I grew up in what my family calls “our own Heilman Compound,” jokingly relating it to the Kennedy Compound in Massachusetts, but with our own southern charm. One set of grandparents lived on one side of our house and the other set of grandparents lived on the opposite side. My aunts and uncles and cousins were scattered around. We were never more than a three-minute walk from each other and I have many memories of riding my bike up and down the hills and valleys of our so-called, “Heilman Compound.”
We were close, quite literally and so, each night, for nearly 13 years, my father walked up the curvy hill to see my grandmother after my grandfather passed in 2004. My father rarely missed an evening visit and my grandmother made sure of that. She was a strong southern woman. He became her diligent caregiver. And he was there to look out for her and to go see her with a helpful and loving intent… Whether to simply watch the Antique Roadshow, do the bills, put something on the top shelf, eat a piece of pecan pie, or help her with that darn medicine container. Maybe some of you can relate to this story while caring for your own family or friends. Even if we are not doing the bills or checking the medication, we visit because we care and want to look out for one another. My father was my grandmother’s beloved caregiver, a sort of angel, who was very intentional about making that visit to show how much he cared.
Now, I’m not trying to compare my father to the angel, Gabriel, I think he would melt in embarrassment and humility, but my father’s actions show us this notion of visitation that keeps reappearing as we prepare for Christ’s birth. And there is a hint of it in our scripture today as we just sang Zechariah’s hymn. There is an obvious notion of “visitation” happening among ordinary people with a divine encounter. “To visit” is not just a human act as we know in our own lives, but also space for divine presence. Gabriel visits Zechariah, then Gabriel visits Mary. There is this notion of visitation and hospitality occurring underneath this story.
The verb “to visit” in Greek is, (a big one!) “Episkeptomai” (ep-ee-skep’-tom-amai). It has a deeper meaning of “to go see a person with helpful intent” or “to look after” or some even say, to “break upon”. It means to be present in order to provide care. There is a caring quality to Gabriel’s visit, but also this breaking upon, this revelation. No doubt, God was breaking upon or visiting out of care for a broken world. Finally revealing what God is about to do next.
And so, Gabriel visits Zechariah revealing to him that even he and Elizabeth, an elderly couple, will bear a child. Zechariah reacts to this news and his reaction results in him going mute. He is often looked at in a negative light as a priest with no faith, but it’s not that at all. Zechariah is a priest in a time often referred to as “silent years.” A period between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament when supposedly God was silent to the Jewish people. In a sense, God was distant, faraway, not making many “visitations” as we have read about. But priests still prayed for the Messiah to come, even when they saw and heard nothing. So, no wonder Zechariah reacted in a way that caused him to go mute,…he was not expecting it! Maybe he was stunned? And so I wonder, was that a time for Zechariah to be in deep thought…So, that when Zechariah’s neighbors asked, “What then will this child, John, become?” Zechariah had an answer. Zechariah was more than ready to break his silence and shout out and sing his praise of God, which brings us to his song that we just sang, so similar to Mary’s.
Luke is writing Zechariah’s song in a time where Israel suffered under the domination of Rome and King Herod. This is important to know because God did not visit Herod—this high mighty king on the throne—but God visited an elderly couple, also enduring the oppression of the government. And so, here’s that word again, God was visiting God’s people in the midst of their oppression. God was visiting or breaking upon them, bringing good news, a sense of care, and foreseeable peace when God had been silent for so long.
Zechariah, in his song, starts out in praise, thankful for God’s visitation, redemption, and salvation. He echoes covenantal language from the Old Testament giving thanks that God breaks upon or visits them with the fulfillment of the coming Messiah. There is praise that they are “saved from our enemies and from the hand of those who hate us. God has shown mercy promised to our ancestors and has remembered God’s holy covenant” (v. 73). Luke understands John and Jesus to be this promise and fulfilled covenant. This promise they heard about for a long time in Malachi. The people of Israel have been waiting for liberation from the governmental rule and oppression. And now, John brings that hope to them.
And we are in the midst of waiting, too. We are looking for covenantal language and promise. We are looking for peace to come now more than ever! There is tension all over the place. Controversial articles flash on our phones hourly. We live in a world where we must pick a side. Friendships have been broken, lives have been changed. More people are in fear of what the next day may bring. We hear about wars all over the world. Syria completely destroyed. Children of Yemen trapped by the fighting. Families displaced and traveling long miles. Families living on the streets and coming to our Open Table for a meal. We can’t stop hearing about racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ageism. You name it, we hear about it. Our world moves at a pace that is hard to keep up with and so we try and grasp some sort of hope and peace wherever we can find it…at least, I do.
