Sing Hallelujah to the Lord

A sermon based on Luke 1.57-80 for the Feast of St. John the Baptist originally preached for Christ Church Cathedral’s St. Brigid’s congregation.

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

Should I still be working
at the Cathedral when I’m of advanced age,
and should the Angel Gabriel come to meet with me
while I am sharing meals at the Maundy Cafe
or writing emails and grant applications,
or in the midst of preaching,
I can guarantee that, even knowing this story,
from Luke’s Gospel
I will react in disbelief.

Elizabeth’s husband, a servant of God,
a priest in the temple knew the stories
of his ancestors, of Sarah and her husband,
of their descendants, Isaac and Jacob.
Of course Elizabeth’s husband knew
the story of Sarah’s impossible birthing of a child
when she was far too old.

Which is to say, should I still be around in
my 90s, and Gabriel approaches me with
the impossible news that my partner is to
bear another child, I too will demand to
know how this is to be so,
and predictably remain mute
for nine months, give or take.

***

When we encounter Elizabeth and her husband
in today’s gospel, the time has been fulfilled.
Nine months has come and gone, and Elizabeth
bears a son, the one who was promised to
turn many people of Israel to the Lord their God.

There’s something going on here, of course.
The premise that this promised one will
help many people turn from their ways,
from the ways of abusive power and injustice
towards God’s ways of justice and peace,
means that all is not now as it should be.
It means that the people, however much
they hold to their religious traditions,
however firmly they say that they are in the
majority, or that they have the final word
on God’s revelation, have
somehow gone astray, perhaps been led astray,
and are no longer following
in the ways of the one who created all things
in the beginning, who set them free to
steward themselves, their relationships,
and the land, and who called them good,
for goodness’ sake.

For Elizabeth, and for many women in those days,
the safe arrival of a child was understood as a gift from God.
The shame one would endure for the inability
to bear a child, and more specifically a son,
was immeasurable. The logic of the day said that God
was clearly not with a barren woman. That a person’s unmet
procreative potential was sin. But this was not,
nor is it now, the logic of Grace.

And so, when this grand surprising announcement
arrives, after year upon year of ridicule and shame,
Elizabeth turns to God, gives thanks for this deliverance,
this moment of salvation from the pits of hell
her community and faith tradition had condemned her to,
when they said that God wasn’t with her, even though we
know that God will neither leave nor forsake what
God has created in love.

The pits of hell are real. Yet all too often, we dig these pits
of loneliness, shame, and isolation for each other.

One day, only a few weeks after Elizabeth’s cousin
Mary visits with the news of her own unlikely pregnancy,
Elizabeth gives birth. Friends and neighbours gather ‘round
to celebrate God’s great mercy, a mercy that
Elizabeth’s husband might see the continuation of his line,
a mercy they understand as a gift to the family,
the gift of a child who will carry the father’s name,
who will honouring their parents as they
predictably replicate the pattern of those who have gone before.

But before the community, entrenched as it is
in its particular way of seeing the world;
before the community can place its hopes and dreams
on the one who has just drawn their first breath,
uttered their first cry, wet their first diaper;
before the community can saddle the child
with their typical expectations of what a
child ought to do, and what the arrival of
this particular child ought to mean,
Elizabeth disrupts the flow, saying no,
his name will not be his father’s, but John.

We will say to you, and to all people, through
this one, Yahweh is Gracious.
The community starts to talk, can barely imagine,
“what then, will this child become?” (Luke 1.66)

As individuals, as communities, as
nation states, as a world, we struggle to
accept or to live into God’s grace.
And yet, this child we meet tonight
bears a name meant to remind all they encounter
of the one who was before all things,
who is in all things,
who gives life to all things,
and from whom all blessings flow.

What if we paid attention to each one we meet, and
when we met them, said first, “Yahweh is gracious,”
and “I know because I have met you.”

These past few weeks I’ve been watching
the news from Hong Kong. I’ve been watching
and reading about the violent clashes between
authorities and those acting in protest,
those who refuse to accept encroachments
on their freedom, the threats that come
from overriding the judicial independence of
Hong Kong’s courts.

The fears (and they are many and they are real)
include the fear that nearly anyone
could be extradited for anything
considered slanderous towards or questioning
the authority of Beijing.

And so the people have rebelled.
The movement, led by the young,
has at times sparked violence
as tensions rise between the bureaucrats
in charge of the transition
and those who want to live in the way of peace.

What’s been surprising and captivating to me
has been the way in which Hong Kong’s protestant
Christians have joined the fray.
A largely middle-class group not known for
engaging politically, have recognized that the
erosion of rights for some is leading to, and will
lead to the erosion and elimination of rights for
others, including themselves.

There’s something in there for us, too.

When these Christians show up,
they show up with prayer, and prophetic song.
They show up singing, over and over again:

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord
Sing Hallelujah to the Lord
Sing Hallelujah, Sing Hallelujah,
Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!
In the face of eroding freedoms, proclaim
that God is God, and not the bureaucrats and
legislators of the day.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!
In the face of a warming planet, of the displacement
of coastal communities, proclaiming and embodying
the love of a home-making God.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!
Even as government agencies sweep cities looking to detain
refugees, and continue to lock up children in modern day
concentration camps, still we sing our proclamation
that God is a God of liberation and freedom

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!
In the face of a country that rejects
the rights of Indigenous
people to free, prior, and informed consent
Sing Hallelujah and stick out your
neck for truth that may one day lead to reconciliation.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!
Sing in the face of those who would
deny the humanity of Trans and Non-Binary folks,
those who would denigrate their dignity, worth, right to exist.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord
on the campuses who make space
for such hatred to take root and spread

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord tonight
In the face of all fear and oppression and shame
because even in the darkest night, even in the midst
of the impossible, even in the most profound disbelief,
or the darkest night of the soul,
God will shine a light,
God will prove God’s self to be
faithful.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!
Not because the victory is won.
Not because the skirmish is over,
but because the principalities and powers of the day,
the ones who seek to hold control over us and our salvation,
the ones who seek to send us to the pits of hell,
will never have the final word.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord
and stand up for justice

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord
and seek the peace of this city
for it is by God’s grace that justice will
come to these lands
for it is by God’s grace that light will be given
to those of us who sit in darkness,
and in the shadow of death;
for it is by God’s grace that our
feet will be guided into the way of peace.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!
Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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