December 5, 2021
Over Thanksgiving, we visited the Planet Word Museum in Washington, D.C. Planet Word is a new interactive museum all about language. It was a fascinating museum! I think my whole family would recommend it.
What stood out for me was where English comes from. About a ¼ comes from Germanic Languages, another ¼ comes from Latin, and ¼ comes from French. The remaining quarter comes from a mix of other languages like Greek and others; onomatopoeia like Splat, Burp, and Clang; and then combined words that we just made up. Like what happens when we combine the words Breakfast and Lunch, we get… Brunch. Combine Angry and Hungry and we get… Hangry, the angry feeling we get when we’re hungry.
Language is dynamic. It makes us feel. Both in spoken and written form, language is key to our experience. Words are important and can draw out all sorts of feelings. We try to deny that and claim that words don’t matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a lie. Words will cause us a lifetime of therapy.
Words are important. We also visited three monuments while we were in D.C: the Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr monuments. All three have various words carved in stone that still resonate with me today.
FDR towards the end of WWII stated, “Unless the peace that follows recognizes that the whole world is one neighborhood and does justice to the whole human race, the germs of another world war will remain as a constant threat to mankind.” That moves me. It makes me reflect on just how deep and radical lighting a candle for peace truly is, and how far that peace needs to extend.
MLK said “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” Feels like the Gospel to me. God-in-Christ comes to us humbly. Unarmed. Talking truth and talking about a radical love for neighbor and enemy. We killed Jesus for that. And he comes back in the resurrection and said, “My peace I give you, my peace I leave you” and nothing will cause Jesus to rescind that peace.
Or Thomas Jefferson saying, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with progress of the human mind. As… New discoveries are made and… opinions change, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Change is a fact of life. We must grow and change as a society and a group. Language has changed. See if you can identify this prayer. First in Old English: “Faeder ure bue eart on heofonun, sin bin nama gehalgod.”
Let’s try it a little more updated from 1380’s Middle English, “Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halewid be thi neme…”
Or in Early Modern English, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name” which is how we’re used to hearing it.
Modern English would be “Our Father in heaven, we honor your holy name.”
Language is dynamic. It changes. Which brings me to our carol today, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
At initial glance, it sounds like God giving rest to happy men. Maybe they had a Christmas party and have overeaten and are in their La-Z-Boys about to crack some beers and watch football. Language changes. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” marks a musical change as well.
According to Ace Collins in Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, most songs used for worship were written in Latin and had dark, somber melodies that offered singers and listeners little inspiration or joy. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written with an upbeat melody and spoke of the birth of Jesus in joyful terms which would have shocked church leaders of the day but charmed their flocks. Not only did they sing to this carol, they danced to it.
The carol was sung for hundreds of years before it was finally published in the 19th Century thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s love of the song. Language has changed, and the original meaning isn’t as clear as it was.
Today, we use “Merry” to mean happy. Yet when it was written, merry had a different meaning. Robin Hood’s band of merry men meant “mighty.” A huge army taking the field was a merry army, a great singer was a merry signer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.
Merry Gentlemen means “mighty gentlemen.” This still doesn’t make much sense, God Rest You Mighty Gentlemen. Rest used here simply means, according to Ace Collins, to “keep” or “make.” A modern updated title would read, “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” This is exactly what Zechariah is singing about in today’s Gospel reading.
Zechariah is a temple priest married to Elizabeth, both descendants of Aaron. Aaron was Moses’ brother and faithful assistant. This sets up John’s relationship to Jesus. John is the assistant to the new Moses of Jesus who is going to give a new law throughout the Gospels.
But Zechariah doubted this. Zechariah and Elizabeth were not able to conceive, and they were old. The Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him that they will have a child who will prepare the way for God’s chosen but Zechariah doubts it. Zechariah must have been having a bad day, since he forgot the story of Abraham and Sarah, and he says “How can I be sure of this? I’m an old man, and my wife is well along in years.”
Gabriel must have had a bad day too. Maybe the commute on Jacob’s Ladder was jammed with holiday traffic. Gabriel essentially says, “Are you kidding me? I stand in the presence of God and was sent to tell you this and this is the thanks I get?!” He strikes Zechariah mute until John is born. As a priest, there goes his livelihood. I sometimes have nightmares about losing my voice in the pulpit while for some of you that might be answer prayers. Maybe that’s not as bad as I think it would be. Sometimes, with all the talking, clergy can forget to listen.
