What goes in to making up a person? I’m not talking about the biology here…the DNA, chromosomes, and cells. I’m talking about who you are. I’m talking about a person’s spirit, their personality, their faith, their very identity.
Every single one of us has building blocks that go into creating our sense of self. Like a Lego set, we grow and develop, brick-by-brick, as our foundation is laid. Often, these bricks are put in to place by others.
When I think back to how I became who I am, I see the faces of people.
I think first of my parents. My values, my habits, and much of my faith came from them. I remember sitting at night doing family devotions, reading together out of a devotional book that Mom or Dad had bought. We went in spurts…we’d do it pretty regularly…then not so much…then we’d start up again. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but I remember that we did this. I remember that my parents thought it was important.
I think of my grandparents. I remember that when we’d go to visit them, and when we’d go to their church, my grandmother would always press a quarter into my hand, so that I could put it into the offering. I remember the importance of the act of putting something into the plate. Grandma taught me about the habit of giving.
I remember a woman named Vesla Werket, the Christian Education director at my home church, and Pastors Bergin, Bonn, Kotzer, and Peterson. I remember being in 7th grade confirmation and being an acolyte. I remember the first time I did it, alongside Pat Holland, we didn’t really understand how these candle lighter things worked. So, if a little flame must be good, a lot must be better, right? Of course, the wick burned through, and a giant, flaming ball dropped to the rich, red carpeted floor of the sanctuary, right up on the chancel, right there in front of the congregation, the pastors, God and everybody.
And Pat and I were up there, in our acolyte robes, stamping it out. There were black marks, scars, in the carpet there for years. But Vesla and the pastors, they just shook their heads and smiled, rolled their eyes, and they accepted and affirmed us. (You guys… remember…you are doing a great job!)
All these experiences, and people and relationships are interwoven together. And they become the building-blocks that went into my foundation.
So what are your blocks? Why are you…who you are? Who made you…who you are?
Our Gospel story for today is a story of these kind of building blocks. And it is a story that sets the stage for the birth of Jesus. It is all about how Jesus became who Jesus is.
Our story starts well before Jesus was born. It begins with a woman named Elizabeth, who was married to Zechariah. She gave birth to a baby boy. Now according to custom, a firstborn son was typically named after the father. But Elizabeth insisted, “no, his name will be John.”
The religious leaders went to Zechariah, the baby’s father. “Zechariah, you have naming rights, but your wife wants to call the boy “John.” What do you want? Now Zechariah was a man who literally could not speak. The scriptures say that his “tongue was bound.” Zechariah took a tablet and wrote on it “His name shall be John.”
That Zechariah ignored tradition was the first surprise. But the second surprise was that as soon as he wrote those words, as soon as the decision was made, Zechariah was healed. He could speak. His tongue was set free, and he immediately began praising God.
And Zechariah began to speak this beautiful prophesy… talking about what and who, exactly, his baby son, John, was going to become. He said “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, all because of the tender mercy of our God…”
And the religious leaders were amazed: “What then is this child going to become?” because obviously, God’s Spirit was upon him.
It’s a powerful story. Vilmarie Contron-Olivieri, a Presbyterian theologian, wrote that Zechariah had lost his voice because of his unbelief. She says that Zechariah regained his voice and “spoke words of blessing and vision to a newborn that grew strong in spirit and helped lay the foundation into the new way of peace.”
John became exactly who Zechariah claimed he would become. In that moment, following his birth, Zechariah laid those first bricks, that became the foundation for John’s life.
Zechariah had laid the foundation for John. And John would grow up to help lay the foundation for Jesus. John the Baptist would be the one to set the expectations of who Jesus would be, and to point to Jesus as the Messiah.
So why was it so important that Elizabeth and Zechariah choose “John” as their son’s name, instead of naming him after his father? Hannah Garrity is a liturgical artist, who has done a lot of work on this story. In fact, the artwork on the front of this week’s worship bulletin is an image of Zechariah holding the infant John, that Garrity created. She wrote that “Zechariah could not speak until he had de-centered himself from the story. By choosing the name “John” instead of naming the baby after himself, he removed his own personal and family legacy from the picture. He was then able to give way to the greater narrative in which God was calling him to participate.”
Zechariah spoke foundational words into John’s life, and then Zechariah got out of the way. He knew that it wasn’t about him! Zechariah let the bricks…the foundation be laid…that foundation that would form John’s life, and ultimately, the ministry of Jesus.
In our scripture reading from Philippians today, the Apostle Paul helps us figure out exactly what this foundation is. Paul prays that “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.” (Phil 1:9) For Paul, the foundation of truth and wisdom is love. Love of God, love of self and love of the neighbor.
Love is the foundation. It is how we are to make our decisions, or (to use Paul’s words) to “determine what is best.”
This is important for us to remember. During contentious, conflicted, polarized times, I think that both Zechariah and Paul would remind us that love is our foundation. And that we should base our decisions on the question: “what shows the most love?”
People who have a strong foundation ask this question all of the time:
- How should I respond to people the poor, or the marginalized? Well, what shows the greatest love?
- How should I respond to the broken-hearted? Well, what shows the greatest love?
- What should I post online? Well, what shows the greatest love?
- How should I vote? Well, what shows the greatest love?
- How should I treat my neighbor? Well, what shows the greatest love?
- How should I give? Well, what shows the greatest love?
- How should I speak at public meetings? Well, what shows the greatest love?
If we want to build a good foundation, for both the present and the future, we need to resist the temptation to respond out of anger, or frustration, or divisiveness. Like Zechariah, we need to set aside our own ego…our own need to ensure our legacy.
We have all witnessed far too much reactionary vitriol and anger in the last few years. This does not build good foundations. In fact, it tears them down.
You are probably familiar with the “Leaning Tower of Pisa?” This bell tower in Pisa, Italy, is famous for its nearly 4 degree lean. The tower began to lean during construction in the 12th century. It leans because of its foundation. The tower was built on what was pretty much swampland. And the designers only put down a 10 foot foundation, not nearly deep enough. So, the tower began to tip, and though it’s been stabilized now, it would have collapsed, because of its weak foundation. Weak foundations cause collapse.
Zechariahs words of grace, blessing and love, gave a strong foundation to the infant who would become John the Baptist. John’s words, gave a foundation to those who would hear, believe and live the words of Jesus.
And Jesus’ words of love give us our strong foundation. From Zecheriah…to John…to Jesus…to grandma and grandpa…to mom and dad…to you and me.
This is how it works. A strong foundation is a gift from God. It is passed on from person to person, from generation to generation.
And Zechariah, and Paul, and Jesus, all remind us today that we are a part of this chain. That our foundation comes from somewhere…from those who have poured themselves into us, and ultimately from God, from whom all good things come. And our responsibility is to continue pouring love out into the world, that the foundation for God’s Kingdom can continue to be built.
Hear again the words of Zechariah: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us, in the house of his servant David.” (Luke 1:68-69)
Let Zechariah’s words be a blessing to us, as they were for the infant John. Let these words build our foundation. Let these words, and our lives, point to love as a way of being. Let these words point to Jesus, our Savior, the foundation of our lives and our faith.
Thanks be to God!