The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Second Sunday in Advent: December 9, 2018
Luke 1: 68-7
Sometimes the best theological tools come from the most unusual of places. Not a theologian, but definitely a great singer of the 1960s, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette (better known by her stage name, Dusty Springfield), accidentally developed a shorthand for how we should actively engage the practice of Advent Anticipation. Advent practice in a nutshell is, “Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Thinkin’ and Prayin’ and Planin’ and Dreamin’.”  The six forms of active anticipation that Dusty Springfield identifies in her classic song might be the most useful memory tool for Advent practice of all time. Let me tell you how, but first, I have to leave you in anticipation.
Would you join me in prayer? May the stirrings of our hearts, the musings of our souls, and the words of all of our lips all be harbingers and signs of peace for our world, for our families, and for ourselves. May I not fail you, God, in speaking a word of truth with your people. Amen.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!” Benedictus Dominus Deus! With these words Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, starts his great song of praise, of hope, and of peace known throughout the Church Universal and all time as the Benedictus. It is the great Invocation of all of the Gospel good news to follow. Today, our Scripture is invoking the very essence of good news for peace in our world.
The Benedictus is used in the Matins (morning worship) of monks and nuns, Communion Liturgies of almost every Christian tradition, and as the most ancient recorded liturgical way to begin worship services. In all, this beautiful poem exclusively found in the middle of the First Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, symbolizes the hope for peace in all of Christian traditions across difference, time, and place.
It communicates two things. The first half is a summary of the prophesies of the past and God’s continued presence and promise of peace from generation to generation. The first half is looking backwards in praise and accounting. Then the second half from verse 76 and following looks forward with anticipation. We hope that God will guide our feet in the way of peace forever and ever amen. It is this latter part, the hope for peace, that I think we need to focus on today. This latter point that calls for a time, soon approaching and already breaking upon us, where we are guided in the way of peace must be the topic of our thinking today. Moreover, it raises a big moral, ethical and theological question for us:
How can we, in a time of so much verbal, emotional, physical, psychological, technological, and even internalized violence. dare speak the word "peace"? How can such a brave word be spoken? How can we do this and not make ourselves liars or make God out to be the same? It is dangerous work—this work of speaking about peace because it produced anticipation and expectation. Disappointment and disillusionment is always sure to follow.
The word I would use to summarize the Benedictus, the reason that it is so effective as a call to worship, the reason it is an essential part of traditional Eucharist liturgies can all be summarized with that one word: Anticipation. Now, anticipation is a word that typically means a preconceived idea of what will be. We think of it as being a neutral state of passive hope. I anticipate that it may snow. I anticipate that I will get Christmas presents. I anticipate that we will continue to be a great church. I anticipate world peace. Our Scripture today is the very definition of anticipation. Unfortunately for us, anticipation has been incorrectly defined from an etymological perspective since the 1800’s, so what does it really mean to anticipate peace? Is it really a passive act?
In actual fact, the real meaning and history of the word anticipation and what it meant until the mid-1800’s was “the act of being before another in doing something.” Anticipation has more to do with being avant garde than simply hopeful. Christians are called to start walking the walk and to anticipate that the world might could catch-up. This means that rather than just imaging that it may snow, that you get your snow boots out. Rather than just hoping that God will bring peace to us on Christmas, that we actually start living peace right this second. It is cliché, yes, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. Anticipation is not a passive state of hope or the art of gracefully waiting. Rather, it is the act of being before others…preparedness for what God has promised.
Now, a trick question. How many of you think the Benedictus in context in the Gospel of Luke is about Jesus and/or the birth of Christ? In fact, it has almost nothing to do with Jesus. It is actually a song sung by John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, about his son who will prepare the way for peace to come.
John the Baptist is sort of an overlooked figure in the shadow of Jesus, but he is the "Wind Beneath [Jesus’] Wings." He anticipates the peace of Christ and, in many ways, makes it possible. In many ways, anticipation is the business of John. If Christmas is the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, then in many ways Advent is the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist. It is about the very real and intentional work of making a way for peace even when it seems impossible.
