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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Be Amazed

How does a weary world rejoice?

Advent 2023, (Sanctified Art) Week 3 of 6, Sunday December 17, 2023

Children Scripture Ezra 3:10-13

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; 11 and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

“For God is good,for God’s steadfast love endures forever...”

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord had been laid.

12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, even though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 And the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, and the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.

(Three ways we respond to new... celebrate, accept, or grieve)

Sermon Context

Christ was born into a weary world. Romans ruled and had contempt on non-Romans. Taxes unfairly burdened foreigners and the poor. Yet we are told Christ’s arrival as a non-Roman poor Palestinian Jew brought good news of great joy into that weary world.

This Advent we are asking, How does a weary world rejoice? How does a rightfully weary world like ours find a path, a way to authentically rejoice?

The first week, Rev. Caitlan showed us one step from weariness to rejoicing is not plastic positivity, or “fake it until we make it”, but acknowledging our weariness, accepting it and naming it.

Last week, we saw how weariness tempts us to isolate ourselves from others, like Mary and Elizabeth did. We also say how joy returns when weary people come together.

This week, our next step from weariness toward joy comes from Luke 1, where Elizabeth gives birth to John.

Prayer of Illumination

Scripture    Luke 1:57-66

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown … great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give (the child). 

63 Zechariah asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately Zechariah's mouth was unlocked and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 

65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For indeed the hand of the Lord was upon him.

Sermon                               Be Amazed

I am not easily amazed. I’m not sure why. I envy those who are. I think it may have something to do with the engineer in me. Whenever I see something amazing, I am moved and curious, then want to study it and find out how its done, how it works. Usually, finding out takes some of the amazement away.

Like in college, I worked for the Mercer Engineer Research Center, and we modeled in 3d every nut bolt and screw in two different Air Force helicopters for Warner Robbins Air Force base. I got to see the inner workings of those huge helicopters and they went from a flying miracle to the careful design and assembly of thousands of small simple things.

Or the pyramids of Egypt... they are amazing, and then I studied and learned about the shaping of large stones, the rolling logs, and ropes, and levers, and pulley systems to stack them, and all the slave labor needed to build them, and I am more stirred by the injustice of them than the longevity or construction.

There are some things that do amaze me.

One is soccer. I played it for much of my younger life, and coached and reffed for decades too. I’ve tried to do a lot of things on the soccer field, so it still takes my breath away when someone tries a skill or move that is unique or almost impossible and somehow, because of practice and athleticism, they pull it off. Like a few weeks ago, a wing midfielder Garnacho has a cross come toward him, but it was a bit behind him, so he stopped, turned, through his striking leg over his own head, and hit the ball dead center right into the upper corner, the best bicycle kick goal I’ve ever seen.

Another is music. I’ve always sung or played something. But sometimes someone’s sheer musicianship, like a skilled guitar player bouncing their fingers along the fretboard, or a vocalist hitting notes and runs that feel impossible for the rest of us, or a gifted harpist!, or an amazing harmony, a perfect lyric, a swell in the orchestra, or the power of organ pipes, all of them can create awe in me when offered with authentic passion and skill. I’ve heard Handels’ Hallelujah Chorus three times this month, at our Messiah Singalong, at the Chorale Concert, and Friday night at the Kennedy. All three got me.

An older one that still sticks with me is childbirth. I’m still in awe when I go back in time and remember little 5 foot 4 Jill grew three 8-10 pound babies inside her, and then pushed them into the world. There’s no amount of study or understanding that will ever take the amazement away of welcoming into the world those human beings that I love today more than life itself.

Amazement and wonder are all over today’s scripture. Elizabeth was amazed every time she thought she was pregnant before, but her amazement became weariness when none grew to term and delivery. She was weary of the failed attempts and broken hopes, weary from the cultural stigma. There shouldn’t be any shame for that, nor should women carry the blame, but that’s how her world was, and she was losing the ability to be amazed. Weariness was winning.

