Singing after Silence: A Sermon for Advent 2C, December 5, 2021

Of all the things the pandemic has deprived me of, deprived us as humans, as members of a congregation, none may be more significant than the loss of song. From the early days, when we learned of the rapid spread of covid among choir singers, we have remained largely silent in church—the rich hymnody of the Christian tradition, which speaks to and for us and our faith, has been laid aside except for halting attempts like virtual choirs or our zoom hymn sings when we gather virtually to raise our voices. But the sheer joy and emotional depth that comes from singing together has been largely absent from our worship. We are slowly, haltingly, reintroducing hymns to our worship, but at the same time we recognize the challenges we face when we do sing.

Still, as Mark and Berkley know, I refused to go through a second Advent without singing “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” which will be our closing hymn today at our later service. 

Song has been a central part of Christian worship from the beginning, as it was and remains for Judaism—evidenced in the presence of the Book of Psalms in our holy scripture. 

Today, we sang the Song of Zechariah as our psalm or response. It’s one of four songs that Luke includes in his story of the nativity.  One of those songs, the Gloria, sung by the angels when they appeared to the shepherds, has traditionally been a central part of our Eucharistic celebrations. The other songs appear regularly in the daily office, morning and evening prayer: the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, the song of Simeon, the nunc dimittis, which is sung at Evening Prayer, and the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which we just said together.

These songs likely were not composed by Luke, but were taken and adapted by him from songs that Christians were already singing in their worship. Whether or not they come from the people or angels, in whose mouths Luke placed them, they reflect an even deeper tradition for all of them are bathed in the language, imagery, and poetry of Jewish worship and Hebrew scriptures. 

Still it’s important to pay attention to the context and to the lips where Luke places these songs. In Zechariah’s case, he hadn’t been able to sing, or speak for nine months. You may recall the story. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were elderly, childless. Zechariah was a priest. The story goes that he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense, quite likely a great honor and probably the only time he did it in his life, and while he was there by himself, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and promised that he and Elizabeth would have a child. Zechariah was rather skeptical about the probability of this ever happening, and when he expressed his doubts, Gabriel struck him speechless for the duration of the pregnancy. 

The child was born and on the 8th day, as he was about to be circumcised, and still speechless, Zechariah wrote out instructions that the baby should be named John. As soon as he did that, his voice returned and he began to praise God. Luke continues, “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy.” 

For nearly two years, our voices have remained silent of song. We have been able to speak, unlike Zechariah who remained totally silent for nine months. Now, I can’t imagine being silent for nine months, and I can’t imagine that after nine months of silence, the first thing I would do would be to praise God. But I do know this about silence, that it allows us to think and reflect before we speak, and with nine months of silence, and uncertainty about whether the silence was just temporary as Gabriel said, or would be permanent, I think I probably would think carefully, very carefully about what words I would speak when the ability to speak came back.

But Luke doesn’t say that this song was the product of careful reflection and composition over the course of nine months. He offers a rather different account of its composition—Zechariah, Luke says, was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy. This prophecy, this Spirit-filled song, fairly bursts with scriptural allusions. It’s as if Zechariah, having nine months of silence to reflect on his experience and on his promised son, has internalized all of salvation history, the whole story of scripture, and recasts it in light of the hope he now has. 

It’s fitting that the name Zechariah means “God remembers” for Zechariah sings of God’s remembering God’s people. Zechariah sings of God’s promises, to raise up a mighty nation, to save “us”—Zechariah includes himself in this promise of salvation—from our enemies; to show mercy to our fathers; to set us free to worship God without fear.

In the last section of the psalm, Zechariah turns to the promises embodied in his own son, John the Baptist, who would be the prophet, not only of God’s promises, but also prepare the way for the one who was still to come, the one who would usher in God’s reign. 

This one, Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be a harbinger, a sign of that which was to come, the dawn of salvation, not salvation itself. John offered hope and pointed away from himself to the Christ. But through him, we begin to see, recognize, and experience “the tender compassion of our God.” That lovely phrase not only evokes images of a mother embracing her new-born child, as the joyful and incredulous Elizabeth was likely cradling her infant son John, it also invites us to imagine God’s maternal, nurturing love for us and for all creation, a love we experience and know in and through Christ’s love for us. 

“Tender compassion” reminds as well that God’s love and mercy for us, as powerful as it may be, is also an invitation, not an imposition. It requires us to pay attention, to be vulnerable and open, to allow ourselves to see and experience that tender compassion in spite of the noise and violence of our world. Like the breaking dawn that we see only if we ourselves are already awake, and if we lift our eyes away from ourselves and our concerns to the horizon, God’s tender compassion is easily overlooked, missed in the noise of all that competes for our attention. God’s tender compassion is a melody played on a single note, not the cacophony of a rock band in a stadium.

Zechariah sang his song after nine months of silence, imposed on him as punishment by Gabriel. Song has largely been absent from our voices, our lives over the last couple of years and our lives have been less rich because of it—our spiritual experience perhaps less full, less rich because of our inability to sing.

And the world may make us feel like we cannot sing. We may feel hopelessness, despair, oppression as the world around us careens from one disaster to the next. Images and stories from across the globe make real the suffering of our fellow humans, the fact that like Zechariah, they too, cannot open their mouths to sing, or if they do, their songs are laments or the blues.

