Point, Counterpoint

Zechariah finds his voice. Or rather, it is given back to him. New and improved. If you missed Zech’s back story, read about it here. It matters to what happens next.

Songs matter, as we’ve determined. Scripture tells us that what comes out of our mouths shows clearly what’s in our hearts. Where is that more certain than a song that bursts forth, unrehearsed, in jubilant, or horrified, feeling?

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Photo by Ronald Rivas on Unsplash

The Israelites could not find their voice in exile, even though they were commanded to sing. In their grief, no words came.

( But how can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
 Psalm 137.4)

In Zechariah’s relief and joy, words come whirling out like a waterfall during spring rain.

Finding a Voice

This is what that voice says, or sings:

“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has visited and redeemed his people.
He has sent us a mighty Savior
    from the royal line of his servant David,
just as he promised
    through his holy prophets long ago.

 Now we will be saved from our enemies
    and from all who hate us.
 He has been merciful to our ancestors
    by remembering his sacred covenant—
 the covenant he swore with an oath
    to our ancestor Abraham.
 We have been rescued from our enemies
    so we can serve God without fear,
 in holiness and righteousness
    for as long as we live.

“And you, my little son,

    will be called the prophet of the Most High,
    because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
 You will tell his people how to find salvation
    through forgiveness of their sins.
 Because of God’s tender mercy,
    the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,[i]
 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    and to guide us to the path of peace.”

(Luke1.68-79)

What would we have said after over nine months? Zechariah’s first words sing a song of praise to God. Praise and gratitude. These are top of mind for him—the first thing that comes tumbling out of lips that haven’t formed words in nearly a year. They must have felt hoarse, straining through a throat dry from disuse, muscles atrophied from lack of exercise.

He sings praise to God. Immediately.

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Photo by Mike Lewis HeadSmart Media on Unsplash

Praise and Gratitude

I can imagine him cradling his son in this tender moment, seeing the child’s future. Zechariah knows his boy’s great privilege—“He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.”

He must also know the cost—prophets were not historically beloved. Zechariah must have a glimpse of the pain that will come to his family along with the great joy. Nevertheless, his first words are praise and gratitude.

Kindness and Light

His next are also kind of amazing. He speaks of rescue, mercy, peace, light and forgiveness. John will be a firebrand – but his father is different. As we saw two weeks ago, Mary, too, shines in the rebellious, single-minded visionary strength of youth. Her song trumpets joy at the renewal of creation as it was meant to be—and thus the overthrow of human institutions of oppression. She does not shrink from speaking, singing, truth to power.

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Zechariah offers a gentler viewpoint, the experience of age that has seen and known and treads lightly in a harsh world. That he has quite recently been forced to listen, to hear the voices of others, to see their need and their viewpoint, I think changes his words here from what they might have been.

He speaks soft words, words of quiet and hope. Words that do indeed cry for a Savior who will change the world, but less a warrior than a pastor.

John will call people to repent. He will be rough and wild.

Zechariah knows that God’s mercy must fall on us for our repentance—that we are all in need, all fall short.

He realizes the truth Paul will later write:

 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (Romans 2.4)

It’s his kindness that leads us to repentance.

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Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Zechariah is a pastor at heart. He cares deeply about the people. This is why he is worthy to offer prayers for the people. You know he is earnestly praying, deeply hoping, grieving, expecting with them right there in the temple.

He is thrilled that their salvation has come—their darkness is over.

Zechariah’s pastor’s heart and experience make him the perfect parent for one who is to pave the way for the savior.

His kindness leads you to repentance.

How much do we need Zechariahs today? Those who will remind people, recall them, turn them back whit words of kindness—not judgment, anger, or fear? The world is desperate with the need for a quiet soul.

Mary is the point—Zechariah is the counterpoint. Together, they tell a gospel story that many of us try to separate. Jesus is both/and. He is a personal savior of peace and a societal savior of systems rife with sin.

There is room and need for both.

Both/And

In Zechariah, we see a savior who offers us individual salvation and relationship, guidance and mercy, light and hope. We see a Messiah who will later say—“Come to me —I will give you rest.” We imagine a Savior who will touch the heads of tax collectors and prostitutes and tell them they are valuable in the kingdom.

