The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 16, 2018 – Third Sunday of Advent
By the One who comes from heaven to us, we become our true selves. We come into our own, not by self-improvement, but by Someone who comes from beyond us to improve us Himself – a Savior who comes near to lead us out of our good-enough lives into still better ones that fulfill our highest potential.
Mark Tegmark is an MIT professor and the co-founder of The Future of Life Institute. Dr. Tegmark believes that the human race could use an upgrade, and he looks forward to what he calls Life 3.0. He delineates three stages of human development: Life 1.0 – humanity in its biological givens; Life 2.0 – humanity enhanced by culture and early technology; and Life 3.0 – humanity infused with the superhuman power of artificial intelligence embedded in our bodies. Dr. Tegmark notes that, despite our present-day potent technologies, we still are very limited by our biological hardware. None of us can live for a million years, memorize Wikipedia, understand all known science, or make the world around us as good as it could possibly be.
Dr. Tegmark believes we need to be liberated from our inherited limitations. We need a final upgrade to Life 3.0, one in which science and technology redesign human hardware and software.
The Bible agrees that we need a fundamental upgrade. But, unlike Dr. Tegmark, it doesn’t see it coming through our effort or ingenuity. We need the intervention of a superior force and wisdom from outside of us. To attain Life 3.0, we need the One who comes from heaven.
The Bible records four Christmas carols you’ll never hear in the mall. Mary sang one after the angel told her she’d be pregnant with the Savior of the world. A host of angels sang one to the shepherds after she’d delivered her baby. Forty days after that, an old man named Simeon, whose song we reflected on two Sundays ago, held baby Jesus in his arms and sang a song of praise.
Today we consider the fourth, but the earliest, of the biblical Christmas songs, one sung six months before Jesus’ birth. It was sung by a priest named Zechariah.
Though he was, Luke tells us, a righteous man who kept God’s commandments, there was, other than that, nothing especially noteworthy about Zechariah. He was not the High Priest. He was just one of the scores of priests who each year rotated on to duty for a two-week stint of service in the Jerusalem temple.
This year, however, God did something noteworthy. By what might simply seem the luck of the draw – the priests threw lots to determine who would get the honor – Zechariah was assigned to go alone into the Lord’s sanctuary to offer incense. While he was carrying out the duty, an angel appeared to him and announced that, though he and his wife Elizabeth were well past their reproductive years, the two of them were going to have a baby, whose name was to be John (meaning in Hebrew “gift of God”) and who would “make ready a people prepared” for Someone the angel calls “the Lord”.
Knowing basic biology and his wife’s age, Zechariah doubted this could happen. In response to his unbelief, God gave Zechariah opportunity to take stock of the strength of his faith by temporarily taking away his ability to speak.
By the way, don’t you wish the Bible recorded the conversation Zechariah had with Elizabeth that evening when he got home? They couldn’t talk back and forth, but they could read and write. So I imagine Zechariah scribbling off a note to her and handing it to her. I imagine her reading it and responding, “The angel said what?! And so now you want to what?!” Husbands have always been known to come up with some creative propositions, but that one’s got to take the cake!
At any rate, Elizabeth did become pregnant and delivered her baby boy. In response to everyone’s suggesting a name for the child, Zechariah laid down the law and wrote, “His name is John!”
Immediately Zechariah regained the capacity to speak for the first time in nine months. The first purpose to which he applied his new-found voice was to sing God’s praise. What is striking is that he praised God, neither for the miraculous return of his voice nor for the miraculous arrival of his own son, but for the arrival of another Son whom his son would one day serve by preparing His way before Him. Zechariah sang, not of God’s giving a son for Elizabeth and him, but of God’s giving a mighty Savior “for us” all.
When Zechariah finally sang to his own son, he sang only of his service to the greater Son. Zechariah’s son’s role in what God was up to was crucial but secondary. John was to be “the prophet of the Most High” and to prepare people for the arrival of the One who was coming. For that One’s arrival would be like the breaking of “the dawn from on high”. It would give heavenly light to those lost in the shadows of death and “guide our feet into the way of peace”.
Though Jesus would later declare John as the greatest of those born of women alone, Jesus the God-Man declared Himself the way, the truth and the life. He presented Himself as the One who comes from afar to draw near and to guide us into the way of peace – that is, the way of shalom, of wholeness, of becoming who we are meant to be. Jesus would make it happen. All we’d need to do is to listen to Him and follow Him. All we’d need to be is humble and teachable.
Tony Liciardello is generally considered the greatest baseball scout of all time. Though he scouted in an area of the country not known for producing much baseball talent, fifty-two of the young prospects he signed became major league stars, and two of them became Hall of Famers. His unparalleled rate of success was due, not to his having an eye for athletic ability or for promising performance at the amateur level, but to his having an eye for an inner quality: what he called “coachability”. He could see who was humble in attitude and open to correction and instruction. He could then see how a prospect would play years “down the road” if given the right guidance under top-flight coaches.
Humility and openness to guidance determine ongoing growth and success in other sports as well. Aaron Rodgers, one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, talks about how after a decade in the league he still eagerly seeks out coaching and how it enables him to keep developing his already elite game. And Steph Curry, one of the NBA’s best guards, was described by a coach as “the most educable player I’ve ever known – both in terms of his willingness to listen and his ability to absorb.”
Humility and openness to guidance determine our ongoing development in the spiritual life as well, and we could never find a better Coach than the One who invites us to “follow” Him and “learn” of Him.
Let us this Advent open our minds and hearts to Christ and humbly receive His superior wisdom and strength. He draws out of us our best self. Let us become all we can be by coming to the One who comes to us, Jesus the Savior. Let us pray.