Tonight in our traditional Christmas service we will read the Gospel appointed for the day from Luke 1:67-79.

It is a somewhat surprising reading for the celebration of the Nativity, coming in Luke’s Gospel as it does, just before the actual birth of Jesus. But, it is perhaps an even more surprising reading for late in the spring, the other time it crops up in our lectionary readings.

Seven years ago on 24 June 2007 I preached on Luke 1:67-79. It is not a Christmas sermon; in fact it was preached during a baptism service. In those days I was in the habit of writing out full texts for preaching. So, here is a non-Christmas, baptismal, and surprisingly long, reflection on Luke 1:67-79.

CASTLES IN THE SAND

LUKE 1:67-79

I have just returned from holiday. Towards the end of my time away from work, Heather and I drove five and a half hours north on the Island to Port Hardy. Then, in the pouring rain, we drove another hour over a torturous logging road until we came to the parking lot at the trail head of the Cape Scott Provincial Park. We piled our backpacks out of the car and walked an hour and a half in the rain through the mud until we reached Erik Lake where we camped for the night. It poured all night.

Next morning we packed up and headed out along the trail. Once we got started on the trail there was no camping until after seven hours of hiking we reached Nels Bight where we erected our little tent and fell comatose into our sleeping bags. For the next four days, we spent our time walking the long sandy beaches, poking around in tidal pools, sitting looking out at the vast empty ocean, and reading in our tent. There was almost no one around. Most days we saw one or two other human beings. Apart from the constant rhythm of the ocean beating on the shore and the cry of gulls, there was no sound. We had this great silent space all to ourselves.

One day, Heather and I stood for a long time by the side of a river that poured out of the bush at the top of the beach cutting a path through the sand to the ocean. As the river made its way to the great water of the ocean, it formed a canyon in the beach with sharp new sand banks on each side along its path. As we watched the river do its work, suddenly a great junk of the sand bank collapsed into the river. The sand that moments earlier had looked completely solid, and in fact would have held our weight had we stood there, disintegrated in an instant into microscopic particles that were then washed out into the vastness of the ocean. The sand bank that had seemed so solid and permanent was transformed into a rushing stream of sand particles blending with the salt and the water of the ocean.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, recounts the great solid sweeping drama of the history of the people of Israel. Zechariah takes comfort in remembering the great events of Israel’s past. He is encouraged to recall the deliverance of his people from Egypt. He finds strength calling to mind the revelation given to Moses when God visited him on Mt. Sinai. Zechariah’s spirits are lifted by reminding himself of the great King David who led his people to such glory in a long period of peace and prosperity.

But we all know that like the river bank on the beach at Nels Bight, the events of history are like sand. Those things that look so solid and seem so real, those things we rely upon, those events that we cherish and hope give some kind of permanent and lasting meaning to our lives are all passing away. Kingdoms come and kingdoms go. All the great enterprises of our lives will one day disappear. They are simply tiny particles of sand, the accumulation of which gives the impression of something solid, but one day they will be transformed and washed out into the unknown ocean of vastness that lies beyond the fleeting reality of our physical existence.

So, the question Zechariah raises for us is this – when the events of our lives that seem so solid and real to us now, are washed away, is anything left? Are we anything more than little particles of dust that will one day be dissolved into the vast nothingness of an empty abyss? Or are we something more? Is there more to us than meets the eye? Are we anything more than the stories we tell about our history and the passing accomplishments of our days?

Zechariah’s answer, not surprisingly, is that, indeed there is much more to the human creation than just the passing moments of the few days we have here on this tiny spinning top we call earth. And, interestingly, to demonstrate this other dimension of life, Zechariah points to a child, actually two children. The first child to whom Zechariah points is his own son, John the Baptist. Speaking of his son, Zechariah declares,

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 in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our fee into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

 Zechariah announces that his son is going to prepare the way for another child who will come. This child Zechariah says will “give knowledge of salvation to his people.” He will enable the world to see “the tender mercy of our God.” He will make it possible for people to know that there is a sunrise that will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” The child for whom John the Baptist will prepare the way is of course the child we know as Jesus.

Jesus came into the solid mass of human history to demonstrate for all time, that what appears solid is in fact, as he would come to say, like grass which “today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven” (Matthew 6:30). But, Jesus came also to show that deeper than this ephemeral nature of life, is another reality, a transcendent reality. Jesus came to show that, we human beings are not only little grains of sand being washed out to sea. We are in our hidden depths, a profound mystery. We are spiritual beings intricately intertwined within the substance of our physical beings. As Paul the apostle would say, “If we have a natural body, we also have a spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15:44). We are dual beings. We exist in the visible, tangible, physical realm of the senses. We also exist in the invisible, intangible, hidden darkness of the Spirit.

In the Anglican Church, we are in the habit of baptizing infants. We bring these tiny vulnerable little physical beings into the community and we acknowledge their presence among us. In this service we are doing something terribly important and enormously profound. We are acknowledging that these little beings exist. We accept their physical presence among us and honour their physical birth. We make space for them and honour their creation. We know that their physical birth came through water. And so we celebrate their arrival by pouring water over them.

