Luke 1: 5-23, 57-80
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…
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, 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.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Today begins a new year in the Church. While our secular calendar turns over from the 31st of December to the 1st of January, the Church begins its year with advent. The celebration of Christ’s coming to the earth in flesh, and the celebration of Christ’s eventual return in the glory of his Father to set the world right. As we make our way through the next few weeks celebrating Christ’s presence with us, we will be looking at the people who raised Jesus up in the faith. Jesus was blessed to have two loving parents, Mary and Joseph, who we will talk about in later weeks. However, before Jesus was born, his mother was cared for by his cousins, the parents of his other cousin John the Baptist, and today we have heard the story of Zechariah. Comical as it is wonderful, terrifying as it is comforting, we look to a silent father from long ago to learn what God can teach us now.
We are introduced to Zechariah as a priest in the temple. Though practice shifted from time to time in the temple’s history, priests were ideally members of the tribe of Levi. These Levitical priests would take on their role based on a rotating shift, and our story opens when it is Zechariah’s turn to serve. He is described as “blameless,” not to say that he never sins, but that he is a reputable person and that he is by all accounts a “good and faithful servant.” This is important, because the first readers of this story might try to blame him or his wife for the next detail we learn, that they have no children.
While we now know that much more goes into fertility than a person’s morality, the ancient world saw fertility as a gift from God given to the righteous. Specifically, deities were described as “shutting wombs,” as punishment for sins. In the general pattern of the New Testament, Luke takes time here to remove this stigma from infertility. It is not a moral failing to not be able to have children, and Zechariah and Elizabeth epitomize this reality.
God still has power to bring the impossible to pass. Zechariah goes in to offer incense, a visible and fragrant representation of the people’s prayers, and finds an angel standing beside the altar of incense. The angel, later revealed to be Gabriel, brings him the good news that he will have a child. Zechariah, like Abraham long before him, cannot believe that someone as old as he and his wife would be able to have a healthy child. Gabriel responds by taking away Zechariah’s speech. While I’m not sure exactly how much public speaking Zechariah did, I can only imagine that a mute priest would have trouble with certain aspects of their job – not even considering how exhausting daily life would suddenly become. We only appreciate how easily we can communicate with one another when our ability to do so it suddenly snatched away from us.
Nine months pass with no one being able to know what Zechariah saw in the temple. His child is born and only after he affirms Elizabeth’s naming of the child “John,” (which means “God is gracious,”) does his speech return. The mouth which had been glued shut for that time now ran over with praise of God. Zechariah was now able to show the world just what he thought about God’s gift of a child. He calls on Abraham who God had also promised a child to, and like him lifts up his son and asks for God to bless him. Zechariah sees the future of John, to be the one who would clear the way for God’s redemption in the world, a source of hope and repentance unrivaled since the days of Elijah.
While it may seem that this is just a historical account of the time before Jesus’s birth, I think we can take some lessons away from Zechariah and what happened to him. Firstly, we must see that God kept a promise. We talk a lot about the promises of God, we just sang a bit ago about how we “Stand” on God’s promises. However, in our daily life the promise of God is not always at the forefront of our minds. Perhaps, in part, because we do not have angels telling us that we are going to receive the full benefit of God’s goodness.
If our scripture today proves anything, it’s that even the truly miraculous cannot always convince us God keeps God’s promises.. Zechariah spoke to Gabriel, a literal angel, and his response was still to be uncertain. “You may say I’m going to have a kid, but how do I know that I will have a kid?” The answer for him was, of course, “When you hold John, you’ll know it’s true” For us today, in the times we find ourselves waiting for God, the answer is not always so clear. With rare exception, we live into general promises of God, not particular. What I mean is that God promises to meet our needs, to save us from sin, and to love and care for us. We are seldom given a word from God that a specific event will happen, or a specific gift will be given to us. Because these promises are more general, we sometimes lose track of them.
When we wake up in the morning and find food in the cupboard, we might not think of God as being the one who put it there, and so we forget we are taken care of. When we get a call from a friend that uplifts us, we may forget that God has given us the gift of one another’s support. When we can go to sleep at peace that we are loved with an eternal love, we may forget just how amazing a thing that is. The promises that we live into everyday are commonplace in how they appear, but that does not make them any less spectacular. The problem becomes that we only notice how important our daily provision is when suddenly it becomes endangered.
We have all had times in our life where something upsets the balance of our life. Someone dear to us dies, we get a bad diagnosis, a bill comes in we simply cannot pay, an endless litany of problems stands just in the wings of our relatively blessed and privileged lives. In those moments, we suddenly realize how good the mundane things of life are. The cupboard that is suddenly sparce, the phone that does not ring with a loved one on the other end, the cold night where we cannot find any rest. In those moments we realize that we live each day by the grace of God, and that that same grace has to sustain us even when material comforts seem far away from us.
