Broken Alleluia - 2
Passage: Luke 1:68–1:79
What happens when an idea flops? What happens when something you have worked so hard on goes absolutely no where.
In the late 70s and early 80s Leonard Cohen spent years trying to write the song “Hallelujah” until it got to a point where he thought it was right. He fills pages and pages with different verses. And he finally has what he thinks is the right four. He takes the song into the studio as a part of recording his album Various Positions. And he takes “Hallelujah” and puts an orchestra and a choir behind it. There’s a quick melodic baseline behind the lyrics and each verse crescendos to a choir singing the refrain of repeating Hallelujahs. It’s nothing like the version you’ve heard, trust me. The song is dramatic, at times flirting with being over the top and cheesy. But the lyrics are beautiful and the final verse finishes with “Even though it all went wrong, all stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.”
Cohen finishes recording the album and it gets sent up to the executives at his label. And the label scraps the album. They hate it. They refuse to release it. It eventually gets released overseas and an small indie label buys the rights to release it in the US. Which allows the record to get some play here but virtually no one notices or talks about the song “Hallelujah.”
Except for Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan compliments Cohen on the song and even records a version of it himself. Cohen then takes Hallelujah on the road, continuing to tinker with the song and the lyrics. He slows it down. He turns it into a dirge. He puts in new verses, swapping out others. He records it on a live to tape performance on Austin City Limitsand it gets cut from the show. But as he continues touring he continues to gain some notoriety. He does some tv too. And eventually in the late 80s early 90s a French magazine “Les Inrockuptibles” wants to produce an album of Leonard Cohen’s music sung by other artists as a way of showcasing Cohen’s impact on rock music. REM, the Pixies, among others recorded songs for the album.
And lo and behold the final song on this tribute album is “Hallelujah” sung by John Cale who was one of the founding members of Velvet Underground. When Cale was getting ready to record his version of the song he reached out to Cohen to get the lyrics. Cohen faxes him fifteen pages of verses. That’s how much this song had tormented and obsessed Cohen. Cale takes the first two verses from Cohen’s original and then adds in three more presumably from the 15 pages of verses Cohen sent him.
Cale’s version becomes the one that sticks, it becomes canon. Rather than being as overtly spiritual, Cale’s version is more about someone who has become beleaguered and beaten down from the many ways our experience of love and relationships can hurt more than give life. And yet still he sings the Hallelujah. Cale sings as if the only hope he has left is a hope against hope, a fleeting chance that his search for goodness and love in this world won’t turn up empty. These are things that were present in Cohen’s original but are amplified and brought to the center in Cale’s.
Last week we talked about the difference between conceptual and experimental innovation. Conceptual innovation is what happens when Apple comes out with the iPad and completely changes the technology landscape. Experimental innovation happens over time. It happens in phases and stages. It’s Leonard Cohen writing fifteen pages of verses to a song over years. And then that song still floating in obscurity until another singer reworks and rerecords it. And even still we haven’t gotten to the part where Hallelujah is a popular song.
Advent is a season in the Christian year when we are reminded that God is an experimental innovator. We prepare for the birth of Christ by looking back at how God has worked to fulfill God’s promises to Israel over time. And we realize that the type of salvation Christ brings is one that’s going to be worked out over time. It’s those themes we are going to look at and amplify this morning.
In the nativity story recorded in Luke’s gospel there are six songs. We are going to look at one of those songs this morning, the Song of Zechariah. Now I know what you’re thinking, just like you’re pretty sure there weren’t lobsters present at the birth of Jesus there’s no Zechariah in the story unless he’s a shepherd or something. But not so fast my friend. Zechariah is a super important character in this story, we just never talk about him.
Zechariah was a priest and a descendent of Aaron, Moses brother. He was married to Elizabeth. They were both old and had no children. One day when he was on duty Zechariah was chosen to go into the Temple and burn incense to the Lord as an offering. And while in there angel appears to him and says you will have a son, you shall call him John, and he will be a prophet. Zechariah protests saying how do I know this is going to happen, if you hadn’t noticed angel my wife and I have been getting the AARP magazine for a while now. And the angel replied, yeah they’re sending that out really early now. No, the angel says what I have told you will come to pass and since you didn’t believe I’m going to make you be quiet until the child arrives.
How many days I have wanted that particular angelic power.
So for at least nine months, possibly up to a year, Zechariah cannot speak. How annoyed must Elizabeth have been with Zechariah. How long do you think she thought he was faking it before she finally believed him? Like oh yeah, angel made you silent, you just don’t want to talk to my anymore. Then one day Zechariah stubs his toe and goes to shout but nothing comes out and finally Elizabeth believes. Anyways. Elizabeth does get pregnant and six months in her cousin, a young girl named Mary who was also pregnant more on her later in the series, comes to stay with them. And then the boy is born.
The family wants to name him after Zechariah because at the time that’s what you did with your first born. But Elizabeth cries out he is to be named John. The rest of the family is like ummmm, random, but sure? Then they ask Zechariah if he’s ok with that. And Zechariah writes his name is John. And then all of a sudden, Zechariah can speak again. And shortly after regaining his ability to speak, he sings this song:
Luke 1:68-79 New International Version (NIV)
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 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,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
This song is in two parts on two themes. The first half talks about the promises of God being fulfilled. Zechariah says that God is coming to redeem Israel, bringing the horn of salvation for them and connects it to David. This makes it seem like God is doing a new thing even with a semi-cryptic mention of David. But then Zechariah goes fully into the past as he says that God is going to show mercy to his ancestors and remember the covenant he made with Abraham. So something about what God is doing now is going to bring mercy to Zechariah’s forefathers and is going to fulfill the oath God made with Abraham.
