Sunday, December 10, 2006

Fearless service I

Notes for a sermon
Yesterday I was meant to be preaching at all three services, but because of my voice, I missed out. Here are some thoughts on what I might have said. The passage was Zechariah's prophecy regarding his son John [the Baptist] (Luke 1.67-80):

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
   “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
      for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
   He has raised up a mighty savior for us
      in the house of his servant David,
   as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
      that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
   Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
      and has remembered his holy covenant,
   the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
      to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
   might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
      before him all our days.
   And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
      for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
   to give knowledge of salvation to his people
      by the forgiveness of their sins.
   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.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Zechariah, the priest of Yahweh had been struck dumb by an angel for nine months for doubting when he heard that his elderly and apparently barren wife was to bear his first child (Luke 1.18-20). Once the child is named during circumcision, Zechariah regains his lost voice and his first words are praise (1.64). It seems nine months of watching God's promise grow has taken this priest from doubt to new-found faith.

Having been (semi-)silenced myself over the last weeks, I have some vague idea of how many thoughts and emotions must have pressed forward, clamoring for expression at that moment. So many misunderstandings to clear up, so many shared experiences to be acknowledged and clarified, so many plans entertained and formulated.

But before all that comes praise. In enforced silence, cut off from the regular blessing of daily conversation, Zechariah has rediscovered the primary purpose of human speech: to address God. In silence he has re-learned the primacy of God's speech, that God's word made the heavens and earth and everything in them (Gen 1; Ps 33.6), that until God first addresses us, calling us into being, calling us by name, we are voiceless. The gift of human language is one of the ways in which are like God, and just as children learn to speak by being spoken to, humans come to speech through God first speaking to us.

Zechariah therefore appropriately addresses his first words Godwards in response. This reply in the presence of others, who overhear, is praise.

And he gives thanks. For his regained voice? Possibly. But when we turn to the content of his praise in our passage, we find other concerns uppermost.
Series: I; II; III.


Annette said...

"that until God first addresses us, calling us into being, calling us by name, we are voiceless."

Well such a beautiful reflection on the response calls for a response (first to you, but then perhaps the only way to really respond to what you have said would be to respond in praise to the God Zechariah addresses). So many themes in there i have been thinking about in relation to my thesis: esp. being addressed, the call, voice, gift, response etc. Just read [;)] - a great little book by a french phenomenologist, Chrétien, called "The Call and the Response" which contains some interesting and often quite beautifully expressed reflections on the topic. He focuses one section in particular on Paul's Rom 4:17 statement and previous interpretations of it, seeking to show how radically different the call is when it is God who calls! He writes: "The meaning of call and response is radically transformed when the call actually creates the respondent."(16) He meditates on similar themes to those you brought up: God's call preceding us and enabling our response - as gift - out of our 'voicelessness':

"In order to constitute, the call destitutes. In order to give, it takes away. In order to create, it deletes all that would boast of self-sufficient being, prior to the call and independently of it... It always brings with itself its own possibility, which is to say the listener." (22)

"The call alone makes ours, irresistably ours, the impossibility of responding, of corresponding to it, as the very resource needed for responding" (23)