( a sermon for December 9, 2018, the Second Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Luke 1:5-25, 67-79)
If you’d have asked him about his life “before,” Zechariah would probably have answered that there was nothing even remotely remarkable about it; or about him, for that matter!
Zechariah, you see, was a temple priest, married to a Levite by the name of Elizabeth; and both, as scripture succinctly puts it, were “getting on in years.” As Luke tells the story, Zechariah and Elizabeth had long prayed for a child, but this had never come to pass and now they were much too old; so Zechariah’s life pretty much revolved around serving God by taking care of the temple according to faith and tradition. And there was great honor in that, to be sure; this was truly a sacred duty; and no more so than on this particular day, when he was given a literally once in a lifetime opportunity to enter the deepest part of the temple, which was named the “Holy of Holies,” to so make ready for the prayers of the people of God. But even with this great honor before him, the truth was that after years and years, day in and day out, of doing this ritual even Zechariah might have confessed that there were times he was just going through the motions.
But then came the angel.
Right there in the midst of the sanctuary of the Lord: “…an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense;” and if that wasn’t unsettling enough, an angel who was calling him by name: Zechariah! And of course, Zechariah was terrified – because every temple priest understood that one could not expect to experience the glory of God in this fashion and live – and yet, this angel was not only bringing comfort in the midst of his fear, but also incredible news: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
It’s a divine gift, not only to this couple but also to the world: a child who will not only “be a joy and a delight” to his parents, but one for whom “many will rejoice at his birth;” one who will grow to be a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit; a messenger to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord. His name, the angel says to Zechariah, will be John, which means, “God has given grace;” the one we’ve come to know as… John the Baptist.
And how does Zechariah respond to all this?
Well, how do you expect he’d respond? I mean, not only has the angel of the Lord appeared to him; not only is he told that he’s to have a son when such a thing could never happen; but also that this son is going to have a name, and a purpose, and a link to God’s sure and certain promises to a world that’s desperately aching for the Messiah. This is news of monumental, cosmic importance; the hope of the whole world has just been announced to him in the temple of the Lord. So what does Zechariah say?
He says, “No way.” Can’t be… get out of town… yeah, right!
Mind you, that’s not exactly the biblical translation – as we heard it this morning it’s, “How will I know that this is so” – but make no mistake, it’s an answer dripping with utter and unrestrained disbelief! The Message translation actually cuts to the heart of it: “Do you [really] expect me to believe this?” No matter that this is “Gabriel, sentinel of God” speaking; Zechariah is not buying it! And, honestly, most of us can understand why! I mean, old people having babies, little kids growing up to be messengers heralding the coming of the Messiah, God coming to the world? For that kind of thing to happen, it would have to be… a miracle! And miracles just don’t happen every day, not for Zechariah anyway; and certainly not for you or me.
You know what happened next; Gabriel finally says, well, it’s all true, Zechariah, but since you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word about it – or anything else, for that matter – until the day of your son’s birth. Maybe this will remind you “that every word I’ve spoken to you will come true in time – God’s time!” So now Zechariah can’t even share this experience with anyone, much less announce it to those praying for a Messiah outside the temple walls; all he can do now – ironically, much like the people of Israel had already been doing for hundreds of years – is to wait… to wait in the silence for God to work!
And we know what that’s like, don’t we? I dare say that most of us here have had times in our lives when we’ve known what it’s like to “dwell in the silence;” or maybe more to the point, to dwell in what we perceive as God’s silence. Maybe what you were looking for was a resolution to some major conflict of your life; perhaps you were seeking healing for yourself or someone you love; praying fervently for an end to the financial hardship you’ve been under; or for that matter, it could be your were quite literally crying out for the stress and mental strain of it all simply to ease up a bit! But for all the prayers and petitions, it wasn’t getting any better and nothing seemed to be happening to change that; in fact, you were beginning to feel like God wasn’t even listening!
If any of that rings true for us at all, we can understand why Zechariah would be skeptical, to say the least, about what the angel was promising. But the good news for Zechariah – and for you and me as well – is that such doubt is not the end of the story; and that despite whatever appearances to the contrary, God is ever and always at work… even in the silence!
