November 30, 3003

Jesus: A Song of Hope
Luke 1:67-79

The Zion Brethren in Christ Church is located at 997 Highway 18 in Abilene, Kansas. The address of the Crossroads Church is 1125 W. South Street in Salina, Kansas. And the Rosebank Brethren in Christ Church, also in Kansas, is located, according to directions made available by the bishop of the Midwest Conference, three miles south of Hope. Have you ever felt as though you lived three miles south of hope?

I suspect that Zechariah, whose story is recorded for us here in Luke 1, felt that way on certain occasions. At least he had reason to. Zechariah, for one thing, might very well have grown frustrated with his professional life. He was a priest, according to 1:5, who lived in the hill country a few miles outside of Jerusalem (1:39). There were at this time many priests, but only one Temple in which to serve. The priests, therefore, were subdivided into divisions, each of which was on duty for a one-week period, twice a year. It was as though the Grantham Church had 26 senior pastors, and each of us ministered at the church only two times each year.

Actually, it was worse than that. While it is true that each division of priests was on duty for two one-week periods each year, there were not enough priestly responsibilities to occupy every priest even when their division was on duty! The specific roles were few and highly respected, so the priests cast lots in order to determine who would have the privilege of performing them. Offering incense in the temple, for example, was so significant a function that, according to Jewish law, a priest could perform it only once in his entire lifetime (Mishnah, Tamid 5:2). In reality, some priests never did get the chance. It would be as though the Grantham Church had thousands of senior pastors, all of whom wanted to preach, and they anxiously flipped a coin to see who among them might be selected. Year after year, our aging friend, Zechariah, eagerly waited as the lots were cast. “Perhaps this will be my opportunity,” he must have thought to himself again and again. But as each period of duty passed and as each lot pointed to someone else, Zechariah’s wait continued. Waiting in line, knowing full well that his turn might never come. Is it possible that Zechariah, growing tired of waiting, increasingly assumed that he lived about three miles south of hope?

Zechariah, furthermore, had good reason to feel discouraged at home. He was, after all, without a child—his wife, Elizabeth, was barren (1:7). To make matters worse, both Zechariah and Elizabeth were clearly getting on in years, and the prospects of their having a child diminished with each passing day. Remember, too, that theirs was a day and age when being childless was a most pitiable condition, a condition that left a couple open to public ridicule. This was not a couple who decided to forego childrearing in order to devote more time to their careers, like certain couples we might meet today. Neither was this a couple that chose to remain childless because they concluded that they did not have the resources or the patience to be good parents. Zechariah and Elizabeth desperately wanted children, and they waited and waited for the day when they could gently place a newborn infant in the beautiful basinet that rested in the bedroom of their Judean home. That basinet was getting rather dusty by now.

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s understandable despondency over their lack of a child was further heightened by yet another detail that the writer provides for us. Not only were they advanced in years, they were also deeply spiritual people—much like Job. Insofar as they and their Hebrew friends believed that children were a gift from God, they might easily have wondered whether God had abandoned them. “What difference does our righteousness make?” we can imagine them asking. “Meticulously observing each and every one of the commandments has not prevented us from going through the pain and anguish of remaining childless.” They had waited, and prayed, and waited some more, yet the continuing emptiness of that now annoying basinet constantly reminded them that they were living with unfulfilled desires and unanswered questions. Could it be that they at times wondered together whether or not they resided three miles south of hope?

Finally, one can easily imagine Zechariah growing weary as he reflected on the continuing condition of his people. Zechariah, the godly priest that he was, certainly knew of his people’s traditions that spoke of their earlier captivity in both Egypt and Babylon. Now, during his own lifetime, he watched day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, as he and his fellow Jews groveled under the hands of their Roman oppressors. There were foreign soldiers everywhere—at the airport, shopping malls, and local hangouts—announcing to everyone that they were imprisoned in their own homeland. How many times might Zechariah have prayed for their deliverance? How many times might he have wondered when or if their turmoil would ever end? Yet he waited and waited and waited. How many times might he have lay down at night, wondering whether he and his neighbors lived three miles south of hope?

Zechariah was a man who knew what it meant to wait. He waited for years for his turn to enter the Temple and offer incense before the Lord. He waited for what must have seemed like an eternity for the child that he and his wife so desperately longed for. And he waited with his people for centuries for freedom from foreign oppressors. He waited and he waited and he waited.

