Tender Mercy

Luke 1:67-79
Len Scales
November 24, 2019
Jump to audio

Zechariah, a priest, did not even believe God’s promise that his wife Elizabeth would bear a child in her old age. After a terrifying encounter with the angel Gabriel, Zechariah goes home unable to speak because of his disbelief. While Elizabeth’s belly grew, so did Zechariah’s trust in God.

The Priest came to see that even God’s promises that seem beyond reach are true.

When Zechariah’s son was born, Elizabeth declared his name to be John. Zechariah regains his speech and one of his first vocal acts is to break out in prophetic song. Like Mary, Jesus’ mother-to-be, Zechariah sings of God’s faithfulness that turns the world upside down, of righting wrongs. Zechariah too sings of peace.

What a tender mercy to be able to grow from disbelief into belief. Even the priest Zechariah knew what it was to distrust God’s amazing promises, to find it hard to see a way forward, to instead fall prey to believing the status quo will forever remain the same.

From disbelief to belief. Making a way where there seems to be no way. This is a pattern of God working amongst God’s people. From generation to generation. From Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

These are words Zechariah sings, naming the prophetic ministry the baby John will have as he grows and learns to point to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

As we follow in the way of John, bearing witness to Jesus’ love, we do so by the tender mercy of our God.

We join singing with Mary, Zechariah, and John. This song continues from the generation of God’s people led to freedom in Exodus to the generation singing of the birth of Jesus to our generation today.

At times we may not find our voice, and instead resonate more with the silence of Zechariah that precedes his song. The implications of God’s love can be too big to imagine in the face of powers and principalities that are more clearly in view. Perhaps, like Zechariah, we need some time to learn from those around us who already believe and are leading us into the truth of God’s promises.

One seemingly insurmountable challenge of our time and place is the legacy of the colonialization of American land to push peoples into unequal camps. From the Doctrine of Discovery that co-opted Christianity to support the destruction of native communities and symbioses with the land to the legacy of slavery that continues to impact our institutions to the regular pattern of discrimination of immigrant communities.

The summer read with Nassau and Witherspoon Street Churches was on Radical Reconciliation. The book by Boesak and DeYoung gives a Christian perspective and Scriptural storytelling on the truth and reconciliation movement in South Africa following apartheid. The authors challenge that the “radical” in radical reconciliation calls for a change in power. The baton must be handed from the powerful to those with less power.

DeYoung writes in the first chapter of Radical Reconciliation, “Reconciliation for the powerful and privileged means trusting those who have lived under oppression and even following their lead in becoming one new humanity.”[1]

Many of us in the United States have been struck silent for a long time, like Zechariah, in the face of the truth that God loves all people and Jesus invites all to this table. It is hard to believe the implications of such love will actually bear out. That the kingdom of God will come as it is in heaven.

So it is indeed a tender mercy of God that or cynicism does not win the day. God remains faithful to bearing new life into this world and we get another chance to open our mouths and tell the truth. Current examples of this truth-telling, steps toward the promise of reconciliation, include the University and Seminary’s respective slavery audits and the NYTimes 1619 project.

It is a tender mercy of God that we can go from disbelief, paralysis, and fear to words of truth, prophetic song, and eyes looking toward Jesus.

This turn does not produce immediate, complete results. More conversations are required, further action is called for. Zechariah’s willingness to sing of God’s peace was followed by the life of John the Baptist, his son, who prepared the way for Jesus at every step. Then Jesus came, who conquers sin and death, and invites us, the Body of Christ, to continue to live in response to God’s love.

For Zechariah, God worked in his spirit for about nine/ten months to bring him from silence to prophetic song. For us, God is working still, and, as my friends at Witherspoon Street have reminded me, the work ahead will outlive all of us. The generational impact of racism in this country and community requires generational effort in radical reconciliation.

Nassau and Witherspoons’ shared summer reading of Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism points out the need for a multitude of ongoing relationships.[2] That is why I’m so grateful as I remember the session’s energy last year when forming the new mission statement, the same statement elder Kim Kleason had us read together in worship last week. I recall the session’s conversations included a lot of energy around Nassau’s ongoing partnerships, particularly with Westminster and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Churches.

The churches partnerships cultivate avenues for a multitude of ongoing relationships, those formed between joint committees, shared small groups, a March evening to celebrate the gifts of women in our communities, an open door to attend worship with our siblings.

These are not brand new relationships. Look at these banners made to celebrate the 250 anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in Princeton, crafted by hands of Witherspoon Street and Nassau Presbyterian years ago. Two panels hang here in this sanctuary and two panels hang in the Witherspoon sanctuary. Each window of the banners tells an aspect of our shared lives together.

The relationships are many and ongoing. I am grateful for all we have to learn from these partnerships so that we may listen and amplify the prophetic song of our neighbors. That we may sing together of God’s love and reconciliation.

In the broader life of our country, the 1619 project, launched this August, was created 400 years after the institution of slavery was brought to American shores. This work of journalism in word, photo, and voice is a work that strives to tell the truth. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, …, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”[3]

One 1619 article, a photo essay, is entitled “Their ancestors were enslaved by law. Today, they are graduates of the nations preeminent historically black law school.” It profiles four recent Howard Law graduates and their ancestors who were enslaved. Septembra LeSane’s profile concludes with this quote from her, “As a sixth-generation descendant of slavery, I am essentially a part of the first generation of descendants to carry the torch that was lit by my ancestors into true freedom.”[4]

The work we embark on together is for the next 400 years. This may seem daunting, but it is a tender mercy that God continues to call to us to join in the kingdom of God that brings healing to the nations, freedom for the oppressed, sight to those who have been blind too long, a lightness where heaviness has reigned.

This is the way from generation to generation we are called to walk, and I am grateful to join with Nassau along this journey. For we have with us many gifts brought by many experiences, the exuberance of children, the studied questions of students, the resilience of working families, the wisdom that comes with age. From generation to generation God’s blessings flow by the tender mercy of God, and so we give thanks and respond in gratitude. We join Zechariah in song.

[1] Allan Aubry Boesak & Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism (Orbis, 2012) p20.

[2] Ibid, p 21

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/howard-university-law-school.html