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.