You also see a savior of the world in Mary’s Jesus—A king for justice and rightness and reconciliation in the entire created order.

It’s not one or the other.

It’s not one at expense of the other.

It’s both/and.

They cannot be separated.

The gospel is a gospel for each person and for the world.

It is good news for all of it. The entire mess.

It is reconciliation for everything—everything.

These two songs together give us the picture of the whole gospel and the whole savior. They are the songs of a pastor and a prophet, and they sing a beautiful duet.

Like Zechariah, perhaps we should listen.

Thanks for All the Fish

Since we’re running a few gardening-related posts (of course we are), I thought I’d bring back some of my favorites as well. Anytime I talk about an encounter with Jesus it’s a favorite, because that’s the best possible things to have happen. Even when, as this person finds out, it leaves you a little scared, and a lot wet.

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I am a gardener, but a haphazard one at best. I forget where I plant things and what I already bought. I dig up seeds my husband has planted that I didn’t know about. I plant and replant the same spots, with little patience to ensure success.

Last year, I threw some cutting flower seeds in a circular patch that had been a dumping ground for weeds, cardboard, and old stalks. I didn’t expect much. I hadn’t put much into it.

The ensuing display of orange zinnias, blue cornflowers, and yellow marigolds lit up the side yard for months. Their exorbitance only exacerbated my lack of effort.

I received a huge bonus for minimal exertion, and I felt the joy of it. So I get Peter a little bit in today’s encounter with Jesus.

When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.

When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him.

Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. (Luke 5.4-11)

I know exactly how Peter felt. He had blown it. He knew he had. He knew his attitude hadn’t been grateful or trusting or anything approximating appropriate about the whole re-fishing gig. He knew Jesus blessed him anyway. And he fell on his face in a stunned mix of amazement and repentance.

This Jesus in this encounter takes our little obedience and lavishes boatloads (literally) of goodness on us.

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And just look at how he does it.

He does it despite the probability that it is not possible

There were no fish out there. The experts had certified it. Who would doubt the fishermen’s word that fish were not biting? I wouldn’t. The only fish I’ve ever caught in my life was a tiny sunfish at Girl Scout camp that I caught with an old hook and a bread dough ball. Both my father and my husband attest that fishing and my ability to sit in one spot doing nothing but staring at water do not comingle.

But Jesus blatantly ignores the experts and sends them out anyway. Go fish. Because I said so. Because I believe you can find fish if you follow my voice and do what I say. I believe that crazy thing you dream about can happen if you’re in the boat with me.

He does it despite the attitude of the givee

Jesus: Go out and put the nets down for fish again.

Peter: OK, Jesus, we already tried that, but WhatEVER, dude.

Because you know that was exactly the tone of his voice.

And how often has that been my tone when dealing with that hard thing Jesus tells me to do that I just Do. Not. Want. To. Do? OK God, whatever. I’ll do it. But I won’t be Cheery-Dearie while I do. And then . . . the boats are swamped with goodness anyway.

Because he is good.

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He does not, as many armchair theologians would imply, give to us after we have attained a certain grade for righteousness. He does not keep score of how often we have a bad attitude toward obedience. He surprises the churlish among us with kindness. It’s his kindness, after all, that leads to repentance (Romans 2.4). True here with Peter, no? So true.

He does it with an eye toward something more

Along with the fish he offers what is certainly more important and harder to offer unsparingly. He offers forgiveness, patience, and a new purpose.

He wants to call these fishermen, and us, toward something greater than fish. The lavish generosity is about His love and character, to be sure. He gives good gifts simply because He is good. Period.

But it is also about His kingdom and His plans for it. For us. He calls us to head out into the waters of his kingdom, fishing for people’s hearts. Fishing for justice. Fishing for forgiveness. Fishing for sacrifice and healing and love.

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He demonstrates in this one act of generosity that the returns will be mind-boggling.

What does this encounter mean for us?

  • Can’t we love a Jesus who gives because it’s in his nature to give, not because he’s keeping a chart of what we deserve?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who believes in the seemingly impossible for us?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who cares so much more about our real calling, what our hearts beat for and our souls ache for, than he does our nine-to-five job? Who gives us free rein to pursue that with all our hearts because that is what defines who we are, not our title or position? (Although yes, we still need a job, because food.)