Then, the angel visits and she really is pregnant. There had to be some amazement at that, but remember, she didn’t celebrate and call friends and family. She isolated herself for months, just in case something goes wrong again. She didn’t get to enjoy the amazement, due to fear. When Mary arrives, pregnant herself, only then do Elizabeth and Mary begin to be amazed and rejoice together.

I imagine Elizabeth carefully started telling some people. Amazement is so much better when we share it. But I also imagine she and they still worried and waited for everything to turn out okay. Childbirth was very dangerous then, to the mother and child. There must have been a weariness and fear that something could still go wrong and those tend to quash the benefits of being amazed.

Finally, the child is born. He’s okay. Elizabeth is okay. Shes exhausted, there was a new physical weariness from labor. Yet, here we are, a few days after the birth. She’s recovering well, and the baby is healthy. They are surrounded by family and community at the circumcision and naming ceremony.  Amazement surely must have been settling in on Elizabeth, and those who loved her. They all gathered around and rejoiced, it says.

Elizabeth had every right to be weary, waiting so long, and just recovering from birth. Her isolation and worry are over. She is surrounded by family, friends, and community, with the baby in her arms. Finally, with everything settled, will they enjoy the moment, allow themselves to be wonderfully amazed, and soak in it?

There’s a power to being personally amazed, feeling the chill bumps or sensing the tear in the eye. But notice how personal amazement wasn’t enough to overcome worry, fear, isolation. Amazement is better, more powerful, when shared. Being amazed together increases its effect on everyone, and when people are amazed together, the contagion of amazement can become joy.

The amazed family and religious leaders take a big breath from their amazement and move forward with the ceremony. They assume the boy will be named Zechariah, after his dad.

Jill and I spent months on each of our children’s names. We wanted them to be familial and biblical, some connection to the greater stories behind both of us and beyond both of us. I remember some of the opinions and suggestions we were given. In the end, Jill and I came to an agreement and spoke their names out loud to each other, and to them, and to our families. We published them on little announcement cards that we mailed out to everyone. We put their names on birth certificates. It was a big decision each time, and we made it together.

Back then, the husband and tradition had more power over the name of the child than the mother. Elizabeth surely must have felt a tinge of worry and weariness when it felt like, for a moment, they might veto the name she put forward for the boy, John, as the angel had told her. They turn to Zechariah, and he doesn’t side with family or tradition. He sides with Elizabeth. “His name is John,” Zechariah writes. Suddenly, his voice returns, as if it has been waiting for his obedience in the naming of the boy, and Zechariah’s amazement flow from him in songs of praise and wonder.

Everyone is amazed again at all of this… Elizabeth, pregnant and delivered her first child in her old age. Zechariah, struck mute for almost a year then given his voice back when they break with tradition and name their son John.

The English translation struggles with this word we’ve been calling amazement. It would be fair to include wonder and awe, as well as confusion and fear. They all roll around one another so closely. And perhaps that’s the message for us. In holy moments, how often do we allow ourselves to be amazed? That same feeling is so strong and strange, it's tempting to choose confusion or even fear. For me, is that why I tend to study and research, to make the confusion go away? If so, could I spend a little more time in the wonder and awe of amazement, and enjoy it a while longer, before moving to address the confusion with curiosity?

Amazement seems to be another precursor for joy. We can’t jump straight to joy, but perhaps we can let amazement aim ourselves in the direction of joy.

Wonder is all around us, all the time. The challenge becomes can we recognize it, and then can we let wonder spark joy instead of fear? This pave stone on the path from weariness to joy invites us to live so that amazement and wonder surprise us often, and we allow ourselves to be amazed more than confused, to be full of wonder and awe more than fear.

First allow yourselves to notice and take in amazing wonders in each day: “the swirl of silky white creamer in your morning coffee, the carefully-crafted bird’s nest in your favorite tree, the doe-like steps of a toddler as they discover the confidence to walk, the dappling beams of sunlight refracting through your window.” Being amazed requires a posture of paying attention, noticing the miracles around us.

Second, That pause for amazement is “a balm for the weary. It awakens those who feel numb. It renews those whose senses have been dulled. Surprisingly, it may turn into joy.”

To God be all glory and honor now and forever.

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