The Text Says:
Today’s text on the First Sunday in Advent features the initial character in the second Gospel; neither angel or shepherd or wise man; nor Mary or Joseph or even Jesus; but Zechariah the priest. Luke opens his Gospel, steeped in Old Testament tradition, to explain how the birth of John came to be. Zechariah was serving in the temple, when he was paid a visit by Gabriel. He was so surprised it left him speechless. The angel’s message came to pass and that’s where Luke leaves us, with Elizabeth in hiding and Zechariah struck dumb. Luke shows continuity with Israel’s institutions and rituals and the new faith God intended to bring. That put an old man and woman in position to be used for God’s greater purposes of ushering in the new – a son named John, who will in time, introduce to the world, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
The Preacher Says:
It’s not easy living is someone else’s shadow. Today’s biblical characters aren’t Advent celebrities because their role is a sub-plot in the wider Christmas story. Even the birth of their son, though unusual, was only the forerunner of the Real McCoy. But there would be no Christmas without them. “In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron whose name was Elizabeth.” Of the three names Luke cites, Herod’s was the one to be reckoned with. His was the name everyone knew and before whom they trembled. Just his name suggested the sovereign apparatus of the state. But that powerful monarch was just a shadow on God’s sundial, useful only to note what was really important.
The future didn’t belong to Herod, but to that little known cleric and his childless wife. Their roles in the story allow us to highlight the importance of ordinary people. Just regular folks doing routine things — seeing about his temple duties. His wife giving birth. Normal, everyday stuff. Hardly noticeable: priesting, interpreting the scriptures, encouraging faith, telling the story of God, “in season, out of season.” Yet this average couple has been remembered ever since because they galvanized the soul of Israel! In terms of notable nations, Israel was ranked at the bottom. Its military consisted of guerilla warfare. Nothing much in the way of government. Other than David, which kings do we remember? Land mass about the size of New Jersey.
What they excelled at was their religion. And Zechariah played a role in keeping the faith alive. Alas, as it was then and even more so today, we still under-appreciate the contribution of ordinary religion to the commonweal. It remains something few people take advantage of. If God took a day off, why shouldn’t we? The worship of God, offered weekly in our sanctuaries; the educational activities of ministry and service to those who fall through the cracks; the pastoral care and communion offered in Jesus’ name by a few obscure souls, “of whom the world is not worthy.”
When I listen to your own stories of how you came to this congregation, many of us hail from small, out-of-the-way-places, to this unique, historical place. But we all know we wouldn’t be here, unless somebody did a good job on us! Back yonder in the hills of Pennsylvania, or the farms of Indiana, Missouri, Virginia, the mountains of North Carolina, or the flatlands of Texas, Kentucky, the Mississippi delta. Some Zechariah priested you.
My own little Baptist church down in the East Tennessee hills, birthed my faith, baptized me and ordained me to preach the gospel. That’s where a dastardly explosion was interpreted to me as a call from God to give back the life I was miraculously spared. Whew! Whatever it takes. But that’s priesting somebody! Tiny Baptist churches in Plains, Georgia and Hope, Arkansas gave us two Presidents of the USA. The ordinary in religion. Don’t sell it short!
These two! Not only do they show the value of the conventional, but also a good word about the worth of our senior citizens. Take the elderly saints out of this place and there wouldn’t be much left. Who does the largest percentage of giving and serving in our churches? The old folks. They’re the ones that keep the church doors open. One can only wonder if there’ll even be a church by the time our 400th anniversary rolls around.
Even though a childless woman was viewed as being cursed by God, St. Luke reminds us: “They were both righteous before God,” which means they had something more important than kids. Namely, a loving relationship that bound them together, as surely as getting up for midnight feedings and changing early‑morning diapers.
When Zechariah’s turn came to serve in his temple duties, something big happened. The lot fell on him and he was selected to pray. He was mortified when he encountered an angel, but I don’t know what he was expecting to find. The Messenger had a birth announcement: “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” Which prayer was that, he wondered? But faith is hardest to come by when it gets confused with believing certain facts are true. The priestly couple had been praying way too hard, and waiting way too long, to think anything else than they were way too old to have a child.
So this story isn’t just about laryngitis, it has theological roots‑‑the pain of unanswered prayer. That’s why Zechariah hesitated. “How will I know? I’m an old man and my wife’s getting on up in years.” Well, he shouldn’t’ve said that! It’s one of those blundering responses that no sooner do you say it, than you want to call the words back. “How will I know?” Gimme a sign? Oh he got his sign … and then some. When he was struck dumb ‑‑ unable to speak a word until after his son was born.