Zechariah is singing this song mere month’s before the birth of Christ. Abraham lived like six thousand years before the birth of Christ. And yet somehow God is doing something right before Christ’s birth that relates to the promise God made to Abraham six thousand years earlier.
That’s not conceptual innovation, friends. That’s experimental innovation.
When God called Abraham to leave his father’s land God said go where I tell you to go and I will make of you a great nation. And Abraham leaves. And for the first few generations, the great nation God will build is really just an extended family. And then a large family. Right about the time that God makes the large family into more of a nation they are enslaved in Egypt. Enter Moses an ancestor of Zechariah. Moses and Aaron and God get Pharaoh to set the Israelites free, they cross the Red Sea and then they wander the desert. Finally they get into the promised land but its occupied. So they have to fight for it. And God grants them victory over their enemies. And then other enemies appear and want to take the land from Israel. So God raises up people to defend Israel and keep the land. And the people ask for a king because a king seems safer. So God gives them a king. But enemies keep coming. And then the enemies win and take possession of the land and God promises to give them the land back at some point.
But here we are hundreds of pages and thousands of years into the story and God is still working out the promise he made to Abraham. At the start of Luke’s gospel the Roman Empire has control over Israel and Israel is still waiting to be a great, independent nation again. Israel is still waiting. Six thousand years. Israel is still waiting for their experimental innovator God to get this right.
But the first part of this song isn’t just about political independence or revolution. God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t just political. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be God’s own people, a righteous and holy people as God was righteous and holy. God’s people would be a light unto the nations, they would bless the nations. And so Zechariah’s song talks about God redeeming the people and enabling them to serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness. Within the song there is a connection between personal salivation and political salvation. Just as within the story of Israel there is a connection between the personal and the political. When Israel loses control of their land its because God handed them over to their enemies for generations of unrightousness. The people sinned and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord so the Lord gave them over to their enemies.
Fulfilling the promises to Abraham doesn’t mean merely granting land. It doesn’t just mean the Romans going home. It’s also about the people of Israel becoming holy, becoming righteous. It’s about a revival happening within Israel to lead their hearts and their minds and their actions back to God. This is what God promised to Abraham 6,000 years ago and it’s what God has been trying to work out through Israel ever since.
And somehow the miracle baby born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, named John, has some part to play in this. Because Zechariah’s song points forward as Zechariah sings about what this child means. John will be a prophet and will give God’s people knowledge of salvation, proclaim forgiveness of sins and point to the mercy of God. And through personal salvation God will shine on the people and guide them to peace.
What Advent teaches us is how God acts and works in the world. God doesn’t just magically fix things with the snap of a finger. We wish God were our genie but that isn’t who God is or how God works. Instead God works things out over time. The magic of Christmas is coming. Our salvation and our redemption is coming. But the story of that magic goes back millennia.
You see, sometimes we can think that there’s this decisive break between Old Testament and New Testament. Like there’s one God in the Old Testament that’s all about wrath and killing and then He turns nice when it comes time for Jesus. It’s like Jesus makes God’s heart grow three sizes that day.
Like half the point of Advent is for us to see that what happens on Christmas day has its roots thousands of years before in the promises God made to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses, to Israel. To see the Christmas story as the continuation of God working out something God has been working out over thousands of years. And this isn’t just some respect the Old Testament riff. This has implications for our lives.
We want God to solve everything and fix everything immediately. We live in a world of considerable speed and expect everything to happen when we want it to happen. What happens when a website takes twice as long to load? Or your Facebook feed won’t refresh? How many times do we quit diets when we don’t see immediate results? We expect our political leaders to fix massive societal problems in 100 days. And so it is with our spiritual lives.
We pray, we study Scripture, we come to church and we don’t understand why we keep committing the same sin year upon year upon year. Why can’t we have a breakthrough? We find ourselves dealing with the same issue in our lives, in our family and we don’t know why church somehow didn’t fix it. We face a huge dilemma and don’t know why God won’t just tell us what to do.
And isn’t it super frustrating!
Part of Advent is realizing that there won’t be any quick fixes. The Good News in Advent is that God is working, God remembers the promises God made and God will bring them to fulfillment. But God is going to bring them to fulfillment the same way God has been working all along: over time.
But in removing what Christmas isn’t we can celebrate it for what it is. We can prepare our hearts and our lives to accept what Christmas is. It’s not a panacea, its not a cure all. It won’t magically fix the problems in your soul your family your life our world. What it does mean is that God isn’t giving up on His promise to fix the problems in your soul your family your life our world. It means God is here, God is always going to be here, and all of this will get worked out. It just won’t be right away. And it won’t be easy.
We are still a few weeks from Christmas, from the magic. We are still a few weeks from welcoming the Christ child into our hearts anew. But just as the magic of Christ builds within us over time, so to does the magic of Christ build in our world and in creation over time. The story of Christ happens over time. But as we look to the story of Israel as the first chapters of the story of Christ, we see that God has been in this for the long haul. And in Christ God will be in this for the long haul. This Advent, will you commit to God to work with God over the long haul of your life? Let us pray.