Which brings us to another of “The First Songs of Christmas” found in Luke’s gospel, which is the song of Old Zechariah, also known as the “Benedictus,” from the Latin meaning “Blessed be the Lord God.” And if it’s true that timing is everything, then it should be said that this particular song was sung at the perfect time! It’s actually months after his encounter with the angel of the Lord (roughly nine months to be specific!), little John the Baptist has just been born, and immediately Zechariah’s “mouth [is] opened and his tongue freed, and he begins to speak!” And now at last – finally (!) – the first and best thing that Zechariah can do is to sing… to sing in full throated, wholehearted praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord; truly, it was as if he was making up for lost time!
It’s an amazing song with every verse proclaiming God’s presence and power not only in that singular and miraculous moment of a child being born, but also in and through all of history! “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… he has shown the mercy promised by our ancestors.” I love what Rolf Jacobson, an Old Testament scholar from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, says about this song: he says it’s more than simply a psalm and even more than a prophetic song; it is, in fact, a song of the Holy Spirit! It’s a proclamation of a “spirit-event, a moment of God’s Holy Spirit breaking into the ordinary, mundane world. And bringing with it God’s preferred and promised future.” And that, concludes Jacobson, this “Spirit-breaking-in reality is what the entirety of the whole Jesus event was about.”
Zechariah could sing because he knew, once and for all, that God’s promises are true and, in God’s good time, the silences of our lives will be redeemed. Something good for us to remember as well, especially in those dark and silent moments in our lives when it feels like God has all but abandoned us: that “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” and then “showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” [The Message]. God is at work, beloved, even in the silence; that is for certain, just it is sure and certain that in God’s time, we will be redeemed.
It’s fitting that we think about all this on this second Sunday of Advent; a time, to quote theologian Elizabeth Webb, in which in our waiting and watching we do indeed “see the faint light on the horizon, [even as we] await the full, dazzling light of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ.” In this season, we do affirm and rejoice that Christ has been born into the world and into our hearts; but we also know that in due season Christ will come again! But in the larger sense, Webb goes on to say, as Christians “that moment of already and not-yet is where we find ourselves all the time. To live the life of a disciple of Christ is to live always in Advent time, knowing that the light has come and awaiting the light that has yet to shine in its fullest measure. Advent time is anticipatory time, and yet it [can also be] frustrating, sometimes discouraging. [But the] dawning of the light must sustain us as we continue on, in our waiting and in our living, [even if] sometimes the wait for the rays of Jesus’ light upon our faces seems awfully long.”
Friends, it’s crucial in these Advent days and most especially in the times of uncertainty and doubt in which we live, that we step back even amidst our at times overwhelming feelings of fear and hopelessness, so that we might behold just for a moment the grander view of how God is working in our world, in our lives, in our very hearts. Because, beloved, when we do so we discover that God is still speaking and that all things are moving by God’s intent toward the ultimate good. The only question is what we’ll be doing about it in the meantime.
May our response to that promise be the same as that of the little baby who grew up to be John the Baptist, the fiery preacher who was “clothed with camel’s hair” (Mark 1:3) and had a curious appetite for locusts and wild honey (!), but who was ever and always about preparing the way of our hearts for God’s work to be done and embracing the true miracle to come in a Savior who is Christ the Lord! When we do that, when we prepare the way of the Lord; then to quote Walter Wangerin, “[Our] joy, [our] present beauty, [our] complete sense of assurance and belonging – these shall be signs of the Lord’s trustworthiness and of our trust, signs of his love until he comes in glory.”
This year for Thanksgiving, Lisa and I opted to rise very early in the morning to make our way from New Hampshire to northern Maine, and so it was still dark when we started our journey. You’ll remember that it had snowed the night before, and so we were noticing lots of heavy white snow on the ground and clinging to branches as we drove “over the river and through the wood;” but the truth is that it wasn’t until the sun rose that we got a sense of just how beautiful it all was. It was amazing; at one point, we went through this little grove of evergreens growing on either side of the highway, and the sunlight shone a brilliant gold across the sparkling snow. And all we could do is just take it all in, grateful that we had that opportunity to experience the wonder of God’s creation in such a glorious fashion. But, you see, we weren’t able to see all of that at first; it only happened when the light of day finally and most certainly shone forth.
Beloved, the good news God is at work in the world, the advent of his Son Jesus is nigh, and light is most certainly coming into the world; so even now let us live expectantly unto his tender mercies until that blessed dawn shines forth, with lives of of faith and joy and walking on the paths of peace.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry