Well, the holidays are upon us. As proof, I recently saw a commercial with children acting ridiculously happy over toothbrushes. It reminded me of stories from mission coworkers about children receiving washcloths and toothbrushes in hygiene kits that were prized like gold because they had not seen one in a while. It occurred to me that even a toothbrush can hold the tender mercies of God.
The tender mercies of God are mediated by relief workers sorting clothes, by a hospice chaplain visiting the still living, and by you and me in our everyday interactions. In the case of Zechariah, the tender mercies of God can even be found in our limitations and the opportunities they hold within.
Think of it this way. If your mouth had been sealed and your tongue shut for nine months, what would be the first thing that you might say? Maybe it would be related to a need that you had not been able to communicate. Maybe it would just be gratitude for the release from silence. Whatever you chose, it would seem to me that the words would be well thought. You certainly had enough time to think about it.
We don’t actually know Zechariah’s first words. Scripture says that he denied his friends and neighbors’ complaints about the name of John – as it was not a family name – and his mouth was opened, and his tongue set free, and he began to praise God. Well, who can blame him! Then he burst into a prophetic song about the proclamation of a Savior and the role of his son as the prophet to prepare the people with the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sin.
That was the most important thing he could think to say. It was probably the thing that he had been thinking about all along! Can you imagine having something as important to say as a message from God about salvation – and not being able to say it? I can.
I think the church still stumbles over the issue of proclamation today. We have practices and rituals that make sense to us. We have a way of proclaiming the gospel together, but when it comes to those who are outside our walls, we struggle with the best way to say and demonstrate what we believe. We struggle with creating a worship experience that makes sense to people who aren’t used to worshiping with us. It’s not just us, though.
The other day my wife was given a religious tract while at work from someone who, “believed that she needed it.” Really? There was no conversation about personal needs, other than my wife’s attempts to help this person find the book she needed in the store (since that was her primary objective for being there in the first place). There was simply a need to hand out instructions for what to believe and how to pray in order to be saved.
As fun as it is to throw stones at her glass church, I have to admit my own sin. How many of my good deeds are done to witness the grace of Christ? How many are done to make me feel better? How many are done because of my relationship with another person and the way it expresses my relationship with God?
These are questions we all must ask in order to find our voices and sing about salvation, and righteousness, and mercy.
Jeremiah spoke about salvation and righteousness and mercy during a time of reform – reform that was needed, but that was too little and too late to save them from destruction. True to his nature, he begins with the “woes” (prophetic version of the blues). And he says, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.”
There is a sacred trust that he is talking about here. The ones entrusted to care for the vulnerable and their resources have done the opposite of what they should do. Their actions have scattered the ones they are supposed to care for. Their neglect has destroyed resources they were entrusted to manage.
He was, of course, speaking about the leaders of Israel – the Kings and the Priests – but could he not be speaking to the church? Could he be speaking to the church that laments over the lack of acceptance for their ways by younger souls seeking meaning and understanding in different places?
Suddenly I am reminded of a cartoon of two older men proudly displaying a banner in front of their church that says, “Whipersnappers Welcome!” and one of the men is saying proudly, “That will show the young folk that we want them!”
Of course the issue is not an age issue. This issue is not how welcoming we are. The issue is not about what we are doing or are not doing. The issue is our ability to see what God is doing. Through Jeremiah God says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.” Some say that God’s grace is missing from the Old Testament, but here we have God announcing the coming of a new King who will execute justice and righteousness. In the church, we understand that King to be Jesus, even though we understand the idea of Kingship in a very different way.
For someone to be King at that time meant a demonstration of power that went unchallenged. A King’s power was unlimited. Today we understand a King’s power to be limited by the will of the people. And so, we must ask ourselves what limitations we attempt to put on the power of God. Somewhere in the uncomfortable space of that answer is a call to repentance and an offer of forgiveness. Somewhere, in the uncomfortable space of the question about what limits we try to place on God (as though God were a Genie in a bottle), we find what Paul calls our inheritance.
The inheritance we have received is not simply an insurance policy. It is not something to hold onto until we need it. By the same token, it is not something we can use for our own pleasure. In fact, the inheritance Paul talks about is not really something we do something about or with, because it is not ours to do. It is something God has done. God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
So we live in two worlds. We live as citizens of the kingdom of God – even while we wait for it to get here – and the hope we find in our expectation of God’s activity becomes the driving force for all that we do. God’s activity is always about transformation. God is not concerned with keeping the status quo of our earthly kingdoms. God is concerned about the transformation of our earthly kingdoms through long suffering mercy that moves our hearts toward righteousness.
But what does that really mean, in practical terms? It means that there is nothing that you have done, and nothing that has been done to you that has the power to define you in the same way as God’s love. And in response to God’s love, our lives become the proclamation that we fear to speak. It means that our default position is to comfort those who we can and to hurt with those who we cannot. It means that through participating in the will of God, we can become less like a thermometer that only takes the temperature, and more like a thermostat that actually changes the temperature in the room.
And then, “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.” That all happens because of Jesus, but it will take place here and now through you and me. And when it doesn’t, there is yet the table of grace and mercy set before us. And thanks be to God for that. Amen!