a sermon on Luke 1:5-25, 57-66
preached on November 29, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Advent is my favorite season of the church year. In the midst of the most commercialized, over-the-top, schmaltzy season of our broader culture, the church offers us a gift in Advent as we pull back and think about the process of preparation for the things ahead, remember the roots of our celebration of Christmas, and look for ways to embody the unique gift of being the people of God in this way in this time.
During these Advent days, we exist in a different sense of time. We set aside Christmas carols for a few weeks and gather around the new flame of this simple wreath. We step back from the hurried pace of these busy days to wait and watch and pray together. And we offer the world a reminder that we are always preparing for something more than just the next holiday—we are preparing for a new and different way of life that will come in the return of Jesus Christ.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke introduce us to several people who were a part of the first Advent, who were among the first to see this new way of life in its fullness. Matthew gives us the story of Jesus’ earthly father Joseph, and Luke tells us about Zechariah and Elizabeth, two of Jesus’ relatives who had their own son about the same time as Jesus, and then of course Mary, the mother of Jesus. These rich stories of getting ready to welcome Jesus can be helpful guides for us as we journey our way through our own season of preparation. So over this season, we will look at Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph, hoping to learn from their examples of preparation as we live in the different understanding of time in these Advent days.
Zechariah has always been one of my favorite figures in the Advent and Christmas story. He might be one of the lesser-known characters in the run-up to Jesus’ birth, but I think he is one of the most real and honest of them all. Zechariah was a member of the priestly order, and he took this role and work seriously. He lived righteously and blamelessly before God in a day and age when this old order was not exactly known for such things. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were “getting on in years,” as our translation puts it gently, and they had no children, a mark of great disgrace in that time.
As Zechariah took up his place in the rotation of priests in the temple, he received the honor of going into the inner sanctuary to offer incense. He had no idea when he went in that everything would be different when he came out. It all began pretty normally—the people were gathered around outside praying, and Zechariah offered the incense—but then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, shattering the normalcy of the moment and offering a startling new word to him. As the crowd stood by waiting outside, Zechariah listened as the angel told him the new things that would be ahead for him and Elizabeth: she would bear a son, to be named John; he would bring them great joy and happiness, then go on to “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” and “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
As exciting and hopeful as this news surely was, Zechariah was wary of becoming too hopeful. After all, he and Elizabeth had been praying and living faithfully for many years, hoping beyond hope that they would have a child, but their prayers had gone unanswered. Now, all of the sudden, how was he to believe all of this? Had he and Elizabeth suddenly gotten younger? What proof could he have that this might actually happen to them? His uncertainty was well-founded, but the angel would have nothing of it. The angel told Zechariah, “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.” And so Zechariah emerged from the temple, unable to describe his experience to anyone, longing for a way to make it clear that there was something new ahead for him, left to encounter the days of waiting and transformation in silence.
The months passed, and Elizabeth indeed became pregnant. She was visited by her cousin Mary, who was also expecting her first child in entirely unexpected circumstances. Zechariah remained mute throughout the birth of their son and even until they prepared to circumcise him on the eighth day. Elizabeth had insisted that they name the boy John, as the angel had instructed Zechariah, but the men in the family did not take her seriously since there was no other relative with that name. They were all ready to name the child Zechariah, after his father, until Zechariah wrote to them, “His name is John.”
Only then was Zechariah’s imposed silence ended. His questioning was now over, and he fully acknowledged the incredible gift that God had given them. He then offered an incredible song of praise that formed the basis for our last hymn, finally expressing all the emotions and joys that had been spinning in his head for nine months, giving voice to his praise for the history of faithful people and prophets in the life of Israel, naming God’s call to be a prophet for his son even from this early age, and claiming that his son’s birth was the beginning of a new day for God’s people as
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Zechariah’s story and song are incredible gifts for us in this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts and minds to welcome Jesus and live in the different understanding of time that this season offers us. First, his example of patient yet hopeful waiting can set an example for us. In these days when so much seems to be in need of change, in our lives where we long for a new and different way, in our world where so many seem to sit in permanent darkness, we can join Zechariah in his patient, faithful waiting. We can listen carefully to God’s voice inviting us to trust that there is a different way ahead, that the seemingly-endless litany of woe before us will not go on forever, that the dawn from on high will break upon us and God will guide our feet into the way of peace. And we can do the big and little things that we know how to bring about change in our world. We can raise awareness of those places and people in our world who are in great need. We can encourage those in positions of power to act with wisdom and hope for the betterment of all people. And we can change our patterns of life so that we offer as much as we can to make the world more in the image of the kingdom that God is bringing into being even now around us.
But Zechariah’s example can also inspire us to take hope when we hear God speaking. Now we are certainly unlikely to encounter God in the voice and presence of an angel in the way that Zechariah did, but God still speaks among us. God still speaks among us in the gift of the Bible, giving us wisdom and guidance for the living of these days. God still speaks among us in the faithful proclamation of God’s servants, inviting us to live into this new sense of time and join in making way for the new life that comes among us at Christmas. And God still speaks among us in those who walk beside us along life’s journeys, guiding us through difficult days and supporting us as we seek to take new paths together.
And finally, Zechariah’s story and song remind us that we are called to sing our songs of praise to God loud and clear every day. Even when we might still be uncertain, we raise our songs of praise to God, not just for the things that we have seen with our own eyes but also for the promise that lies ahead. Even when we are still waiting, we join our voices with Zechariah’s for the wonder of God’s presence in our midst over so many ages, for the gift of those who call us to prepare the way of the Lord in these uncertain days, and for the gift of God in Jesus Christ, who comes among us to make all things new.
So as we enter these Advent days, may God strengthen us for this time of preparation by the witness of faithful servants like Zechariah, so that we might wait for this great celebration of Christmas with patience and hope, greet the voices of these days with expectation and joyful participation, and raise our songs of praise for all the gifts of God in our midst, even as we prepare our hearts and lives and world to welcome the great return of Christ, who is coming soon to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.