, and because of their ignorance, they are trying to create problems. But—and this is one of Luke’s major themes—nothing can thwart God’s plan. Gabriel said “You will name him John,” and so that is what the aged couple does.

If the friends and relations were amazed by the name, they are floored by what happens next. Zechariah, mute for nine months, now lets fly, praising God with his newly opened mouth and tongue. The crowd’s reaction is instructive: they are afraid. Of what? Surely not of Zechariah’s words, since only moments before they, too, had been praising God for divine mercy to Elizabeth. They are afraid of this demonstration of power, of God’s ability to strike a man mute or to loose his tongue, realizing that it could happen to them. Had they been able to enforce their will, and to hijack the naming of the baby, they never would have seen this small miracle. Perhaps they are hearing the whiff, the near miss of God’s judgment; do they realize that Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s faithfulness to the angel’s command has saved them, possibly, from being struck mute themselves?

The crowd, then, switches quickly from being joyous co-celebrants of God’s mercy to being parochial obstructionists, insisting that the future prophet must be named after one of them, to being amazed by Elizabeth and Zechariah for following God’s command rather than their suggestion, to being afraid once they had seen God’s power and mercy exercised on someone in their line of sight. It all happens so fast, and it is all so understated (Luke knows not to explain a joke), and their exit lines leave them still clueless, wondering what this child would become, wandering all over the hill country of Judea talking about their incomprehension. Had they stuck around for the song, they could have learned something.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 47–48.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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