The Lord God sometimes – oftentimes – appears in unlikely places to share the unexpected gift of undeserved grace.

Whenever that happens – whenever the joy of heaven to earth comes down, great, beautiful, and wonderful things begin to happen: Shadow becomes light. Darkness gives way to brightness. Wee hours dawn a brand-spanking new day, fertile with fresh mercy and infinite possibility. All things that go bump in the night mercifully fall silent at long last.

And from the deafening quiet arises the still small voice of heaven bearing good news – a thrill of hope! And as a familiar carol proclaims, a weary world rejoices.

Yet the nagging question looms large over heart, body, mind, soul, and spirit: How does a weary world rejoice? Just exactly how do the pale and downtrodden – everyday folks like you and I – find good reason to shout for joy and bang the drums? Particularly so when everything in and around feels anemic, worn out, and bound for hell in handbasket!

As we begin another season of Advent – a few weeks earlier than most, I rather sense that our best starting point is a place of daring honesty that acknowledges the grief, the rage, the weariness, and the hopelessness that we all carry and endure in various ways, shapes, and forms. You might be blissfully unaware of such heavy burdens – or maybe you are! Or you simply don’t possess the wherewithal to enter into your own brokenness – much less the brokenness of world around you.

But as God answers our fervent pleas for relief, as the Lord begins working unto good amid the deep wounds of our present and the lasting scars of our past, those with eyes to see discover hints and glimpses of healing grace that spur singing with the herald angels in affirmation that God really did create us for joy. It is the confusing paradox of faith: To riff on the words of another, God designed joy to abide faithfully in a full house of raw emotion.

Thus this morning we cross the threshold into the household of Elizabeth and Zechariah, our starting point for retelling an old, old, story – a birth story, the story of Jesus’s birth.

The aging couple has long battled infertility, but they somehow manage to remain steadfast in faith. Nevertheless, Elizabeth and Zechariah also feel the weight of dashed hopes and shattered dreams. Though an angel brings a sturdy promise of new life, Zechariah struggles to wrap his head around these events. He ponders in his heart all that is happening: “How can this be?”

No sooner does his query cross his lips when he’s thrown headlong into stunned silence for the duration of Elizabeth’s surprising pregnancy. Thanks to that lone angel bearing word of pregnancy, hopelessness gives way to hope, even as stilled tongue creates reason for evermore frustration and weariness.

And so it goes. Icy, bitter-cold feelings easily harden hearts, muddle minds, and prevent body, soul, and spirit from living the fullness of life that God intends. Daily living forever seems an uphill battle – a long, hard slog of deep wounds and painful blisters. You are tired, weak, and worn – weary, scarred, and scared.

That’s how many of us show up for Advent.

So let us acknowledge the vicious ways in which disbelief shatters hope, even as we make our Advent pleas for restoration, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.”

Listen to the Word that God has spoken; listen to the One who is close at hand.
Listen to the voice that began creation; listen even if you don’t understand.

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)

Any number of forces always manage to wear us down bit by bit:

Weariness by age or illness. Weariness in constant waiting. Weariness of isolation. Weariness from mind-numbing routine that offers no blessed sign of relief.

Thus you wonder if you’re forever trapped in weariness, never to exchange its chronic burden for constant hope, forever searching for ways to acknowledge your weariness while simultaneously insisting on the blessed hope that is to come.

“How can I be sure of this?” asks Zechariah in our sted. “How can this possibly be?”

When you’re weary, you tend to seek clarity through question and answer, rather than living in the moment and insisting on the sufficiency of God’s grace to transform the proverbial glass from half empty to half full. For Zechariah such doubt creates stunned silence. Speechlessness becomes the muting consequence of weariness fueling disbelief and hopelessness.

We cry out in similar silence for restoration of hope – for God’s face to shine, for rescue to arrive, for the light at the end of the tunnel to appear – and hopefully that light isn’t an oncoming train. With the author of Psalm 80, we seek hope that sustains during weary times and provides occasion for rejoicing:

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.

O God, enthroned above the cherubim, display your radiant glory. Show us your mighty power, and come to our rescue. Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us.

Only then will we be saved.

O LORD God of Heaven’s Armies, how long will your anger smolder against our prayers? Sorrow is our food, and tears by the bucket our drink. You’ve allowed us to be the scorn of neighboring nations. Our enemies treat us as a joke. Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies. Make your face shine down upon us.

