The old man's song

When you were little, did you count the years from birthday to birthday or from Christmas to Christmas? When you were a little older, did you count from school year to school year or from summer to summer? Farmers and accountants count the years in different ways, as do teachers or sports fans. As members of the church, we live into yet another annual rhythm, one not determined by program or budget cycles, but by needs, convictions, and desires that are foundational for everything else. The church counts time from Advent to Advent.

One could argue that the church year should begin on Christmas, with the birth of Christ, or on Easter, with his resurrection from the dead, or on Pentecost, when God began to pour out the Holy Spirit on a small band of disciples; but there is great wisdom in beginning with Advent. We begin with expectant hope. We let ourselves be shaped by the future God has promised and prepared for us. We remember that we live into a future not bound by the past, but always, always open to genuine newness brought forth by our God who is making all things new. And so we live toward Christmas remembering the birth of Christ and expecting God’s consummation of creation, all in praise of God’s faithfulness, of the love that will not let us go.

I was reading Isaiah on Wednesday when the news broke of yet another mass shooting. I was reading Isaiah 59 on Wednesday, shaken by disbelief, drained by sadness, gripped by anger, and utterly helpless. The words of the prophet poet were a gift from one mourner to another.

The way of peace they do not know,
and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
no one who walks in them knows peace.
Therefore justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
groping like those who have no eyes. [1]

Groping like the blind along a wall, adding “active shooter” to our children’s everyday vocabulary, we wait for light. Groping like those who have no eyes we wait for light – and as though in response to our sense of living inside a nightmare, old man Zechariah sings Advent hope into our fear and grief, saying,

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.

Who would have thought old man Zechariah could sing like that? He hadn’t said a word in months. An angel had appeared to him, telling him that he and Elizabeth would have a boy, and that he would name him John, and what a joy it would be, and all he could say was, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” All the years of waiting in vain for a child had slowly eroded Zechariah’s belief in the possibilities of God. The angel told him, “You will be mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Months passed, and true to Gabriel’s word, when the baby was born, old man Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.

His song celebrates the faithfulness of God in Israel’s history and proclaims God’s continuing work of deliverance. It’s an old song of covenant promises, of Exodus liberation, of prophets and kings. But it’s also a new song announcing the dawning of a new day:

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.

It’s Advent when an old man who thought that he knew the full range of possibilities for his life is surprised by God’s future. His life transformed, his faith renewed, he sings of the impossible possibilities that await God’s people and the world. He sings of light to guide our feet into the way of peace. He sings so we have the courage to lean into the dawn and begin to live toward the fullness promised by its light. He sings the tune that helps us lean into the dawn so the light can illumine the darkness within us and around us. He sings us an Advent song so we become brave enough to stop groping like the blind along the same old walls of fear and hate.

We live in Advent time, gratefully singing of the light that has come and awaiting with eager expectation the dawn to become day without end. I say eager expectation because in the vocabulary of Advent, waiting is not turning on the radio every morning, hoping to one day hear the good news that changes the world. Living in Advent time is about leaning into the dawn and figuring out creative ways to reflect that light into the everyday dark places; it’s about becoming part of the good news that changes the world.

I could begin to name the statistics for gun violence, I could read the list of reasonable gun control proposals law enforcement officials across the nation have endorsed, I could mention that it’s easier to purchase a semi-automatic weapon than to get a driver’s license, and I could again lament the corrosive influence of NRA money on our politics. But that’s not really the point. There’s just so much fear in it all, so much fear and so little hope.

Animal Dreams is a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the characters, a young woman named Hallie, has gone off to Nicaragua to support the revolutionary Sandinista government by helping to improve crop yields. Hallie is a horticulturist who knows her way around plants and soil and bugs, but life in Nicaragua is very dangerous since the war with the Contras is in full swing. In a letter to her sister Codi back home in the States, Hallie tries to explain her choices:

I chose sides. And I know that we could lose. I’ve never seen people suffer so much for an ideal. They’re sick to death of the embargo and the war. They could say Uncle, vote for something else, just to stop the bludgeoning. And you know what? I don’t even consider that, it’s not the point.

You’re thinking of revolution as a great all-or-nothing. I think of it as one more morning in a muggy cotton field, checking the undersides of leaves to see what’s been there, figuring out what to do that won’t clear a path for worse problems next week. Right now that’s what I do. You ask why I’m not afraid of loving and losing, and that’s my answer. Wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work—that goes on, it adds up. It goes into the ground, into crops, into children’s bellies and their bright eyes. Good things don’t get lost.

Codi, here’s what I’ve decided: the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.

I cannot tell you how good it feels. I wish you knew. (...) I wish you knew how to squander yourself.[2]

“The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed” is no small thing. It’s Hallie’s hope. It’s Zechariah’s song. It’s the promise of God. It’s why we count the years from Advent to Advent. We begin, again and again, with expectant hope that’s big enough to live in and close enough to the ground so we remember that the daily work adds up and good things don’t get lost.

Such hope is not something we simply have or produce at will. It is a gift given by the God who is committed to the flourishing of creation and its consummation in peace. It is a gift nourished in the community drawn together by the gentle power of God’s Holy Spirit who inspires old man Zechariah and young mother Mary and all of us to sing of God’s faithfulness. It is the gift of the One born among us who squandered himself for love’s sake and to guide our feet into the way of peace.


[1] Isaiah 59:8-10

[2] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) 299; my italics.