Our journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus begins this first Sunday of Advent with the Gospel of Luke and the story of a faithful, long-serving priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth.
For years, Zechariah prays anxiously for the birth of a son only to get back what he hears as a great-big “no.” With days of youth now just a faint speck in his rear-view mirror – and Elizabeth now well past her child-bearing years, Zechariah had long ago stopped being ready for his heartfelt prayers for a son to be answered with a resounding “Yes!”
And so, Zechariah resigns himself to the daily routine of his priestly duties, knowing that the family lineage of priesthood ends with him, and he never really expects to experience the presence of God – even in the holy moments of being in the holiest of places, the inner Sanctuary of the temple, where he and the rest of his congregation believe that God resides.
Listen, now, with all your senses, for the Word of the Lord at the start of Luke’s Gospel.
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.
Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him,
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for 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.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (Luke 1:5-25)
Over time, the expectations of even the most faithful and dedicated of disciples can become dull and lifeless.
Each of us experiences our own Zechariah-like seasons of hopelessness, resigned to spend our days and weeks going through the motions of worship and prayer but hardly expecting to meet God in the midst of daily life.
With days growing shorter and colder – the earth around us becoming hard as iron, the sky above us turning gray, the fierce north wind starting to howl through the cracks of the places where our hearts dwell, our instinctive tendency is to set the bar of expectation Zechariah low and to hunker down into physical, emotional, and spiritual hibernation – our long winter’s nap made fitful and restless by holiday stress, family tension, and worries of everyday life made even more anxious by ever-more-heartbreaking and disappointing headlines in the news.
And really, why should we set high the bar of expectation? Stores and TV commercials remind us by the minute of what needs to get “done” for the holidays, and our expectation in all that “doing” is plenty of frustrating hustle, bustle, and hassle as we prepare the “perfect” family celebration, decorate the “perfect” tree, and make endless shopping trips to find the “perfect” gift at the “best” price. The to-do list spins endlessly out of control.
Try as we might to keep Christ in Christmas, the reality of our Advent season is dull and lifeless expectation of the same ol’ same ol’ – daily life as chaotic and crowded as a shopping mall on Black Friday.
To expect anything better seems, well, pointless, since like Zechariah, God still seems to be sending out a lot of great-big “no’s.” No real change, no real hope. Illness and brokenness still holding sway. Precious few swords being beaten into plowshares. Suspicion, negativity and pessimism our natural reflex. Trust and hope a tattered figment of the past. Plenty of modern-day Zechariahs and Zecharinas letting out weary sighs of continued misery – the will and desire to find assurance in God’s promises of a better tomorrow all but spent and exhausted. The eyes of God’s people so red and puffy from daily tears that they cannot see God present in their midst, let alone have the energy to even look for God amid all the clutter that fills desk, countertop, backpack, barn and garage.
As Yogi Barra once remarked: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
A remarkable French film, Joyeux Noel, offers a melodic vision of what the world could be like if only God’s promises made flesh in the wombs of Elizabeth this morning and Mary next Sunday could indeed lead the way toward peace.
The film tells a true story from World War I, when trench warfare brings soldiers from opposing sides into close proximity. The daily routine of trench warfare leads to some of the most sickening slaughters that anyone’s ever seen. The staggering losses among the British alone lead Winston Churchill to say afterward that theirs is a victory “scarcely indistinguishable from defeat.”
But on one particular battlefield on Christmas Eve 1914, the closeness of the trenches leads to something very different. In the German trenches, a soldier and talented tenor tries to lift the spirits of his fellow Germans by belting out a hearty rendition of “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). Just as he is about to begin the second stanza, his comrades are startled by the sound of a bagpipe player taking up the tune in the nearby Scottish trench. The singing continues until finally the tenor and the bagpiper pop up from their respective trenches to face each other.
When the bagpiper starts to play “Adeste Fideles” (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”), the German tenor takes up the song, and the bewildered Scottsmen begin to sing along. Finally, all the soldiers emerge for an impromptu Christmas Eve ceasefire, singalong, and celebration – sharing chocolate, champagne, brandy, and other treats; reveling for a time in their shared humanity; and putting aside the war that makes it their primary duty to kill each other.
When we come together to the holy mountain of our God and to God’s Christ, surely it will be true – just as the prophet Isaiah predicts: They will learn war no more and walk in the light of the Lord. Sometimes, you can see glimpses of that – even in a broken world.
Yes, indeed! In spite of the tumult of war – in spite of conflict and division between friend, neighbor and stranger, God’s Advent promise is being fulfilled in our midst. It is time – God’s time, and God’s time is here. God’s promises can be seen on the cross, in the waters of baptism, and in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table.
Yes, indeed! God has given us divine shoulders on which to lean. God has already given us the courage we need to get through and beyond whatever turmoil a broken and fearful world throws at us. When all we hear is God giving us a great-big “No! Period,” God is actually giving us a “No, comma, not yet!”
So, hang in there, Zechariah! The son you’ve been praying for is on his way!! Hang in there!!! Hang in there, people of God, for God has claimed you by name. His Christ has come for you! And his Christ is coming back for you! Hints and signs of that great day to come have already begun to appear! God’s perfect plan of salvation is happening now, and even in a broken and fearful world, we have reason to celebrate those glimpses of the coming days that are already here! Let that hope and assurance – borne of God’s Holy Spirit in Christ – see you through any darkness hanging over your holidays and weighing heavy on your hearts.
In the words of a confession of the Presbyterian Church:
“In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
“In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!
“With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen, and Amen.”
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message in worship for the first Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by R. Allen Culpepper, Scott Hoezee, and L.T. Johnson inform the message.