Luke 1:5-25 with Malachi 3:1-4
I am leaving the lectionary behind this week to dig around in some texts that get little time in the liturgical calendar. We spend a lot of time during Advent with John the Baptist and his call to “prepare the way of the Lord”, but we hardly ever think about John’s origin story. As I was examining the scriptures this week, I began to realize that there was a lot of good stuff here in the first chapter of Luke, and that much of it was relevant to our modern lives of faith.
Our reading begins with the reminder that this story takes place in the time of King Herod. These were not bright days for the Jewish people. Their country was living under the Roman occupation, and their ruler Herod was no more than a puppet for the Roman authorities. It was not a prosperous time for them as a people, and it was certainly a time when many of them felt that their lives were threatened. It is remarkable to note that God’s people have always felt that the world that they were living in was a dark place.
It is within this background that the priest Zechariah comes to Jerusalem for his prescribed one week of service at the holy temple. Lots are cast, and Zechariah is chosen to enter within the most sacred space and to offer incense to God there. Immediately upon entering Zechariah is overwhelmed with a holy vision.
An angel appears before him and Zechariah reacts with fear, as do many others who have similar experiences in scripture. The angel encourages him not to be afraid, and then launches into great detail about a son that is to be born to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Not only is the child’s name given, “John”, but his whole life is laid out, even before his moment of conception. “He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
It is certainly a tall order, and Zechariah responds with the skepticism, disbelief, and sheer dumbfoundedness that I imagine any one of us would feel at such a moment. “What?!?!” he seems to say. “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Zechariah responds not with doubt, as much as with the cold logic that most of us employ when faced with something so unbelievable.
The angel states his qualifications, he is Gabriel after all, and then he says that he will give a sign to prove that this proclamation is true. He strikes Zechariah mute, unable to speak, until the time of the child’s birth. It makes sense then, that as Zechariah finally leaves the holy place, the folks gathered have a hard time understanding just what exactly has happened to him.
There are so many wonderful elements of this story that I just couldn’t pass it up today. First of all, I am really struck by how Zechariah responds to answered prayer. Clearly he and Elizabeth had prayed fervently for a child. As was common in their culture, bareness was looked upon as a curse from God. There must be something wrong with them; otherwise they would have had a child. They have lived with this stigma for ages, and yet when the answer to prayer comes, they hardly believe it. It is like they weren’t really expecting an answer.
This got me to wondering about how often we pray, and whether or not we are expecting an answer to our prayers. We have visited this subject off and on in Brown Bag lately, and we have found it a rich ground for discussion. How do we pray? What do we say? Are we expecting God to change the world, or are we expecting God to change us? Are we even expecting God at all?
It is a wonder that Zechariah was living within the religious orders, and yet clearly was not expecting or even believing that this prayer could be answered. How often do we in our own lives pray to God without expecting an answer, without expecting anything to change? I wonder if we, like Zechariah, are short changing the power of God in our world.
Another thing that really struck me about this story is the issue of Zechariah’s muteness. Many commentators will tell you that this is a punishment. They will say that Gabriel punishes Zechariah for not believing his pronouncement. I wonder instead, if this time of silence was a blessing. Perhaps Zechariah just needed more time to think about the whole thing. Gabriel certainly gave him that.
We all remember the part of the story where the baby John the Baptist leaps inside his mother’s womb when he senses the presence of the in-utero Jesus. But we don’t all remember the story about John’s birth. Later on in this chapter, Luke tells us that “the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” (I love that people try to talk a mother out of her chosen name for her son!) Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give the child. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.”
This is such a great story! Everyone crowded around Elizabeth and offering ideas for names, and finally they turn to Zechariah, and for the first time in nine months he has something to say!
I like to imagine that the time of silence was a blessing for Zechariah and Elizabeth. I am certain it brought them closer together in their marriage. It gave them an opportunity to deepen their communication and to work as a team. He had obviously shared with her somehow about his experience at the temple, since she knows that the child’s name was to be John. If they as are old as the text suggests, then they have spent many years together developing habits as so many couples do. Suddenly having a baby will change the whole dynamic of their marriage. What a wonderful gift Gabriel had given them to prepare them to raise this child together in a new unity.
I also think the time of silence was a blessing because it gave Zechariah a chance to really listen for God. How often do we seek after God with words and requests? Many folks who practice silent meditation and contemplative prayer will tell you that they experience God much more in moments of silence, than in moments of speaking. Perhaps we don’t hear God’s answers to our prayers because we are so busy talking all the time. Maybe we too, would benefit from some periods of silence in our daily lives. Just as the silence brought Zechariah and Elizabeth together, perhaps it even helped Zechariah draw closer to God.
The final thing that I just love about this story is how surprised Zechariah is to meet God in the temple. I can just imagine him coming into the sanctuary that day. Much like I enter this worship space on any given day of the week, I see him coming in with a sense of “Ho Hum, just doing my job.” No one is in there with him. It’s just him going through the religious motions, when BAM . . . God is there! And Zechariah’s response is fearful surprise. He was literally in the most holy place on Earth, and he was not expecting to meet God!
How often do we too, enter into holy spaces, not expecting God? Honestly, did you come here this morning expecting to meet God? You might have come here today expecting to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and remember how much you love that hymn. Or you might have come here today hoping to get some insight from this sermon to carry you through the coming weeks before Christmas. But you probably didn’t come here today expecting to meet God. And why not? Why don’t we expect to see God here in our church, or out in our world? Is it just that we aren’t looking for God? Or is it something more?
I love that Zechariah is surprised by God, and I love that all of this is part of the greater narrative of preparing a way for the Lord. Our reading from Malachi is where we get this wonderful language about the one who goes before, the messenger sent to prepare the way. Part of that preparation is the surprise Zechariah gets in the temple, and part of it is the good news he takes home to Elizabeth, and part of it is the nine months they spend growing together as a couple, and part of it is the birth of their son John.
So too, God is busy preparing a way in our own lives and in our own world. Even now God is at work around us. And when we see it, it is just as unbelievable and surprising to us, as it was to Zechariah.
As you go about your way this week, and in the weeks to come, I want to encourage you to look for God. This is my last moment in the pulpit as we careen down this path toward Christmas, my last chance to preach, and I want you to hear that God is preparing a way for the birth of Christ in our world and in our lives right now in this very day.
I want to tell you to pray like you mean it, like you expect an answer. I want you to tell you to be quiet for a while, and notice what you hear in our world, and what you hear from God. And I want to tell you to look for God. I hope and pray that you will be surprised by God at some point this season. May you turn a corner in the hum drum of your every day, and find yourself suddenly face to face with the divine. May we all be surprised by God, during this glorious and wonderful Advent season. Amen.