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Preparing the Way: A Lesson in Humility

John the Baptist. We know Advent is progressing when he appears on the scene, like a wild man, dressed in coarse camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, shouting at people. As children we (some of us) learned about him in Sunday school. His diet fascinated us. Did people really eat locusts? What does camel’s hair feel like?

The grown up John the Baptist appears in all four of the Gospels. We read about him each year in Advent because we’re called in this season to repent, to prepare for the Lord. To clear our hearts and minds just the way John called people to do 2000 years ago.

But in Luke’s Gospel, which we read every three years, we’re also taken back in Advent to the beginning of John’s life. Instead of a Psalm today (and this is rare) we read a “canticle.” Canticles are songs, just like Psalms are songs; there’s really no difference between them. Canticles are what we call all the songs in the Bible that are not in the Book of Psalms. They’re often part of a narrative. Sort of like in Broadway musicals when a song is thrown into a story to liven it up. Canticles do that. You can understand the story without them, but it’s so much more fun and joyous with them there.

The canticle we read today comes from Luke’s Gospel–Luke loves canticles, especially in the Christmas story and the events leading up to it. This canticle is quite famous. It’s called the Song of Zechariah, after John the Baptist’s father. This is the song he sang soon after John his son was born, the ebullient words of a new father.

Zechariah, John’s father, was a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, one of a caste of priests that only seldom were summoned to serve as priests and to offer sacrifices at the altar. There was a main, smaller group of clergy who did the daily work in the Temple and that was their sole job. Then there was a larger group, men who had other jobs who were summoned maybe once or twice a year to help keep this whole elaborate system going.

Zechariah’s turn came. He was given the job of offering incense at the high altar. As he was censing the altar, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. Now, like Abraham and Sarah long before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth were older and had never had any children. So understandably he voices his skepticism to Gabriel–and is punished by being struck mute. For the duration of the pregnancy he will be unable to speak. (Mothers out there, wouldn’t that have been nice, a silent husband throughout your pregnancy?)

The weeks pass. Elizabeth’s younger cousin Mary becomes pregnant herself, and Mary pays a visit to her older cousin. That’s a famous scene in the Gospels known as the Visitation. It’s here that Mary sings the Magnificat or Song of Mary, another canticle, and Elizabeth sings the Angelus: “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months then returns home. Then it comes time for the infant John the Baptist to be born. Eight days after the birth he’s taken to the Temple to be named. It’s assumed he’ll be named after his father Zechariah, but no. His mother gives him the name John (meaning “God has shown favor”). Zechariah the father, still unable to speak, affirms her choice by writing down the name John on a tablet. And it’s only then that his tongue is loosed and he can talk again. Zechariah’s first words after all those months are the canticle or song he sings, one of our readings today,

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.

How many of us can say that for our kids, that we want them not to be first and best, but to help others be those things? That we want their job to be to point the way, to enable and encourage greatness in others? How many of us can say we want that for ourselves? Second place, third place, even fourth?

We heard a lot this past week about George H.W. Bush. I hope you watched the service at the National Cathedral on Wednesday, by the way. Another great moment for us Episcopalians, which he was–devout and lifelong. One piece I read about him said that he was raised by his mother and father not to use “I” the first person pronoun but always “we.” His sometimes exasperated friend Jim Baker, at one point campaign campaign manager, said in an interview that just getting Bush to talk about himself even while campaigning was nearly impossible. When Bush finally agreed to speak in the first person on the campaign trail in a speech written for him, his mother promptly called and scolded him for his hubris.

Politics these days is not kind to the humble. If you watched any of the eulogies Wednesday you might remember one of the best lines of the whole service, given by his friend, the Senator of Wyoming Alan Simpson–a joke, wryly delivered. “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C. are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

Humility seems scarce in halls of power. But it’s exactly that, that we need so desperately from our leaders. Servants. Whose aim in life is to put others first and make them great. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”

Fast forward 30 years and this infant John, now a man, would cry out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And “I am not worthy so much as to untie the thong of his sandals.” And “One who is greater than I is coming after me.” And it all started here. With his father, himself a servant in the Temple, and his exuberant song to his newly born son.

Advent is a season of waiting and expectation, of repentance and preparation, and also of humility. These are stories of relatively unimportant people–Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph–who raised children who gave, who sacrificed, and for that, were great. Would that there was more of this in the world. In the homily Wednesday by former President Bush’s rector at St. Martin’s in Houston, he said “Some have called this the end of an era. But it doesn’t have to be.”

It doesn’t have to be. May every era raise up parents who teach humility and greatness. May every era raise up humble servants of our Lord. In this, the church’s new year which begins in Advent, let us strive to do better. With God’s help, we will. Amen.