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26 June 2011

Of Cutting Hedges and Keeping Silence (June 24)

My brother and I still talk about what happened in our house every year around June 20. My father would say, "Johanni is coming, gentlemen -- after June 24, you're out of excuses". The coming of June 24 meant that it was time to cut the big hedge in front of the parsonage. My father tells me that waiting until that day gives the hedge a chance to bring out the "Johannistrieb" (known in the US as "lammas shoot"), the last growth spurt until the next Spring.

What Germans call "Johanni" is known in our Lutheran Calendar as "The Nativity of John the Baptist" -- it is commemorated on June 24 because John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus.

Jan Van Eyck: Birth of John the Baptist

Picture Elizabeth, lying on a mattress, in labor, sighing in pain, and lots of friends and neighbors milling around. Over there, that's Zechariah, the priest, her husband. They say that when he had a vision in the temple, he was rendered speechless (The wonderful German phrase, "Es hatte ihm die Sprache verschlagen" is best translated with something most modern renditions avoid: "He was struck dumb"!). 

When they needed to decide what to call the child, he still couldn't speak, so they gave him a tablet, and he wrote, "His name is John". Something important must be going on; an old woman close to where we are says, "This is interesting; I wouldn't be surprised if this were a very special child. We'll have to watch this one."

Now what? The commotion comes from where Zechariah is sitting. A loud voice comes from there. That loud voice is .... Zechariah's. Speech has come back to him. He who was mute has regained his voice, and mighty words are going forth from his mouth: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David."

Someone around us whispers, "Finally somebody reminds us of God's promises. We need men like him to overthrow the Romans. God will free us from oppression." We look around, and we remember that this Palestine, a colony crawling with Roman soldiers, Roman administrators and Roman spies. This is a country whose king rules by the grace of Rome. 

The people whose ancestors were taken into exile so many times -- they are prisoners in their own country; they are not free. Zechariah's words are not new to the people around him, but something new has been added: there is a child, and a child means new life and new hope, a new beginning. "He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant," says Zechariah, reminding everyone that their lives ultimately don't depend on those who run the country but on God who made heaven and earth, and who sent a child that would point to another, the Savior of the World. "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".

Luke's account of the Johanni story began with an unbelieving and harried Zechariah; it ends with the same man praising God with a new voice, hopeful and jubilant. You and I, we know the situations in which we are like the Zechariah of the early story, unbelieving and harried; but we also have been the Zechariah of the later story: hopeful and jubilant. How do we get from the first condition to the second?

How can we get from unbelieving and harried to hopeful and jubilant? It seems as though God can work his way into our lives best when we are willing to be still. Zechariah was forced into silence rather unsubtly, but the value of chosen silence is evident all throughout Scripture. Take Psalm 131, for example:  

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
 O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore. 

There are many times when we think we are silent, just because we do not speak, but in reality we have great discussions within: we struggle with imaginary enemies or war against ourselves. Calming our souls requires the kind of simplicity shown in the psalm: "I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me."

When we are silent the right way, we recognize that our worries can’t do much. When we are silent like the person praying the words of Psalm 131, we surrender what is beyond our reach and capacity to the One who is in charge, from whom we come and to whom we will return.

A moment of silence, even very short, is like a holy stop, a sabbatical rest, a truce of worries. During these days of summer, may you seek that holy stillness that opens you for God's richest blessings.

Luke 1; Psalm 131

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