This man of prayer was so used to not‑being‑heard, how was he to know it would be any different this time? When the angel said, “I am Gabriel,” that should’ve at least been a clue if not a sign! So hope wasn’t all he lost. Along with it went his ability to communicate. Tongue‑tied by an angel! His story has a striking resemblance to St. Thomas in the upper room. Only in his case, muteness is presented as retribution for his doubt. Because he didn’t say “something nice,” he wasn’t allowed to say anything at all.
But before long, Elizabeth conceived. And as the months of silence passed, her swelling‑belly was the proof that the angel wouldn’t provide. When the child was born, they named him John. Bummer! A new daddy who couldn’t tell anybody! Luke prosaically reports “When his time of service was over he went home.” That’s when it really gets interesting. How do you tell your wife she’s going to have a baby if you can’t talk? Something like: Push; breathe, burp, enlarged tummy? How did he do it? In due time, baby John showed up and that was the only proof they needed. But more importantly, Elizabeth’s unearthly experience proved to be a heavenly encouragement for young Mother Mary. She learned she wasn’t the only one to experience an unusual birth. And Mother Elizabeth was a forerunner to the Mother of God! Did I say ordinary? Don’t discount these old folks!
We all know the youngsters are all into Hollywood hipsters. So we must endure yet another Zombie movie. Or the newest shocking Lady Gaga video. The current rap flap. Catching the cool Kardashians at the local bistro. Well I for one am mighty glad God used somebody over 30 for once! Now me? I just want to die old, as young as possible! No use resisting growing old, I can’t stop it. We’re all too familiar with biological age. There’s also social aging. Some folks are hard to get along with. There’s psychological aging. We get forgetful. But there’s also spiritual sclerosis. Lizzie and Zeke were old in body but young in soul. They’re the antithesis of Archie and the Dingbat singing “Those were the Days!” In a dark time for Israel, and their neighbors playing “Taps,” these two were sounding “Reveille!” It’s not the number of candles on the cake that counts. It’s the cake that counts and the candle-power of your faith! Like they say, “There still some fire left in the furnace!” Don’t sell the elderly short.
Their story also gives us an opportunity to take note of the irrational in religious experience. My friend Barry Bainton taught me a new word last week: ineffable. When we can’t find the words for something, I always called it “unscrewing the inscrutable!” But whatever you call it, there’s something ineffable going on between heaven and earth in Zechariah’s life.
In the Gospel of Matthew, God communicates with humans in dreams. For Luke, it’s angels as messengers. As he tells it, a common, ordinary, everyday event became the occasion for Christmas! And Zechariah became ineffable! Unable to tell about it. Enter the rationalists. Ah he just had a stroke. Psychosomatic. God save us from the experts! The common folks knew better. Luke advises: “When he came out, he couldn’t speak the blessing, and they perceived he saw a vision in the temple!” Don’t mis-underestimate the irrational. (That’s another word somebody made up!) But it may be a clue that God is around here someplace! They perceived that something scared the daylights out of the priest! How did they know? Maybe it was something ineffable!
Now for some irony — he couldn’t pronounce the blessing on them, but he gave to them a greater blessing! He was the blessing. His inability to speak became the talk of the town! Maybe it’s just as well that he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t explain it anyhow. It may not have been rational, but it was real. Don’t sell stuff like this short! Because aren’t all our deepest spiritual experiences ineffable? Some things can’t be put into words. Our deepest experiences are best symbolized. A wedding band says an awful lot, or it should. A loaf of bread and a cup of wine speaks volumes.
The non-rational religious experience relies on spiritual language. Like “Elizabeth’s baby leaping inutero as Mary approached!” Deep communicating with deep, the only way deep knows how. The language of the soul will have less words but more wonder. Less activity more patience. Less magic more prayer. Might as well give it a try, don’t ya’ll think? We have nothing to lose but our unbelief.
Providence Prayers: (12/1/13)
Release us O God, from the prison of our senses and the narrowness of our minds, that our souls might have a chance to do their good work. May the silence of “all mortal flesh” allow us to know from within that all is well because Thou art nigh. For this loving church family we are grateful, and for all it does to offer avenues of service: to bless the hurting, welcome the stranger, accept the outsider, care for the dying, and inspire the living. Let this historic congregation continue to open up possibilities in the name of Jesus and for doing our part in making this corner of the world more fit for people to live.
May our observance of Advent remind us of the necessary connection between the cradle and the cross. As we sing the songs of angels, let us remember the message of Calvary. Grant that our time together will allow us to see the many gifts of Thy grace, as angels invade our unsuspecting lives with hopeful surprises. We thank Thee for the patience that helps us to distinguish between the certainty that thinks it knows all the answers and the wisdom to wait for the Lord to provide. In this special season that bears on our faith, let us re‑learn the “values of the stable,” and the time for “pondering” the gentle love of God, as the generous gift that it is. Through Christ our Lord