I can.

Cleaning Up the Clutter

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The area around our fire pit is a bit of a mess. Like, you could lose a small child in there mess. The logs and kindling are semi-stacked/falling to one side. A picnic table sits at one end, its boards crumbling with age. The patio is, well–a little uneven would be a charitable way to put it. We put the stone down ourselves, and straight and flat are not our strong suits.

We’re creatives here, not engineers. Don’t judge.

Last year, I worked hard to pull all the weeds that grow up between the logs and around the table. They were big. Thistles, pokeberries, bindweed—all of it went into the compost.

Then we went on vacation. And after two weeks, we returned to weeds so high they were over my head.

I am not even joking. Jesus please help if we ever forget to weed for over a month. They may never find us.

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Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

Now, the weedy soil.

“Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.”

I’m preaching an entire Advent series on distractions. Clutter. Those things in our lives that do exactly what these weeds do—crowd out the tender, beautiful things of God that are supposed to grow in our lives.

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” (Matthew 13)

Is your heart distracted or focused?

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Sometimes, I fear I have a thorny heart. There are so many other options. So many things get the resources that the seeds God plants in my heart need. He offers me the abundant resources of time, money, gifts, talents, people, things, and feelings. (Yes, they are abundant. Whether we believe it or not.) Too often, I squander those wonderful gifts on the things that should be lower on the priorities list.

Time? Booked.

Money? Budgeted.

Talents? Overextended.

Feelings? Already overloaded.

We get so distracted by competing priorities we don’t even notice the tiny plants God has sown into our lives struggling for their share of sun and rain. We’re too busy.

These priorities aren’t always bad, of course. Kids sports are good for them. Grades matter. Work requires our best. Entertainment is needed after a tough day of work, and paying bills, well, things can get a little dicey if we don’t.

The problem isn’t that we are committed to bad things. The problem is that we aren’t committed to the best thing first. When priorities compete, the biggest, loudest, strongest get the most attention. The weeds win. If I didn’t weed my garden, the weeds would always win. The same is true in our lives.

We’re always attracted to the shiny, the attention-seekers. The thing is, God’s kingdom isn’t usually shiny and loud. It’s usually quiet. It’s everyday. it’s about showing up and keeping on, and that can’t compete with the things that promise us all we’ve ever wanted.

The promise is:

We’ll be good parents if our kids are busy and get to do all the things other kids do.

We’ll be secure if we work enough to have a cushion in the bank.

We’ll be liked if we know all the shows and all the music and all the Facebook news everyone else does.

We’ll be important if we look busy.

We need to do a prairie burn of our lives so that good things get first crack at the sunshine.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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If we seek everything else first and then hope there will be room for the kingdom in our lives? We’re going to harvest thorns. We won’t even be able to find God in all the clutter. But if we seek the kingdom first? Jesus says he will add all the important things we truly need.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

Everything. That we need.

Do you know what the tragic result is from all of our busyness and distraction? Did you notice that last line of the story?

“No fruit is produced.”

Fruit is the good story we tell with our lives. It’s all about the fruit. That’s the reason God left us here instead of winging us up out of this craziness the moment we got saved. We’re here to produce fruit. And distracted people don’t. It’s so clear in Jesus’ words that it’s tragic.

I think this may be the most common soil of all of them, which means I may be guilty. The world is so distracting and the kingdom so quiet.

Maybe these questions sounds familiar to you:

Why aren’t I joyful?

Why don’t I feel content?

Why are my finances always a mess?

Why is my schedule always nuts?

Why is life so hard?

It could be the answer to all of them is the same—we’ve let the weeds choke out the goodness and simplicity of the kingdom. We’ve made God’s good seeds compete, and they are losing.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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What do you need to weed out of your life? What do you need to focus on? Christmas and a new year are good times to get quiet, look at or priorities, and ask ourselves—am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Does it look like I am when I look at my list of activities? What seeds Is God trying to plant in my heart, and what is it going to take to give them some air and sunshine?

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

We can’t tell a good story with a cluttered life. Decluttering our hearts brings out our best story.