I wonder what Zechariah went through during this time. We’re talking more than 9 months of silence. Zechariah most likely went through all the stages of grief that we talked about in our Rebuild series in September.
Maybe he isolated himself at home for a while. He was probably angry with Gabriel for what felt like an arbitrary reaction to unbelievable news. He might have bargained in his prayers. He was depressed for a while. Then he accepted it. He started to believe and come out of his grief as he saw Elizabeth’s belly grow with child.
When folks gathered around his home following John’s birth and asked after the child’s name, they couldn’t believe it. JOHN. John is a priestly name, but not found in Zechariah’s family. The name means, “God has been gracious.”
This crowd that gathers who has an opinion about what this family names their long-awaited child made signs to Zechariah to find out the child’s name. Not only was Zechariah unable to speak but also unable to hear. Imagine, no input or export for over 9 months. In our crowded world and our ever-present phone, we are constantly bombarded with sight and sound. Maybe what today’s lesson we get is that to find peace, less is more.
I have a theological degree on my wall, and I can trick myself into thinking I know God. Being steeped in my tradition, I can start to think I’m in the best tradition, the most pure. This God of ours, however, can’t be domesticated. God doesn’t show up through the official channels but instead chooses an elderly priest and his barren wife. Does the priest give some stirring testimony? Yes. Only after 9 months of silence. A silence that is broken when Zechariah writes, “His name is John.” And then he sings out!
The song Zechariah sings is traditionally known as the Benedictus, Zechariah’s song of blessing for what God has done, is going to do, and a blessing for his newborn son. This son who bears the name God is Gracious will “prepare the way for God, give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins because of the tender mercy of our God… to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
That last phrase… To guide our feet on the path of peace… Church, may this song make you mighty and let nothing cause you despair!
I have preached on how the church is in decline. Maybe we were in our Zechariah’s stage. We needed a long silence because we thought we knew God. We thought we had domesticated God with all our liturgies and unchanging words that use Thee and Thou. Maybe if we stick with a traditional way of naming God we can trick ourselves into thinking we have it right and we’re safe.
As Sara Miles writes, “I thought of how outrageous Jesus was to the church of his time: he didn’t wash before meals, he said prayers incorrectly; he hung out with women, foreigners, the despised, and unclean. Over and over, he told people not to be afraid… As I interpreted it, Jesus invited notorious wrongdoers to his table, airily discarded all the religious rules of the day, and fed whoever showed up, by the thousands. In the end, he was murdered for eating with the wrong people.”
Come all ye faithful, and let God make you mighty, church. For there is nothing to fear. Maybe we needed a time of silence to remember the story. Maybe we got too comfortable with this story and we forgot its power.
I served under the Rev. Sam Buehrer as his associate for 4 years. He told a story of his confirmation. He was raised in the church. Confirmation was this formality that he was expected to do. His many siblings had to do it, so he just went through the motions. But there was a scandal. A young woman whose family didn’t attend this church joined the confirmation class. She put in the work. And as she stood up in front of the church, she cried as she read her confirmation Bible verse. She gave an emotional speech talking about what Jesus means to her and what she found in the church. Sam always remembered that. It struck him then that his confirmation was very different from hers. This outsider, this nonreligious person GOT IT more than anyone else in his class.
To give knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. Often this becomes a guilt game. I heard one church put it, “to understand how Good the Good News is, you must first tell them the bad news that they are sinners.”
I don’t hear that here in the blessing, the Benedictus. I hear mercy. I hear dawn breaking on us. I hear light to those who sit in darkness and hope for those in the shadow of death. I hear guidance for us in the ways of peace. We are here to help children grow and become strong in spirit. We are here to bless. We are here to tell the good news. I think we have enough bad news in our lives. We’re bombarded with it. We see it on TV, hear it on the radio, we carry it around on our black mirrors and outrage machines of social media.
Let us use our words to bless. To sing out blessing! May God make you mighty with this news and let nothing cause you to despair.
For this is my prayer for us in this time. Tell me if you heard this before: “Your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” Amen.
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 Take This Bread, page 92.