SERMON — Thank God for Our Enemies

SERMON — Advent 2 (Year C)

  • Malachi 3:1–4
  • Luke 1:68–79
  • Philippians 1:3–11
  • Luke 3:1–6

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79 ESV)

When I was at seminary a few years ago — this would be 2008, as I recall — I was interim pastor at Uptown Lutheran Church in Chicago, a mission outreach church in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood where we served the poor, the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill. They were our parish, and I learned to love them.

Now, the senior pastor there — an amazing man named Bob Lesher who retired earlier this year — told me a story. He was pastor there the morning of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and as they huddled in the dayroom taking the events of the morning in, a former professional basketball player whose life had become enveloped by mental illness loudly proclaimed:

God bless our enemies! If it weren’t for them, we might not have anyone to love!

Interesting wisdom from the mouths of schizophrenics.

It’s an odd prophesy that Zechariah makes here. He sings it, probably. He understands that in the naming of his son John — a name no one else in his family has — something different has happened, something new, something extraordinary.

Luke’s gospel begins with the promise of God to the priest Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth, long childless, will have a son. An angel greets Zechariah while he is at work in the temple, and makes him the following promises:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Zechariah, I want to remind you, is then struck dumb — unable to speak — until the day his son is born. As a sign of the truth of the words the Angel Gabriel spoke to him in the temple. He and his wife have not even conceived yet, so this priest of God Almighty is mute for longer than the nine months needed to fully beget a child.

He is unable to speak. Unable to bear witness to what he has seen and what he was told. Unable to tell anyone, not even his wife, of the promise God has made.

He must keep silent.

So it’s no small wonder, when the baby is born and is named John, and Zechariah’s tongue is finally loosened, that the Spirit possesses him and he now tells everything he knows.

He has seen the coming salvation of God’s people, salvation long promised. With this child, and with the coming birth of Jesus, God is remembering his people — and his promises — just as God remembered his people during their long enslavement in Egypt, when God remembered the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God knew, and God remembered.

That’s what’s happening here, with these two tiny babies, one yet unborn. These two are Israel’s deliverance. And Zechariah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks to his newborn son.

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

As we hear these words, we need to remember how John’s life ends. He doesn’t just bear witness to Jesus, he doesn’t just point the way. He doesn’t just baptize with water and call on the crowds and the tax collectors and the soldiers to be just, and share, live honest lives. He criticizes King Herod — and is beheaded for it.

His head handed, on a silver platter, to a little girl who danced.

We know how the life of this child of promise ends. Something to remember as we work our way toward Christmas, toward that baby in the manger in Bethlehem. We know how his life ends too.

But there is something, in all of this, in this song that Zechariah sings. He speaks of enemies. This isn’t an abstract deliverance, a salvation from sin or a sinful state of being. “That we should be saved from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us.”

I suspect we don’t spend much time, as followers of Jesus, as people of God, thinking of ourselves as having enemies. Thinking there are people who hate us merely for being followers of Jesus. That’s a notion that belongs to another era, another people, and not to us. In fact, the idea that we might need redeeming and delivering from anything resembling real live enemies probably strikes most of us as odd, even threatening and possibly horrific. We don’t have enemies, not as the loving, caring, compassionate people of God. All are welcome here. There are no strangers in this place. And no enemies.

Enemies are for those who worry about the design of Starbucks cups and the intentions of Syrian refugees, who wonder why more people don’t carry firearms as a way of protecting all of us, who cheer on a political race that cannot find enough enemies — Russians, Iranians, jihadists, drug dealers, secularists, brown people. Enemies are for those who get their church and their country confused, or so intertwined in a way its hard for them to tell the difference. The United States of America may have enemies — it’s sad and unfortunate, and maybe if as Americans we behaved better we might not have so many — but as Christians, we don’t have enemies.

We don’t. Jesus said. Something like that. I think. Maybe.

However, throughout scripture, the judgement of God rarely appears as some disembodied force — fire and brimstone falling from the sky to obliterate the sinful — but almost always as flesh and blood, as people acting as agents of that judgment. As opponents who come fighting, defeating, conquering, and occupying.

As enemies.

The list is long. Egyptians. Philistines. Assyrians. Babylonians. Romans. All seen as the physical embodiment of God’s judgment, as the agents of God’s wrath upon a sinful and faithless people. This doesn’t mean they are evil, or aren’t human, merely that in the way the history of Israel unfolds in scripture, God uses these people to inflict the consequences of Israel’s failure to adhere to the covenant with God. But if you do not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, God tells Israel through Moses in Leviticus 26, then I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you.

Enemies. Hatred. These too are the promises of God.

Do we, as followers of Jesus, have enemies? I’m reluctant to point a finger, to name names, mostly because I know where that leads. We find it easy to be self-righteous when we can point to someone else and say, “they are our enemy” or “they are God’s enemy.” It’s interesting that in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where God lays out all the awful things that will befall Israel for its failure to follow God’s teaching, God never specifies who the enemy will be. Only that whoever’s hands are wielding the sword, God is the one doing the actual work.

So I trust that we have enemies, even if it’s only something as abstract as sin and death. We have enemies.

Which is why the Spirit speaks as she does through Zechariah. Because way back in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God doesn’t just promise to leave Israel defeated, conquered, and scattered. God also promises to remember. God also promises to redeem. God also promises to deliver. And this is what Zechariah is celebrating in his song. Deliverance from enemies — Roman rule, I suspect, but also the corrupt local leadership — but for a greater purpose, that we might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days.

So enemies, yes, I’m certain we have them. They oppress us and threaten us. But I don’t really care who they are. To focus on enemies is to miss the point, to lose sight of the promise, and to forget who we are. In these two tiny babies, Zechariah sees what we will see, that we have glimpsed the coming of our redemption, and the reason for it — to love and serve and worship God without fear, that the world might know it has not been abandoned to its sinfulness, its anger, and its despair. That we might love so profusely and extravagantly that a dark world will know there is forgiveness, there is light shining in that darkness, and there is life that overcomes the apparent finality of death.

Remember, when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate you — as he does during his sermon on the plain in Luke’s gospel — he’s not simply talking about people we are arguing with, or disagreeing with, or who cannot stand the fact that we merely breathe. He’s talking about people who have made war on us, who have attacked and laid waste to us, who have defeated, conquered, and occupied us. We can love them, our enemies, because we know that God has promised to deal with them, to deliver us from them. God has got it taken care of. So we do not need to worry about our enemies. Who they are. What they can do to us. God will defeat them and deliver us. God has promised.

Our responsibility — our only responsibility — is to love them. And thank God for them. Because without our enemies, we might not have anyone to love.

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