Written by Pastor Ed
Freedom Bound – The Path of Mercy
December 6, 2015 – Second Advent
One of the other lectionary readings, particularly for the Roman Catholic church, for this second Sunday in Advent is taken from the book of Baruch chapter 5, verses 1-9 which read like this:
5 Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
2 Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
3 for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
4 For God will give you evermore the name,
“Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”
5 Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look toward the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
6 For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
7 For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
8 The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
9 For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
The mercy of God, something we hear about and sing about quite a bit. “His mercies shall fore’er endure, till suns and moons shall shine no more.” God promised the children of Israel that they would return to their land, no matter what they had done. God, it seems is just an old softy at heart and will overlook almost anything.
And yet, Malachi portrays the messenger who is coming as like a refiner’s fire, burning away the evil in the world, and asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” And the portrayal of John the Baptist that we often see, and read about is of a rather tough character, I mean who eats locusts, and his words are often harsh ones.
How do we reconcile those two images? If we’re talking about freedom, then shouldn’t we just talk about mercy as being nice and letting people go free? Why would the lectionary people put these passages together on the same Sunday?
Let me suggest that indeed they have a place together. Somewhere I ran across an illustration that has stuck with me over the years and become a metaphor. It seems that people who live in floodplains, where rivers rise and fall on a regular basis know that after the river has crested and begins to recede, an important thing for them to do is to go into their buildings and keep the water stirred up. By doing so they keep the sediment in the water floating and it recedes with the water. If they don’t stir up the water, the sediment settles, stays behind and becomes a new floor that they have to chip off, sometimes with a great deal of effort.
Just as justice requires truth telling, so does mercy. Our scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke was the song of Zechariah. While we often cite Mary’s song, and will next week, and we often talk about John the Baptist, we don’t often focus on Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah was an aged priest, and like many others in the Biblical story, he and his wife, Elizabeth, were childless. And, up until this point in the story, Zechariah was mute – and had been for some time, at least nine months.
You see, when an angel had appeared to him one day in the temple and told him that he and Elizabeth were to have a son, well Zechariah was a bit skeptical, and as one commentator said, “Gabriel lost it a little bit, pointed the angelic clicker at Zechariah, and hit the ‘mute’ button.” It was only after the birth of their son and Zechariah’s naming him John that he suddenly found his voice and spoke this psalm.
Zechariah first recounts God’s goodness to the children of Israel and the mercy God has shown again and again to his people even in the face of their rebellion. God has been, and continues to be faithful to the covenant that stretches all the way back to Abraham. And now, declares Zechariah, this child, John, will be one to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
And then the beautiful image, often quoted from this passage. “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.” (Luke 1: 78-79 NRSV) John saw his son’s life as a breaking in of God’s mercy, a light that would shine into the dark places of the world and spread God’s mercy to those who were sitting in darkness.
We often see the message of John the Baptist as a rather harsh one, calling the people to repent and change their ways. But the reality is that John was offering light to those who sat in darkness, for it is only as those acts of darkness are brought to light that freedom can truly come. The claim of Christmas is that that light has come.
Our world is filled with places of darkness, and sometimes our lives are also filled with those places of darkness. We have been offered that light to shine in to those places of darkness and free us. Sometimes that means stirring up the water so that those things can be brought to the surface and washed away with the receding water. And that can be a painful and terrifying experience because there are often things that we would like to have remain hidden in the darkness.
But you will notice that God shines that light into the darkness, not to say, “Aha, I got you” but rather out of God’s tender mercy. When those dark places are revealed, we need to be ready to offer God’s light and mercy, to ourselves, as God has done, but also to others. We name those dark places, not to hold them over people’s heads, telling them how terrible they are, but to offer the tender mercy of God to them.
John came to show people the way of salvation; to bring that dawn of God’s mercy to bear on the dark places in the world. So what can we do in this season to prepare the way of the Lord and give people the knowledge of salvation? To quote another preacher, “Find those that sit in the shadow of death, and sit next to them. Hold their hand. Weep with them. Give them love. Show them the light, and declare that the dawn is coming. Declare that the dawn is coming, and let the Holy Spirit guide us on the path of peace.” (<http://fatpastor.me/2012/12/22/declare-that-the-dawn-is-coming/)
All too often we divorce the call for justice from the call for mercy. It was the 13th century theologian, Thomas Aquinas who said, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.”
The church has been guilty of divorcing the two of these as well. On the one hand there are times when we want to just “be nice” and not hold people accountable. Or we hesitate to shed light on injustice or sin because it might implicate us, or because we just don’t want to deal with it. On other occasions, we are quick to call people to account and condemn their actions, usually because we are quite sure that what they are doing isn’t something we are tempted by.
God sheds light on the dark places in our lives and in our world, not to condemn us or the world, but “to guide our feet into the way of peace.” And toward freedom. May God’s light dawn upon us in this season and bring us toward freedom. And may we, like John the Baptist, show others that light and lead them in the way of peace and freedom as well. It is toward that end that we strive.