Zechariah experiences a particular promise at the same time he loses something he had always taken for granted. God tells him he will have a child, despite all logic to the contrary. God also robs him of his speech, making him suddenly much more dependent on others than he had been before. I described Zechariah’s story as comical in some ways, to think of how he would possibly describe, only by gestures, that his wife was going to have a baby. However, there is also something scary about it. The fear in that same man’s eyes as he realizes just how long the next nine months are going to be.
For many of us here, we have probably had these sorts of moments. We are going about life normally, and then all of a sudden, we have something snatched away from us. Maybe its mobility, maybe its dexterity, maybe our sense of hearing or taste or sight. In that moment we realize that we have been blessed up to this point simply to have these things. More than that, we realize just how little is done to make the world accessible to people with disabilities. Next time you’re at a store, see what is being done there for disabled people – do they have braille? Ramps? How can people reach things on shelves if they lack mobility? The same thing is important to ask here in this sanctuary.
As part of our next year of ministry, the trustees and I are going to do an audit of this church to see how accessible it really is. We have some things in place, but I know we aren’t doing all we could be. We all know that. The steps we take to make this sanctuary more accessible will be more than just clearing walkways and marking entrances and exits, it will be making this sanctuary more welcoming and useful to all people. Imagine, more accessible audio recordings of services that we could distribute to those who want to hear the service but don’t have internet. Better written and formatted text documents for us all to navigate more clearly. A cleaner, more carefully put together Church to gather and worship in.
Beyond accessibility, Zechariah’s story brings to mind some of the events of these past two years. When the pandemic set in, and all of us locked ourselves away to prevent viral transmission, we saw what it was to lose community. We could not gather in-person, we could not celebrate or mourn together. While our lips were not sealed as violently as Zechariah’s, we lost a large part of what it meant to be the community of God. We were forced to adapt, to improvise, and to trust that God was still working even when things seemed different than we expected. Good things came of being forced into this place: more care for shut-ins developed as we realized the struggle that comes from living apart from one another, we realized the ways we neglected online ministry opportunities, we proved the Church exists beyond our buildings, but, silver linings aside, the difficulties we faced also made it clear how blessed we were in more normal times.
Unlike Zechariah, I don’t think God sent this particular trouble to wake us up to our blessings. That would be cruel, to cause so much trouble and death simply to make a point. No, I think our awareness is a consequence of the pandemic, not its purpose. To find purpose in a disaster that widespread would-be dangerous thinking. Instead, I think that what Zechariah gives us in this story is an example of how to respond to the loss of something and to its eventual return. There was a particular promise to Zechariah, that he would have a child. While there is no specific or general promise from God that we will retain all our bodily autonomy in all aspects of life, we trust God generally seeks our good, and so even in the loss of some ability we have, we trust God will answer our needs somehow.
I believe that provision can come in multiple ways. Sometimes it is in the full restoration of our faculties, sometimes in those around us making the world more accessible to us in the face of our disabilities. Regardless of how relief comes our way, we are shown just how precious everything we enjoy is, when we are able to experience some measure of it after having lost it. God’s goodness, God’s commitment to promises, is shown most clearly on the return from trouble.
When Zechariah speaks after his long bout of silence, he has nothing but praise and prophecy to offer. Likewise, we should freely praise God whenever we can, even in the midst of trouble. We do not do this to deny the trouble we are in, or to pretend that it does not matter. We do it because regardless of the particular circumstance we are in, God has promised to take care of us, to save us from the darkness and from death. That promise sustains us even in the moments we are deprived of its benefits, and it sees us to the other side. In the same way that we make the world more accessible, we must also make it more grace filled. Those of us who are able must support those who are suffering, to make God’s sustaining presence clearer through the love and support of the Church.
Zechariah speaks to the promises of God by showing us that they are still true even when we cannot speak to them. Zechariah was not willing to believe God meant what he said in promising him a child, but over the course of his nine months of silence, God revealed truth above and beyond his initial promise to him. In the same way, the hard times between a promise being made and a promise being fulfilled, can make it even clearer how robust and wonderful God’s promises are. Does that baptize our suffering to make it good? Of course not, but it does mean that in the midst of silence a great deal more can be said than in the heights of celebration.
So, as we welcome Advent. Let us close our mouths, let us look to the troubles we presently face. Let them be a lesson to us about what God will remedy in all the world. Let us also try and lessen the troubles of those around us, so that when the time of our troubles is over, all of us may celebrate the birth of something new and the fulfillment of all God’s promises. – Amen.