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Generations and Expectations

December 8, 2014

“Generations and Expectations” Luke 1:57-80 © 12/7/14 Advent 2B/D by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I don’t know about yours, but my parents never had any specific expectations of me as a child or teen. Sure, I had to clean my room, brush my teeth, eat what was put in front of me, be courteous to my elders, do my best in school, that sort of thing. But never that I remember did they ever say they wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or follow in some ancestor’s footsteps. I did find out in my forties that my dad was disappointed badly in me in one particular way. But I won’t go into that here.

So I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up knowing even as a youth that your destiny is to steward the resources and care for the people of some great estate, like the English lord on Downton Abbey. Or to have your folks plan your life for you practically from the moment of your birth, selecting schools, getting you in the right programs, choosing a mate, demanding that you follow the path they lay out, narrowing your choices to those they prefer. Or to be John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Think of it. Here was a powerful spiritual prodigy, filled with the Holy Spirit even in his mother’s womb. We’re meant to think that somehow he was aware of Jesus even when the latter was unborn, so that fetal John leapt when Mary entered the room. His father broke into a song of blessing at his naming that set out the huge task the boy was to undertake upon reaching adulthood. He was to effect nothing less than a turnaround of the people’s fortunes after generations of their wrongdoing and oppression by others. John would be the one to go before the Lord himself as a herald, with words of forgiveness and peace.

It’s no wonder he had to go into the desert. All his growing years, his mom and dad had no doubt continually reminded him of what lay ahead, what was expected of him. Surely there were times he wanted to rebel, to run away, to chuck it all and catch a boat to Spain, find a woman to marry, and raise a family. But something—call it a compulsion, an inner pull, a sense of duty—kept him in Judea, learning, preparing, waiting. When he went into the desert, he sorted things out, settled on his message, decided on his approach to the mission he had been given. The call of God was a heavy burden to be borne, but he would carry it. When he finally emerged at the Jordan, he was dynamic, charismatic, frightening in his clarity of purpose and insight. And people flocked to him. One ancient writer estimated 50,000 came to hear John.

That part of his story is a familiar one. We hear it at least a couple of times during the church year. Less well-known is the tale this morning. But it’s nevertheless an important one, because it invites us in this season of expectancy to ask about our expectations.

The first set of expectations is about the relationship and responsibility of the generations to each other. John was to fulfill the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah, one of the greatest prophets, would return to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the children’s to their parents. Interesting that Gabriel told Zechariah only that John would turn the parents’ affection back to their children, along with convincing the disobedient of any generation to listen to the righteous. I wonder if the parents in that day had become so self-absorbed that they ignored the consequences of their actions for their children’s future. It would not be unheard of. In our own day, Generation X, born 1965-1981, is known as “the abandoned generation” and in the generational taxonomy, they are “wanderers, nomads.” In any case, John was to rescue the previous generations, to turn them around, to bring an end to oppression, to live up to his name, which means “Yahweh has shown grace.”

His extended family, though, had no such high hopes for an awesome destiny for him. Instead, he was to be named for his father or at least for his grandfather. They could not imagine a break with the tradition of the past, a naming that suggested a different path for the boy. Named “Zechariah,” maybe he would go into the priesthood and live out his days in obscurity in a town in the hill country of Judea, hoping like his father for that one chance to do something extraordinary, like go into the Temple and burn incense. Named “John,” he would have a new future, unfettered from the past. And he would one day burst on the scene at a moment when people were hungering and wondering, hoping and longing for a fresh start, a surprising movement of the Spirit, deliverance from their personal sins and their national enemies.

As someone has said, John is not a “mere link in the chain.” Nothing about his role will be “smooth and seamless” (Timothy M. Slemmons, http://theyeardproject.blogspot.com/2014/11/luke-157-58-67-68-79-80.html). Newness, like magic, comes with a price. John’s preaching made clear that repentance meant genuine change in observable ways. And then John would pay the ultimate price for having stopped preachin’ and gone to meddlin’ about the love life of the monarch.

His story touches us in a couple of ways. For one, what do the different generations in this room and more broadly in this congregation and our larger culture expect of each other? Everybody is represented in this church, from the Greatest Generation to Millennials and even Generation Z. Or to put it another way, following the accepted archetypes, we have hero, artist, prophet, and nomad. If one makes a mess, does it expect those that come after to clean it up? Or do the generations seek solutions on their own, inviting but not demanding help from those born later? Do the generations in succession abdicate responsibility, essentially retire from caring at a certain point and insist that their dues have been paid, somebody else can have the headaches? How many times have I heard in the churches statements like “I’ve done my part” and “If we just had young families with children, our problems would be solved?” Yet there is also this well-documented expectation: “We want to grow, pastor, but don’t try to change anything because we like it the way it is.” Newness comes at a price in time, energy, investment, involvement, interest by a variety of people contributing their unique personal gifts and sharing the insights and experiences of their generation with the others.