Such songs can also be prophesies—they can call us out of our complacency, our stupor, our self-deception. They can wake us to the pain and suffering of the world around us; they can also, like Zechariah’s inspire us to action and to hope. 

God’s tender compassion comes to us in many ways and in many forms. May we pay attention, open our ears to hear its sweet melody, and may it help our hearts sing as we experience God’s mercy and salvation.

The Tender Compassion of God: A Sermon for Advent 2, Year C


A couple of months ago, the great American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson published a profound reflection on fear in the New York Review of Books. She begins with a two-part, very simple thesis: “first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Later, she writes:

Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.

Though published in September, these words seem oddly quaint and old-fashioned today. They were written before Paris, before the Planned Parenthood shootings, before San Bernardino. However prevalent fear was in our society three months ago, it is overwhelming today. A Sikh woman was taken off her flight this week because other passengers feared the breast pump she was carrying with her. Islamophobia runs rampant and on Black Friday, the day of the Planned Parenthood shootings, the number of firearms sold broke all previous records. Our presidential candidates are fanning the flames of fear and xenophobia and are benefiting from the fears of the voting public.

This leads to absurdities. On Friday, Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, the institution his notorious father founded, asked his student body in a public address to purchase weapons and apply for concealed carry permits. He is quoted to have said, “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” That this would be said by the president of what is likely the largest Christian university in the nation, probably the world, is a sad symbol of what America has become in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and also, even more sadly, of what Christianity has devolved into. As Garry Wills pointed out in a brilliant essay in the wake of the shootings at Newtown three years ago, as Americans, we worship guns and we sacrifice ourselves and our children to Moloch.

We do that, in large part because fear is all-pervasive. It’s not just terrorism, however. Some years back, I remember preaching a sermon at the church I was then serving in Greenville, SC. For some reason, I can’t find the text, but my memory puts it in Advent. There had just been several incidents of random shots fired onto I-85 from pedestrian overpasses, in fact quite near the church. A newspaper reporter interviewed commuters about the shots. One man was quoted to say that he said a prayer every time he left his house because of his fear of what might happen to him in the outside world. That was so memorable to me because I couldn’t imagine having that sort of worldview—mind you it’s not that I don’t think prayer is a good thing, but because of the underlying sense of the evil and danger that lurks just outside of the safety of one’s home. That was over ten years ago, and I would guess that fear is even more pervasive, more present, for many in our society.

It may be that fear is an appropriate way to approach this season. As the world darkens around us, as hate and violence seem to surround us, the nights grow longer and the light of the sun dims with the approach of the winter solstice. For all the joy that our season of Advent and Christmas proclaim, the real world promises sadness and danger.

Nevertheless, in this very world, this dark and gloomy place, we go forward with the rituals of the season. In the darkness of night and gloom of day, we light the candles of Advent; we listen again to the promises of salvation proclaimed by prophets long ago. Our faith may falter; our hope wane, but the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ can continue to make a difference, in our lives and in the world.

We can hear the hope in our texts today, especially in the canticle we said together a few minutes ago, the Song of Zechariah. It is a song that looks back to Israel’s salvation history, reciting the mighty acts that God performed on behalf of God’s chosen people. It looks forward to a future when once again God has intervened to make things right. As Luke tells the larger story of the birth of Jesus, he sets it in an even larger story, the story of Israel’s salvation. We see that clearly both in this song and in the story of Zechariah, which we do not hear today. You may recall some of it.

Zechariah is an elderly priest. He and his wife Elizabeth are childless. One day, it is his turn, perhaps the only time in his life, to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. While performing his duties, an angel appears to him. Zechariah is terrified, but the angel, as always, says to him, “Be not afraid. You and your wife Elizabeth will have a son.”

Zechariah points out to the angel that he is old and his wife is barren, that a child is impossible. Gabriel strikes him mute and indeed, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Zechariah remains speechless for the length of the pregnancy. One can imagine that during that time, he has the opportunity to figure out what he might say when his voice is restored to him. After the birth of the child, and after Zechariah writes the name “John” on a tablet when asked to name him, his voice is restored, and he praises God.

This song is what comes out of his mouth. As Luke puts it, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel…”

This canticle is appointed for morning and evening prayer so it is very familiar to me. We read in the translation provided in the Book of Common Prayer which differs slightly from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that we ordinarily use in worship. There’s a phrase in it, near the end, as Zechariah moves from praising God for God’s action in history, and begins to speak of the present and future: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

It’s an image I love because of its simplicity and tentativeness. We think of God’s power and might. Even in this season of Advent which is as much about Christ’s second coming in power and majesty as it is about Christ’s first coming in the incarnation, we tend to focus on God’s promises to make things right, to undo the evil in the world in one fell swoop. But the image of God’s tender compassion coming as the dawn breaks is a very different thing. Dawn comes like the light of advent candles shining in the darkness. The first signs of the sun are subtle, barely detectable. It’s only later that it becomes clear that the light we see is the rising sun. Dawn breaks, one might say, tenderly.

And so too, perhaps, God’s compassion or mercy. We may live in despair of the dark, terror-filled world in which we live. We may despair that injustice and oppression reign, that violence holds sway not only in distant parts of the world, but here in our country, in our city, in the hearts of people overwhelmed by fear. But the dawn from on high leads to a new day, a new world. In those faint signs of light, we can also begin to detect God’s tender compassion. It can take away our fear and heal our violent hearts. Through us, God’s tender compassion brings light and hope to a dark and hurting world.