Byron Smith - Ecological Ethicist and Anglican Assistant Minister - reflects on his battle with cancer, the fear that accompanies living in the shadow of death, and God's peace that breaks with the dawn.

The old priest Zechariah, told news too wonderful to believe, didn’t. Told news too exciting not to share, couldn’t. Having scorned the angel’s message, he was silenced until it came to pass. Then, when the gift of speech was restored, Zechariah’s first words were a song, blessing the Lord God of Israel for renewing the covenant with Abraham and David, for remembering the great promises of salvation and for commencing a fresh and decisive chapter in that ancient narrative.

Ten years ago, I was scheduled to preach on Zechariah’s scorn, silence and song – twice. Once at my church and once for chapel at college where I was studying theology. I’d started preparing, felt excited about the passage and had more or less worked out what I was going to say (I’ve posted notes for such a sermon here, here and here).

But then, overnight, I lost my voice. Nothing beyond a whisper emerged for week after week. I had to back out of my engagements and sit mute while others told Zechariah’s story.

If a student had submitted a plot like that to me back when I was an English teacher, I would have marked them down for making the irony way too obvious. Had I somehow missed the angelic appointment at which I would be offered an explanation?

As it turned out, the messenger who made my situation clear had no wings but did have a stethoscope. Ten years ago this week, I was diagnosed with cancer. An aggressive and malignant growth in my chest had not only destroyed the nerve controlling one of my vocal cords but was invading both my oesophagus and lower trachea. Very quickly my concern over lack of noise coming out was eclipsed by the question of whether things would still be able to go in: food, water and air.

And just as quickly it was not Zechariah’s silence that I identified with but his description of all of us as those who “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”. The knowledge of my own mortality, which had always been largely theoretical for me as a young man in decent health, had unexpectedly become immediate, existential. Expiration, always inevitable, suddenly loomed imminent.

After spending the preceding four years studying theology, it was as though I was being put through one final very practical examination. Faith in a living God, hope for the resurrection of the body, love for neighbour that perseveres amidst suffering: did it all really make any difference with my breath coming in shorter and shorter supply? I found myself returning time and again to Zechariah’s song. Sitting in the shadow of death, I was all too aware of how paralysing the darkness felt. That Advent, my yearning for “the dawn from on high” was intense.

But what is it that Zechariah hoped for? What does it mean that God “raised up a mighty saviour” from the royal line of David? To the reader of the Hebrew scriptures, such an image would have been familiar: God appoints a warrior king to lead Israel in battle against her oppressor. To the Jews under the sandal of Rome, such stories expressed yearnings at once tantalising and dangerous. Until the pagan empire of Caesar gave way to God's rule manifest through an anointed Israelite, Israel knew she continued to suffer for the sins that had led to her sorry condition in the first place. Thus, salvation from being ruled by enemies would be the concrete sign that her sins were now forgiven.

But Zechariah sees a yet deeper reality. There are enemies worse than Romans. Israel is not just occupied by a foreign superpower, but is sitting in the darkness of the shadow cast by the real enemy: death. Zechariah's son will proclaim his prophetic announcement not simply to a nation in search of political autonomy, but to an audience enslaved by fear of death. This fear is what ultimately gives every tyrant or Caesar his power. It makes uncertain every plan, ends every dream, silences every voice.

This is where we all sit. None of us by worrying are able to add a single hour to our life. None of us can guarantee tomorrow. The universally deadly future casts its grim shadow back upon all the living. Some of us live life so terrified of its end that we spend all our effort avoiding it, or avoiding thinking about it.

Now staying alive is a good thing and I thank God for those stethoscope-carrying angels whose radical treatments have added a decade to my life (so far). But there are worse things than dying: for instance, living in such terror of death that we hurry past beauty, turn a blind eye to injustice or become so self-absorbed as to be incapable of compassion.

But if God has indeed “raised up” a mighty saviour – and the double meaning is abundantly clear by the end of Luke’s Gospel – then the oppressor’s greatest weapon has been broken. God’s dawn from on high shines on all those sitting in the shadows, inviting us to rise and walk “the way of peace”, to serve God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days”. That’s one adventure I’d hate to miss. 

Byron Smith is assistant minister at St George’s Anglican in Paddington NSW. He is a consultant for Common Grace’s Climate Justice team, and has almost completed a PhD in Christian ecological ethics. He frequently writes and speaks about following Jesus in the face of a serious planetary diagnosisImage credit: Maxim Smith

Daily Reading Luke 1:57-80

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Zechariah’s Prophecy

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

An Advent series on "Being Present"