But there is another point of contact with us here. We’re led to ask about the expectations and practices of our families. Do we celebrate new possibilities and fresh aspirations for and of our children or do we expect them pretty much to toe the party line? “No one in our family has ever done that!” someone will say, sounding much like Elizabeth and Zechariah’s relatives. Is your or my family’s narrative a closed myth? That’s a way of living in which we relate to each other as if we’re reading from a script, in which someone is cast as the villain, another the good guy, still another the leading lady, and another the best friend, with little dramas and plots played out? Or do we tell and live out of an open myth? That is, is there room for new and diverse viewpoints, different directions, unimagined possibilities? Do we sense that we’re free to depart from the routine, improvise, be our own person?

The story of John’s naming is a signal that there can be newness in our lives. Like Elizabeth and Zechariah, we need the courage to stand against our neighbors and family if need be, to welcome the innovation commended and commanded by the Spirit. Generations of doing things the same way is a big wall to climb over, but the old couple did it. And so can we.

But if we’re called to reflect on our expectations of each other, so are we summoned to take a look at our expectations of how God works. We find some clues in the broader account of John and of Jesus. At this point in Luke that tale is about three people: Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Mary. The first two had a crisis. They were truly good folk, not depending on their lineage, but living blamelessly, following all of God’s commandments and regulations. In that day, the expectation was that such people would be blessed with children as a reward for their faithfulness. The psalmist once sang how “Sons are… a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127). For a holy couple not to have children, especially sons, was both a shame and an enigma. Surely they must not be really pleasing to God; they must have done something to offend him for the Lord to withhold offspring. But there they were, infertile and childless, yet still holy.

The story thus questions the conventional wisdom of cause and effect spirituality. It “ain’t necessarily so” that God has abandoned or cursed you if you are suffering or not enjoying prosperity or whatever might be the desire of your heart. Nor does the blessing of the Lord without argument rest on those who are doing well, raking in the dollars or enjoying whatever other success. There is no one-to-one correspondence between holy living and having what you want in life. People who please God are of every economic class, race, lifestyle, gender, and nation. They have that quiver full of babies and none at all. What’s important is what you do, not what you’ve got or what you look like or where you live or any of so many other measures of success and acceptability we’ve come up with.

If we turn to the account of Elizabeth and Mary, there are more questions about our common expectations of how God operates. We may not realize how extraordinary and radical their stories are, since we’re accustomed to women in positions of power in every area of society, which involves making speeches and decisions. But in the ancient world women were largely silent, stayed at home, and obeyed the commands of their husbands and other men. They couldn’t testify in court or if they did, they were regarded as unreliable witnesses, even before they opened their mouths. Thanks to philosophers like Plato, men were considered to be rational, fit to engage in the pursuit of pure reason through philosophy in order to be freed from emotion. On the other hand, women need not even begin such a quest, because they were at their core emotional, and therefore, faulty, creatures. As one author has noted, “Plato and other philosophers argued that a woman’s womb [her hystera in Greek] was the seat of her irrationality. They claimed that from time to time a woman’s womb would actually uproot itself and travel around inside her body. When a womb began migrating about a woman’s body, the philosophers believed it led to general emotional upset. Hence, a diagnosis of ‘hysteria,’ literally, ‘of the womb.’ (Scott Black Johnston, http://day1.org/1021-head_of_household).

But in this story, we have two women, one of whom who has just given birth, the other pregnant, acting against all expectation. Elizabeth names her son, while Zechariah is unable to speak, as he has been for the entire nine months. She had also pronounced a very priestly benediction on Mary. That young woman, on a visit to Elizabeth, sang a song of revolution we call the Magnificat. She also had engaged the angel Gabriel in reasoned conversation. Contrast that with Matthew, in which Mary is passive, never heard from, while Joseph does all the talking and acting. For Luke, Joseph is so far just the name of Mary’s fiancé.

Luke is asking us a question: from whom do we expect to hear God’s word or if nothing so grandiose, at least an authoritative pronouncement we can trust? Though we probably have our doubts about their veracity, don’t we keep listening to the usual suspects, going to the usual sources, namely, those vested with formal authority? I mean the pundits and politicians and CEOs. Or maybe our sources are our friends on Facebook or those we follow on Twitter. This story calls us to wonder whether it may be that God is more likely to speak through those on the margins, who have no authority but what they have experienced and witnessed, whom society typically tells to sit down, shut up, and stay in their place.

Having said that, God can and does act through anyone. John’s name is honored this Advent or any season wherever and whenever people exceed or act against expectations. Remember the newborn prophet was called “God has shown grace.”

Last week as I prepared this message, I was impressed by the story of 29 year-old St. Louis Rams center Jason Brown. He has left the NFL to pursue farming. His agent told him he was making a huge mistake, but Brown disagreed. He was the highest paid man in his position in all of football, but he walked away from the remaining year of a $37.5 million contract and bought 10,000 acres of land in North Carolina. He watched YouTube videos to learn how to farm. Now he grows sweet potatoes and other veggies and contributes everything to food banks. 46,000 pounds of potatoes. 10,000 pounds of cucumbers(http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/11/26/1347677/-29-year-old-leaves-NFL-and-37-million-contract-to-become-farmer-in-order-to-feed-the-hungry?detail=email).

“What, then, will this child become?” John’s relatives asked. How can newness happen? How could a rich, successful man like Brown do what he did? Well, we’re talking about a sovereign, free, mysterious, amazing, loving, gracious God at work. What do you expect?

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