We know what it is like to wait too, don’t we? Like Zechariah, we often are required to wait for our turn to come. It could be as simple as waiting in a long line at the cash register or inching along toward the tollbooth on the turnpike. Or as in Zechariah’s case, it could involve waiting through vocational difficulties and disappointments. Perhaps you have been eyeing a promotion that never seems to come, or waiting to hear back from the college of your choice, long after your friends have already received favorable responses, wondering if they will ever act on your application.

We also find ourselves waiting at times through family pressures and lingering personal disappointments. We wait through illnesses—cancer and brain tumors and broken-down hips and memory loss. We wait through loneliness—we want a child or a husband or wife or just a close, close, friend. And we wait through the nagging questions that such pressures and disappointments often bring. Does God really care about me? Is he even aware of my needs?

And we certainly know, even if at times from a distance, what it means to wait through profound concerns about the church and the world that we live in. We wait as countless people around the world go hungry and thirsty. Just last week I heard the frightening statistic that, during the last six years, 25,000 people have been killed as a result of terrorist attacks. During that same period, over 50 million people have died of starvation! We wait as many of our brothers and sisters in foreign lands experience intense persecution and even death because of their love for Jesus. We wait as closer to home the church—even our own faith community—often struggles under dominating and oppressive forces, not the type that wield swords and guns, but those that offer so much comfort and wealth that our needs for God often go unnoticed. We know what it means to wait. We wait, and we wait, and we wait, sometimes feeling that we live 300 miles south of hope!

It is true. Zechariah had endless opportunities to feel hopeless. He waited through a great deal. Yet as he sings this wonderful song recorded here in Luke 1:68-79, he begins with these words: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” But what brought him through? To what might Zechariah’s continuing hope be attributed? Is this merely an example of positive thinking winning out over despair? Is Zechariah hopeful simply because some of his wants and wishes have finally been granted? After all, we read in 1:9 that his opportunity to offer incense in the Temple finally did arrive, and we all know from reading 1:57 that he and his wife now do have a son. That must be it. Does hope, as Edward Wojcicki asks, merely involves “having a wish list and then hoping that we get everything we want…”? Hardly. For Zechariah, waiting gives way to hope because of one word—promise.

From the earliest years of his life, Zechariah had heard the traditions of his people. Yes, he had heard the stories about their earlier captivity in Egypt and Babylon, but he grew up on other traditions as well. He had read those ancient texts describing the coming of a king who would free his people. He had heard about a child upon whose very shoulders the government would rest, a child who would be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, and prince of peace. He had heard about a coming day when God would write his commandments, not on tablets of stone, but deep within human hearts. Zechariah grew up hearing again and again that God would break into time and space and right every wrong. “God promised,” Zechariah must have said to himself during all of those times of waiting. “He promised to take care of us,” Zechariah reminded himself again and again, and he clearly hung on to that promise.

Listen to him sing. “He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,” he shouts, “as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,…” Oh, Zechariah is just getting started:
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,…
Zechariah had built his life, not on wishful thinking, but on a promise.

Like Zechariah, you and I often find ourselves waiting. Jesus Christ, the one for whom Zechariah longed, has indeed come into the world, bringing with him peace, joy and love. All three of these are available to each of us this very moment. Yet we continue to wait. We wait for our ultimate healing. We wait for the tears of humanity to be totally wiped away. We wait for the final redemption of this fallen and broken world. We wait for our Lord to return and take us to be with him forever.

In the meantime, we, again like Zechariah, have a promise to build our lives upon, a promise that gives us every reason to be hopeful. “I will never leave you or forsake you,” Jesus said, “and I will come again and welcome you into my presence.” That is a promise. That promise, according to Henri Nouwen,
assures us that, when all battles are fought, all losses counted, all gains collected, all pains suffered and all joys tasted—yes, when all has been said and everything done—life will prove itself stronger than death,
love stronger than fear, God stronger than all demons.

The Rosebank Brethren in Christ Church is located in the middle of a sprawling field in Kansas. I stood on the front porch of the church a few years ago and looked out in every direction. As I recall, I saw one house way off in the distance. The church is, according to the bishop’s directions, three miles south of Hope.

As we wait here this morning and look out over the landscape of our own lives and of the world around us, do you feel as though you live three miles south of hope? I am not inviting you to a mere life of wishful thinking. I am reminding you of a promise.
“I love you,” Jesus said. “I came into the world to save sinners like you.” “I’ll never leave you or abandon you.” “The end of the story will be better than you could ever imagine.” “I promise.”