The Benedictus is our song—it is your song. It is the song of all of those who are called in every time and every place to make a way for the Peace of Christ in the world. It needs to be reclaimed, for perhaps more than any other character in the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany story (as fun as it is to dress up as Sheep, Three Kings, Shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and Angels) we are really meant to be John the Baptists. That is our real role in the Christmas narrative.
Today, we are all John the Baptists. The work of anticipation—of creating ways and practices of peace is our job in both this short season before Christmas and really every day of our lives. We are called to the work and to lives of anticipation.
I am against preaching and not leaving you with some kind of a concrete spiritual practice. How are we supposed to actively anticipate the peace of Christ and help make it happen like John the Baptist did? How do we learn to sing our own Benedictus of hope for this day and age through our Advent living?
Remember Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette (better known by her stage name, Dusty Springfield)? She wrote what is the very best unintentional Benedictus and description of the Season of Advent ever. Better than the Church Fathers and Mothers, Dusty wrote a song that describes the meaning of active anticipation. It is really a six-point to do list for this season of the church year. It goes like this:
Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Thinkin’ and Prayin’ and Plannin’ and Dreamin’
We need a new Benedictus more than ever! Each of the six practices at the beginning of that great song of 1962 is a different way to participate active anticipation. Each one is its own spiritual practice. Here they are:
Wishin’ for peace. A wish is defined as "a desire for something thought unattainable." Sit and set your intention for peace in the world. Wishing for peace means that you align every cell in your being with what seems impossible. Remember when you were a kid and all you wanted for Christmas was a pony or a Tonka truck, or an iPhone? Remember the intensity you put into your letters to Santa or to what you would say to Santa at the department Store? I’m thinking of A Christmas Story. I want that same level of wishing and motive put into the wish for peace. I want each of you to write a letter to Santa this year as a spiritual practice and put that childlike willpower for a wish into the letter written for peace. Wishing is an act of utter rebellion against the tyranny of possible.
Hopin’ for peace. Hoping is a much more delicate practice than the willpower of wishing. Hope is allowing yourself to not let go of what you wished for even after the wish has failed time and time and time again. Even if it is your fifth year wishing for a pony, hope is writing that letter again. Hope is more delicate like a snowflake in the palm of your hand. It has to be observed. Don’t be careless with you hope. Name it and claim it and whisper your hope for peace in yourself and in the world. Hope is like a wish but more personal and more enduring. How can peace become your hope again? How do you protect it?
Thinkin’ of peace. We need to spend time thinking and brainstorming new ways to create peace in the world. We cannot give into narratives of tyranny that say that everything good has ever been thought of. We are called to spend time thinking and innovating for peace. New frameworks are always needed. What can you think of?
Prayin’ for peace. Thoughts and prayers have become cliché. After every mass shooting, murder, tragedy, people tweet or post that they are offering thoughts and prayers. I am convinced that nobody who publicly announces “thoughts and prayers” through Facebook or Twitter actually is praying at all. If they were, then God would have already moved their hearts to change policy. Amen? If they were, then war would be no more. Don’t just say you are going to pray, but actually pick a chair (prayer chair) in your house for prayer and spend five or fifteen minutes a day praying for peace. It is one thing to say that you think and pray—it is another to actually do it.
Plannin’ for peace. What happens if we actually start to plan for peace? Take a pen and paper and draw the world in a peaceful state. If you are keener on prose, wrote a short story or a poem about what the world looks like when peace has come. Learn to visualize it again. Develop a master plan for peace in your own life, in our community, and in the world. If we cannot plan for peace in a real way, how can we ever hope to move towards that vision? Plan for peace.
Dreamin’ of peace. This is the art of letting go. It is the art of finding a meditative practice that helps you find peace. You cannot control your dreams, but you must find a way to create a peaceful heart in your own person. Then and only then can God anticipate using you to help create peace in this world and peace on earth. If it cannot start in you and in your deepest dreams, then how do you expect to actually help create peace elsewhere?
We are all John the Baptists in the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany Trilogy. We are the ones called to set the stage and to wish for, hope for, think about, pray for, plan for, and dream peace into being. The Benedictus is our song. It was sung at your birth. In this season, if you don’t know what do to do or how to anticipate Christ with intention and purpose, just think of the opening line of the song:
Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Thinin’ and Prayin’ and Plannin’ and Dreamin’
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!” Benedictus Dominus Deus! To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.