The Tender Mercies (Sermon)

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached on the First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2021. The texts I preached on were not the usual texts of the day. Rather, they were Luke 1:67-79 and Matthew 2:1-12.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

So began the song that we read in place of the Psalm today. The gospel of Luke includes four canticles, or songs, connected to the birth of Jesus. This one is called the song of Zechariah, or the Benedictus. It’s the song that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang when John was born.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

I could say the same thing about myself. “Blessed be God!” I could sing, for God has looked favorably on me, and saved me. I have been saved in just the past few weeks. Three weeks ago, I stood here, and preached on All Saints Sunday. I proclaimed God’s grace and forgiveness to you, but that day I could not accept it for myself. I did not even receive communion that day. I was so wrapped up in a haze of guilt that I could not even see God’s love in my own hands. I felt so undeserving of that love, that I simply put the full cup aside. I was sick that day, so sick in the depths of depression that I felt like I couldn’t think straight, I felt like I couldn’t see straight.

Depression hits people in different ways. For me, it tends to manifest as guilt. And this depression didn’t come overnight. It was a long time coming. This guilt had been building up in me for months, a guilt that led to a deep self-hatred. I hated myself. I’m not proud of this – I’m not recommending it. But it’s the truth.

The following day, on Monday, I finally hit rock-bottom. I finally realized that I would never pull myself out of this by myself. I got scared.

And I did the best thing I could have done. I asked for help. Help came to me in the form of my wife Heather, who got on the phone and got me into the partial hospitalization program at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Muhlenberg in Bethlehem. Help came to me in the form of congregation council that evening, when they approved an emergency two-week medical leave. And help most certainly came over those two weeks in Bethlehem, as I participated in group therapy, listening, healing, accepting, and learning to love myself.

Zechariah sang that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. I was indeed saved from the hand of one who hated me – my own hand. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for I began to find peace, and hope. Hope that things could be different. Hope that I could be well. Hope that I could truly live again. Hope that I was forgiven. Hope that I could be worthy of love, that I could truly love myself. And that hope has made all the difference.  

But I don’t want to talk about me for this whole sermon. No, today we’re talking about the wise men. The wise men who, like me, were heading to Bethlehem. A different Bethlehem, and for a different reason. They weren’t go going to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for therapy, obviously. But perhaps they were heading to their Bethlehem also looking for hope. Perhaps they also were as desperate as I was to find something that would bring them life. And perhaps they found it.

Who were these wise men, after all? Matthew calls them magi from the east, and the best we can tell, they were probably court priests and astrologers from Persia, in what is now Iran. They looked at the stars for messages and signs. And in those stars, they saw a sign that pointed them to Judea, about 1300 miles west of where they were. And they went. They traveled for months to find a new king that was born in Judea. Why? Why would court astrologers from Persia care about what was happening in distant Judea? Hard to say. But perhaps, perhaps they were looking for, well…good government.

Government in the first century was not what we’d call democratic. The world was divided among several empires. Judea was under the thumb of the Romans, while Persia was controlled by the Parthians. These empires didn’t care much about the locals, so long as they paid their taxes. And they set up local governments to assure that that happened. The Romans had installed Herod as king of Judea, and he was a paranoid and cruel tyrant over them. 

Throughout the ancient world, power came to those with might, and money came to those with power. Everyone else was left on their own. Perhaps, perhaps, these magi from the east were looking for hope that there might be another way. If they truly were wise, perhaps they knew that there must be another way. Another way to rule, another way to be a king, and perhaps they hoped beyond hope that this new king in Judea would usher in that new way.

And perhaps as they traveled those thirteen hundred miles, they heard the distant strains of Zechariah’s song ringing in their ears:

The Lord has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David. 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 they reached Bethlehem, where the star they followed stopped. And there they found the child they sought. And they were overwhelmed with joy. Somehow they knew, or perhaps they just trusted, that this child was a new kind of king, a new kind of leader, a new kind of hope. And they gave him rich, exotic, expensive gifts. They knelt before him, and paid him homage.

We don’t know what happened to these magi. Where they went, what they did. But we do know something about what happened to that child they worshiped. We know that when that child grew up, he did not sit on Herod’s throne. He did not overthrow the Romans. In fact, it looked as though he was defeated by them. And yet, he was not. The magi were right about him after all; he did usher in a new way of being king. He was king of all creation not through power or money or cruelty, but through sacrifice, and through grace, and through self-giving love. He didn’t bring freedom from the Romans, but he brought freedom from sin, and he brought hope. And perhaps that was enough.

And I wonder if he still brings hope today. Our world, our government is very different, and in most ways far better. Yet perhaps we in 21st century America need hope just as much as they did in first century Judea. Because while may not live under the thumb of a brutal tyrant, we live in a country filled with too much anger and rage and hatred.

So many people today believe that the Republican Party is an agent of evil, trying to destroy everything good about their lives. And so many other people believe that the Democratic Party is that agent of evil. So many people today see those they disagree with, whether it’s about science or about history or about masks, as evil.

And I wonder if the real agent of evil in our midst is not a political party, not any particular president or pundit, but I wonder if the real agent of evil in our country right now is actually that rage itself, that hatred itself. And I wonder if there is, nonetheless, hope for us. I think there is. I think the hope for us today is found in the same place the magi found it.

Our hope is in the child of Bethlehem. As the wise men ignored King Herod, and bowed down instead before the child of Bethlehem, I wonder if we can also change our focus. Jesus didn’t stop the hatred of his day. But he showed another way. Perhaps focusing on him, we can learn from him love and acceptance. We don’t have to fix each other. We can’t anyway. We don’t have to make people agree with us. We can’t anyway. We don’t have to try to stop people from hating each other. We can’t do that anyway. And we don’t have to be angry and depressed about how wrong the other side is. We can’t change that. But we can bow down before the child of Bethlehem.

And we can follow him. And even in the midst of whatever this world give us, we can show love. The king in the manger doesn’t through power or money. The king in the manger doesn’t rule through laws or elections. The king in the manger rules through self-sacrificing love.

Right now, Christ is teaching me how to love someone I hated, myself. I wonder if we can all learn that. Learn how to love ourselves. How to love each other. How to love our enemies. How to love God. The king in the manger can show us that.

And perhaps as he does, perhaps as we practice this, we can hear the words of Zechariah’s song, echoing across the centuries:

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.

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