But then in this baptism service we say something more. We take water and we acknowledge that, just as these children were physically born, they are also spiritually born. We acknowledge that, just as they have a physical body, so they have a “spiritual body.” And, in this watery symbol of life, we together open ourselves to this other reality, this other dimension of life. We acknowledge that a new life cannot be summed up simply by all those things we can see, hear and smell.

Zechariah tells the story of his people, reminding them of the great events of their history. We like to tell our stories drawing attention to the events of our past that we feel give shape and meaning to our lives. But, if you take the phrase, “my story” and change only one letter, “my story” becomes “mystery.” We are not simply our stories. We are not only the events that happen to us. We are the great vast mystery of the hidden depths of the ocean of life that are revealed for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are the mystery of life that is seen in the miracle of birth. And, in the end, it is this “mystery” that we long to know and to experience much more than the stories we so often tell to make ourselves feel real.

Zechariah concludes his great hymn of praise declaring that this Jesus who is to come will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). This is truly the deepest longing of our hearts. It is peace for which we yearn. And we will never find peace by pretending to ourselves that the sand banks of our lives are permanent and unassailable. We will never find peace by building walls of security around ourselves. Life is uncertain and tenuous at best. Those things we have come to rely on are all going to let us down.

The last time Heather and I hiked to Cape Scott was thirteen years ago. We were terribly conscious on our hike this year that thirteen years is a long time. We are not as young as we were thirteen years ago. I think that at the great old age of fifty-two, it is quite possible that we will not have too many more seven hour hikes with fifty pound packs left. We just cannot rely on our bodies the way we used to think we could. When you walk seventeen kilometres into the wilderness and camp in a tiny tent near a beach where you have just seen a large black bear, and observed wolf tracks in the sand, you realize your vulnerability.

But, Zechariah promises that, even in the midst of the vulnerability of life, there is a possibility of finding peace. There is the possibility of experiencing the reality that the sand as it runs out into the ocean, does not ultimately cease to exist; it is transformed. It may look different from the way it looked even moments earlier, but it is not ultimately gone. It is this permanent life force and truth that was raised up from death to new life in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That which they thought had gone, was not over. Jesus existed beyond physical death, beyond the fragile impermanence of life.

It is this reliable permanent dimension of the human reality that we celebrate in baptism. Zechariah calls it “the tender mercy of our God.” In the midst of all the changeableness of life, there is an unchanging mercy that is God. This mercy can be seen in the person of Jesus. This mercy can be known in our lives as we open and trust in God’s presence known to us through Jesus Christ.

But too often we fail to know. We fail to see this other dimension of life. We are so caught up in building our sandcastles, in shoring up the crumbling banks of our lives that we fail to see beyond these physical realities to the truth that lies deeper than our knowing. It is interesting to me that Zechariah’s song came after nine months of silence. When the birth of John the Baptist was foretold, Zechariah questioned the messenger. In response Zechariah was informed

behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words. (Luke 1:20)

It is amazing to me spending seven days out in the wilderness, how much easier it is than in the city to sense that there really is another whole dimension to existence of which we so often lose sight. When you step out of your tent in the morning and hear only the ocean and see a long sandy beach with waves lapping the shore, your heart opens and you know that the mystery and the beauty of life cannot be summed up simply by our senses. We are too distracted, too preoccupied to see the reality beyond our daily lives. We need to find some space, to connect with the silence and peace in which God can be known. The Psalmist famously said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

One of the beauties of backpacking is that, when you get where you are going, you only have with you, whatever it is you brought along. And when food, clothing, a book, and a bible weigh in at fifty pounds, that is enough for me. So, there are many fewer distractions out there in the wilds. There is no computer, no telephone, no DVD player, far fewer books than I have at home. You can’t go shopping, pick up a random magazine or even check your email. There is just you and God’s extraordinary creation. In such an environment something opens within you. It is this something that we are about in the church. And we say that this “something” is the Spirit of God and it is given to us in our creation when “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). To be “a living creature” is to acknowledge that we are both dust and breath. We are made up of the material reality of life and of the invisible Spirit of God’s breath dwelling in our being.

We are not just one thing or the other. We are both spirit and body. And we need to live all our lives in an acknowledgement of that mysterious reality of our being that is both visible and invisible. To neglect either is to live as something less than what we were created to be. Christian faith has a profound and highly exalted vision of what it means to be human. We find this vision most fully realized in the person of Jesus.

John the Baptist came to point to the reality of the spiritual dimension of existence by preparing the way for Jesus. John came to point to Jesus as the embodiment of truth and light. He came to call the world to recognize in Jesus the fulfillment of the deepest longings of the human condition. John the Baptist is a picture of the church. Our job in the church, is to point again and again to this vision of Jesus. We exist to call each of us to open to that reality that dwells in the deepest regions of our being, that reality that cannot finally be apprehended by our physical senses alone. It is terribly tempting to get caught up in some other well-meaning venture, to get sidetracked by some other perfectly legitimate and valuable goal. But, if the church does not continually call us to open to the hidden reality of the spiritual nature of life, it is unlikely we can expect anyone else to take the job.

If the world is going to thrive, we must know that our fulfillment is not found in building sandcastles on the beach. Our destiny lies in the great vast mystery of being that is God. This God is known to us in Jesus Christ, by the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts. May we open and trust this work and know the fullness of God’s presence at work in our beings.

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