Sermon: “The Dawn from on High” (December 6, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Dawn from on High” (Luke 1:76-79)
December 6, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of the most memorable lines from a sermon I have ever heard was from T. D. Jakes, whom I heard once preach, “If you live long enough, life will shut your mouth.” If you live long enough, life will shut your mouth. I cannot speak for you but I will admit I have experienced the truth of this plenty of times in my life.

One of the recurring themes of Advent is light breaking into darkness, and one of the featured characters from the gospel readings during the season of Advent is John the Baptist. The father of John the Baptist was a priest named Zechariah. Luke writes that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord”—but Zechariah and Elizabeth had never been able to have children and “were getting on in years” (Luke 1:6-7).

One day Zechariah was simply going about his business, ministering in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him at the altar. Luke tells us that Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him” (1:12). And then Gabriel spoke:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (1:13-17).

Zechariah’s initial response was unbelief—“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). And the angel responded:

I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur (1:19-20).

And that is exactly what happened—life shut Zechariah’s mouth.

He emerged from the temple utterly mute, and for several months in order to communicate he had to motion with his hands or write on a tablet. Several months later, just as Gabriel had spoken, Elizabeth indeed gave birth to John the Baptist. Afterwards Zechariah’s mouth was opened and “he began to speak, praising God” (1:64).

Then in one of the most moving scenes in scripture Zechariah takes his newborn son into his arms and speaks a beautiful prophecy that has become known as “The Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:76-79, Canticle 16 in The Book of Common Prayer 93). Listen to what he says to the newborn John the Baptist:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace (The Book of Common Prayer 93).

John the Baptist would prepare the way for Jesus Christ, the “dawn from on high” who would become incarnate to communicate the “tender compassion” of God to all of us, to usher in the beginning of a brand new day for all those “who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

Let me ask you today—is there some way in which you are dwelling in darkness? Perhaps you can relate to the words of the psalmist who wrote, “Darkness is my only companion” (Psalm 88:19, BCP 713), or perhaps with what Paul Simon wrote in his classic song, “The Sound of Silence” (which was a number one Billboard hit fifty years ago this month)—“Hello, darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” It is in these dark places where we need “the dawn from on high,” where we need the “tender compassion of our God.”

A few illustrations from literature…Two of the most influential southern writers of the twentieth century were longtime friends from Greenville, Mississippi—Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. In 1952 Shelby Foote, following his divorce, wrote a vulnerable letter to Walker in which he described this dark season in his life:

I am settling down, still with a mountain of woe upon my head, but I have learned a great deal in this past month…this was the first real suffering of my life. I lost fifteen pounds and came out all gaunt and hollow-eyed, but I would not swap what I got from it for a month of romping in the greenest meadows. I touched absolute bottom; then I came back up. Man, it’s dark down there! (The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy 87).

A second illustration…The fourth chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, is called “A Journey in the Dark.” Listen to how Tolkien describes the darkness through which the fellowship is traveling:

It was evening, and the grey light was again waning fast, when they halted for the night. They were very weary. The mountains were veiled in deepening dusk, and the wind was cold…They heard the wind hissing among the rocks and trees, and there was a howling and wailing round them in the empty spaces of the night (50th Anniversary One-volume edition 295, 297).

And the third illustration…In William P. Young’s 2007 novel The Shack the main character Mack, who has endured major tragedies in his life, once again finds himself in a particularly dark season. And yet in the very midst of that dark season Mack encounters God in an isolated shack in the wilderness. At one point in the novel God speaks to Mack about grace in the midst of tragedy:

Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors (The Shack 185).

The reason these three passages resonate is that each of us has experienced dark seasons in our lives in which we touch absolute bottom, in which we are very weary and the wind is cold, isolated in a lonely shack. There is nothing fictional about such seasons. We experience real suffering and real tragedy—actual darkness in our actual lives. Sometimes life indeed shuts our mouth.

And yet, that is where God offers us tender compassion—that is where the “dawn from on high” breaks upon us—and this true not only for each of us individually, but also for all of us corporately. Yes, part of our life journey is indeed “A Journey in the Dark,” but that is not where our journey ends.

In a song called “Transcendental Reunion,” the singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter uses the metaphor of arriving at an international airport to describe this:

From 20,000 feet high
Saw the lights below me
Twinkling just like Christmas
We descended slowly
And the curve of the world passed
With all of that flying
Above a mighty ocean
Now we all are arriving…

Forgive me my staring
For my unconcealed envy
In the Hall of Arrivals
Where the great river empties
It’s handcarts and porters
All the people it carries
To be greeted by flowers, grandfathers, and babies

There is no one to meet me
Yet I’m all but surrounded
By the tears and embracing
By the joy unbounded
The friends and relations
Leaping over hemispheres
Transcendental reunion
All borders vanish here

We are travelers traveling
We are gypsies together
We’re philosophers gathering
We are business or pleasure
We are going or coming
We’re just finding our way
To the next destination
And from night into day
(from her 2012 album Ashes and Roses)

What Zechariah prophesied as he held his newborn son John the Baptist was absolutely true. John the Baptist would indeed be “the prophet of the Most High” who prepared the way for the arrival of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of “the tender compassion of our God”—Jesus Christ who is himself the Dawn from on High who breaks upon us “to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Jesus not only leaped over hemispheres for you, he leaped over eternity—and as the Dawn from on High suffered on the cross, a “mountain of woe” upon his head, scripture tells us “darkness came over the whole land” (Matthew 27:45)—Mount Calvary was “veiled in deepening dusk.” And yet it was in that darkest of dark places that the “many facets and colors” of God’s grace shone in the darkness.

In his death the Dawn from on High “touched absolute bottom”—but in his resurrection he “came back up”—for scripture also tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

So if you are in a dark season in your life, be encouraged by the good news of the gospel in this season of Advent. Your “Journey in the Dark” will end at the Hall of Arrivals, where you will experience firsthand the “joy unbounded” of Jesus Christ, the Dawn from on High—and join Zechariah and all the saints in praising God.

Amen.