Only then will we be saved.

Strengthen the one you love, the child of your choice. Then we will never abandon you again. Revive us so we can call on your name once more. Turn us again to yourself, O LORD God of Heaven’s Armies. Make your face shine down upon us.

Only then will we be saved.

Salvation wasn’t necessarily on my mind a couple weeks ago when I hit the road to attend a retreat for “late career” Presbyterian pastors.

Thirty of us gathered at Ferncliff – a Presbyterian camp and conference center nestled in the wooded hills and well-ferned bluffs just west of Little Rock, Arkansas. Though we differed by geography and culture, it soon became painfully apparent that one of the things uniting us was a shared sense of weariness – a strong need for restoration and renewal by which we might be sustained in life and ministry.

A healthy serving of the grace that became my respite revealed itself, surprisingly, in my solitary, weeklong activity that I dubbed “turtle-watching.”

A small lake adjacent to our lodging was home to fish, ducks, geese, heron, and turtles. Whenever the conference schedule afforded “personal time,” I’d take my seat on one of the wooden benches surrounding the lake and watch for turtles.

Sometimes turtle-watching came easy.

Like when one or two awkwardly foisted themselves up onto a fallen log poking above the waterline to bask in the warm comfort of a late-autumn afternoon. Every now and then, the quack of a duck or honk of a goose rippled gently across the still waters, breaking the silence for an instant or two, but surely not ruining the moment.

And a weary world rejoices.

Other times, turtle-watching required a little more attention and effort – and a lot more patience.

A turtle would swim its way to the surface and poke just its head above the water, leaving the rest of its shelled body concealed in stealth underwater. And if I watched carefully and closely, with eyes scanning the often smooth-as-glass lake water, I’d spy with my little eye a turtle’s head poking up from down below.

The sightings were short-lived. The turtles surfaced just long enough to catch another breath and fill their lungs with crisp air ripe with the smell of dried leaves. Then their tiny heads submerged as quickly as they emerged, only to resurface somewhere else a minute or two later to repeat their respiration. It became somewhat of a game: Guessing where a turtle’s head might next appear, dead-reckoning where that watery spot would be.

But gradually, reluctantly, I had to admit that, while I was good at turtle-watching, I wasn’t a very adept at turtle-tracking.

When I felt absolutely convinced that one would surely reappear near shore, a turtle head – or two – instead sprouted smackdab in the middle of the lake. Or a ways down the shoreline. Or not at all!

Yet, though frustrated and disappointed by my apparent shortcomings in turtle-tracking, I still managed to discover something of God. More specifically, those intermittent turtle-sightings offered poignant reminder of Lord’s seemingly preferred way of working among us.

As much as we’d prefer God’s presence to be readily apparent – as in burning bushes, or pillars of fire, or turtles lounging on logs, God more often than not pops up quietly and gently, in ways and places we’d least expect – like the sudden, unpredictable appearance of a turtle’s head. Or an angel popping by bearing incredibly good news, entering one’s weariness when least expected.

And a weary world rejoices.

Maybe, then, Zechariah being left speechless is really a blessing in disguise.

For it is often in those quiet moments when the Lord unpredictably appears as the gentle voice of hope amid the weariness of our days – the random turtle’s head breaking the water’s surface to offer much-needed respite, most-welcome refreshment, and much-appreciated renewal.

Welcome to another Advent. As we begin decking the halls, and baking the cookies, and wrapping the presents, please join me in making time and space for some turtle-watching. And be prepared to receive the unexpected gift of undeserved grace – a fresh, new taste of God in Christ served up by angels unaware.

And a weary world rejoices.

Listen to the word that God has spoken; listen to the One who is close at hand.
Listen to the voice that began creation; listen even if you don’t understand.

Only then will we be saved.

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on the first Sunday of Advent, November 19, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa, USA. “How does a weary world rejoice?” is the theme for this year’s Advent. It draws on resources from SantifiedArt.org. In the early Church, Advent, like Lent, lasted 40 days. Known as the “Nativity Fast” or “Winter Lent,” those 40 days began in early November. Drawing on that tradition, our Advent will last five weeks instead of the usual four.

Also from Luke 1: “Even in a Broken World” (Advent 2021)

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