1st Sunday of Advent
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead
Psalm 146; Luke 1:67-79
Zechariah is a priest in the days of King Herod. He and his wife Elizabeth are getting up in years and though they are righteous before God, they have no children because Elizabeth is barren. One day, Zechariah is chosen to enter the Sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. He steps inside while the people stand outside, praying—just another day in the life of a priest. That is, until an angel shows up right beside the altar. Zechariah is, understandably, terrified. The angel tries to relieve his fears with that—oh so common angel phrase: “Be not afraid.” Then the angel delivers God’s message for Zechariah: “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John.”
Instructions are provided for the child’s upbringing and then the angel says: “Before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit… He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah is dumbfounded—and asks the angel, “How will I know that this is so? I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel, less than pleased by Zechariah’s doubting spirit, drags out the angel passport—as a little attention-getter, if you will. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God!”
Gabriel who appeared to Daniel in the days of old and who will appear to Mary who is engaged to Joseph, now stands before Zechariah—“I have been sent to bring you this good news…but now, because you did not believe my words, you will be unable to speak until the day these things occur.”
I remember the first time I encountered Gabriel—oh, not to worry—it wasn’t a personal encounter. It was Christmas and I was 8 years old. I received an unusual present that year—a Children’s Bible Story Book. Now this may not seem like an odd Christmas gift—but it was for me. Except for one uncle who lived in another state, no one in my family attended church or professed to be a Christian. And it wasn’t even my Christian uncle who gave me the gift—it was someone who rarely gave anyone gifts and who never spoke of God. But there the gift was in my hands—a book with beautiful pictures. Of course, it was the pictures that drew me in and I began looking at the Old Testament images of Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, Moses, David and Goliath, Elijah, Daniel, Jonah… The first story in the New Testament was the story of Zechariah being visited by the angel Gabriel. I saw the fear on Zechariah’s face. Later, when I understood the story a little better, I realized that even though Zechariah was a priest, a man of God, he was still surprised when God showed up. Zechariah heard the angel’s words but even he wondered, “Is it true?”
As a child of eight, living in a broken home, fearful of many things—I could identify with Zechariah. Alhough I never had an angel to ask—still I had questions—lots of them—and I had questions about a lot more than Zechariah and Elizabeth. I questioned the whole Bible story from beginning to end. Is it true—or is it just a fairy tale? Is there hope in the Baby born in a manger? Are all of us welcome into the family of God? Are all of us welcome at the Table of our Lord? “Tell me, O God, tell me, is it true?”
The people have been waiting for Zechariah outside the sanctuary for a while. They have their own questions. No doubt, they wonder what is taking him so long. When he finally does come out, they do not have their questions answered but this they know—Zechariah has witnessed something of great magnitude. Zechariah has been in the presence of the holy!
In a short time, Gabriel is on the move again. This time to a young maiden engaged to Joseph. Another, “Be not afraid…” Another God Message of a child to be born. Another question, “How can this be?” And then the word from heaven: “The child will be named Jesus—the Son of the Most High.” Fast-forward a few months—a few months with Zechariah sitting in silence. From that quiet place, he must be aware that all around him, God’s Word is coming true. Elizabeth bears a son just as the angel foretold. The drama continues on the 8th day when the child is to be circumcised. At the “Naming Ceremony,” the priest must have assumed the baby’s name would be Zechariah Jr.—but Elizabeth responds, “No, his name is John.” They don’t believe her so they turn to the mute Zechariah who asks for a tablet—on which he writes, “His name is John.” And with the scribbling of a few words on a tablet, his silence is broken, his mouth is opened, his tongue is freed, and filled with the Holy Spirit, the old priest praises God! He begins preaching like he’s never preached before. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.”[i]
Zechariah’s song is a song of praise and prophecy. He praises the Covenant God of Israel as he remembers God’s redeeming acts in the past. Then he speaks of the future—of the Redeemer who will bring freedom and holiness and righteousness. He speaks of salvation and a light breaking forth from the shadow of death. A new era has come! In his praise, Zechariah weaves together the promises of old and the promises about to be fulfilled. He believes—oh, now he believes. His mind—once filled with doubt—no longer underestimates the love and grace of God. His boy, John, will announce the arrival of the Redeemer. God’s Promises are here! There is much to sing about!
Today, so many people are moved by the lights and glitter of Christmas—but the reality hardly touches them. True joy is silenced by unbelief. Zechariah knows something about the silence caused by unbelief and Zechariah knows something about the joy of faith renewed.
In the coming weeks, our televisions will be all abuzz with Christmas movies—some old, some new. One of my favorites is the classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Steward and Donna Reed. It’s an inspiring movie that reaffirms faith even in the midst of a cynical world. We are captivated by such stories because still—people are searching—searching for a word of hope, searching for a word of meaning. During this season of the year, Christians have an opportunity to offer another perspective—something other than faith in Santa Claus or trust in all that glitters. Instead we are called to a greater work. We are called to reaffirm belief in the enchantment and wonder of Almighty God entering the world as a Babe in a manger.[ii]
Perhaps we are frightened by the call—feel overwhelmed by the challenge. But with God’s grace, we can ponder our faith journey and catch a glimpse of God moving, working. Maybe we aren’t ready to sing it from the mountain top or preach it like Zechariah—but we might have faith enough to scribble down a word or two—something like: “God is here! God did this! Thanks be to God!” And who knows, someday, someday, God may turn our scribbles into speech and a song of praise may burst forth! It’s happened before!
At the age of 8, I had an encounter with God’s Word in the form of a Children’s Bible Story Book. And no one is more surprised that I am that these days my greatest joy is to stand before you each Sunday to break open God’s word and speak to you about the transforming power of God. It is my hope and prayer that together we may give voice to our song of praise. It’s a song that we who are believers carry within us. It is a song of wonder. But sometimes, our song sits stifled, dormant, waiting for sustenance—waiting for us to remember the waters of baptism that claim us, waiting for us to remember the bread and cup that sustain us, waiting for us to claim the power that lives within us.
It is the season of Advent—a time for waiting for the things of God—a time to expect the power of God to spring forth in our midst. My brothers and sisters in Christ, I hope you hear it. It is the season of Advent and it is time to sing!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[Art by Stushi via subscription]
i. Michael Milton, “Zechariah’s Song of Peace in Christ,” http://michaelmilton.org/2010/12/10/zechariahs-song-luke-167-79/