And Luke wanted that too. The first section of Zechariah’s song is all about liberating the world. Liberation from the systems that keep people oppressed, impoverished, abused. Change and peace to a world that sat in silence for so long. He sings of fulfillment and a promise completed. And so, Luke, after sitting in the historical and political horrors for several verses, he then shifts to talking directly about John. John has an overwhelming role in preparing the path of peace. God visits or breaks upon God’s people to bring forth one man, whose purpose is to prepare the way of salvation and peace for another man. Daunting, huh?
Zechariah tells us, John is the prophet who is to prepare the way. John is to “give knowledge of salvation” (v.77). And supposedly when that happens, light will be given to those in darkness to guide their feet into the way of peace. Can you imagine having John’s job?
And so, with all of this going on in the background, John is to prepare a way for peace and salvation. Peace and salvation go hand in hand in this passage. First, let me explain the Hebrew understanding of peace. We all know it as shalom. It means completeness or fullness. “To have everything you need to be wholly” or made whole. And then there is salvation. A difficult term to talk about. Bear with me, this might be a new understanding for you. Salvation is not something objective or “outside” of people. According to this passage, it’s not something that just happens in an instance. Salvation has to do with metanoia or a transformation at depth. A sense of turning from what you know.
Frederick Buechner writes some about salvation in a way that opened my eyes to this passage, and, I think, includes the Hebrew understanding of peace. He says, “Salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second. Doing the work you’re best at doing and like to do best, hearing great music, having great fun, seeking something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy—all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in all of them two things happen: (1) you lose yourself, (2) you find that you mare more fully yourself than usual.”  (Buechner, 354). To help understand this more, Buechner compares it to love.
Now, I am a proud aunt to my beloved nephew, James. James is three years old and loves tractors, dogs, clementines and can distinctly identify the difference of sound between firetrucks, ambulances, and police cars. He is very clever. He is the apple of my eye and never misses an opportunity to sign I love you. His love is deep and simple. It’s not difficult for him to show love and to love. And I thought I knew how to love before Jack came into my life, but there was a turning. James taught me more about love than I ever imagined, especially as I am the youngest child who liked to be the center of attention in my family of five. Buechner tells us and see if you relate to this…as I finally get it, “When you love somebody, it is no longer yourself who is the center of your own universe. It is the one you love who is. You forget yourself. You deny yourself. You give of yourself, so that by all the rules of logic there should be less of yourself than there was to start with. Only by a curious paradox there is more. You feel that at last you really are yourself.” By shifting what you have always known and truly looking or turning for something different, you are experiencing a sense of salvation.
It can be an experience that calls us by name, like Mary and Zechariah. It may shake us a little to look where we haven’t looked before and maybe “something that for years we hadn’t had the courage to hear.”  It may be seeking “reconciliation through and through in our hearts”.  It may be shalom. It may be filling a void we have not filled or seeking a wholeness to that hole in our life. It may be extending a hand to someone we have not talked to in a while. It may be seeking shalom in the wider context of our world. Doing justice for the sake of peace. But by seeking shalom, both internally and in our world, we are experiencing God’s salvation that is truly coming.
Zechariah’s hymn moves us toward this wholeness and creation-healing shalom of God. God is about to visit, to break upon us sending an infant who will bring more experiences of salvation and that peace than we ever imagined. And I have never been more ready than now. I am ready for relationships to heal and flourish with love. I am ready for people to not fear what’s beyond their front door. I’m ready for peace so that families don’t have to seek safe places. They can live in peace at home, their home. I’m ready for peace so that all people can have a readily available meal and a bed to go home to each night. I’m ready for violence to end and life to live on. I’m ready for peace. I’m ready for shalom. I’m ready for salvation. I think we all are. Amen.
 Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith (New York: HarperSanFrancisco), 2004, 307.
 Brendan Bryne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press), 2000, 28.
 Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, 307.
 Buechner, 354-355.
 Paul-Gordon Chandler, Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on Christ’s Birth (New York: Morehouse Publishing), 2009, 47.
 Brendan Bryne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegevile: The Liturgical Press), 2000, 28.