A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent

Preached at Timbercrest Retirement Community

(Luke 1 : 5-25, 57-80)

Zechariah could not remember clearly the first day he held these objects, the first day he sang these words. On days like this, it seemed he had been a priest forever. He could remember, though, his father and the way his hands had moved with the rituals, the way his voice had sounded. He had watched so closely, even then, as a small child, realizing the beauty and extra layer of holiness that came over the world in the midst of those actions. He knew that there was much of his father’s ways in his movements and he wondered how much of his grandfather there had been in his father’s patterns.

He remembered wondering as a child if he would ever grow tired of the rituals, if they would ever grow stale or sour. There had been times, certainly, when his mind was on other things, or when the rituals did not match his sense of the world, or when they just felt like another thing to do. But God never failed to surprise him again, whenever he needed it, with the depth of those movements and scriptures and songs. They became old friends, familiar and comfortable, but they also continued to open up the world to him in quiet moments of grace. They continued to reveal a God of mystery and love.

His greatest sorrow was that he had no son to pass all this on to. He knew he could trust God, but after years, even decades of unanswered prayer, he had mostly accepted that the priestly line of his family would end with him. But he still prayed every day. Every day on his walk to the temple, every day on his walk home, he prayed that these beautiful things of faith would not end with him. Sometimes he prayed fervently. But most of the time, now, he felt resigned and prayed this prayer as a matter of habit. He and Elizabeth were no spring chickens. It was time to think about cutting back and settling in and making arrangements. The time for children had passed. Still he kept praying. There was Abraham and Sarah, after all.

Many of the priests felt the longing to pass on these things of faith, he knew. The children growing up now couldn’t remember a time before Roman occupation. They couldn’t remember a time when the community of faith was strong, completely free to practice, when the songs of faith were full and confident. And they were becoming restless, dissatisfied, and sometimes violent. It seemed that young people were picking fights with the soldiers almost every week in various places around town. When this was all the children knew, Zechariah couldn’t blame them for not looking to faith. He could understand how these ancient things could seem irrelevant. And yet he longed for a return to the things of faith – the songs, the scriptures, the rituals – because he found in them the presence of God and he knew that clinging to the presence of God was the only way to find true peace.

So it was with a bit of heaviness and longing, a bit of eagerness and peace, but mostly with a quiet confidence, that he began his work this day. He would keep living his faith and his ministry because it was so much a part of him. He would be sad when the day came to stop, but he knew his faith – these songs, these scriptures, the smells and images and actions – would continue to be his companions, just as God would continue to accompany and guide him.

His group of priests was responsible for the main rituals at the temple two weeks a year. Each day, a group of priests did the worship in the outer courts, and another in the inner courts. And each day, one priest was selected by lot to go into the holy of holies. A priest only did that once in a lifetime. Zechariah’s turn hadn’t come yet, but he remembered what a significant day it had been for his father. His father hadn’t talked about a vision, but something had changed in him. Zechariah could see it.

So on this day, when Zechariah himself was chosen to take the incense into the holy of holies, he felt his heart skip a beat. Although God was everywhere, not confined to his temple, Zechariah had the sense that he was going to be walking straight into God’s bedroom.

He didn’t know what he was expecting when he started the prayers, but he certainly wasn’t expecting to meet an angel. Yet there he was.   Zechariah looked up from preparing the incense, and looked full in the face of an angel. He could never quite describe that moment or explain his fear, but Zechariah, terrified, fell to his knees.

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” These words were etched into his mind and he recalled them a thousand times in memories of this day. “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.”

It wasn’t that Zechariah didn’t believe, exactly. He had seen the miracles of God’s hand. He had heard the stories. It was just a lot to take in. He and Elizabeth would have a son? There hadn’t been a prophet among the people of Israel since Malachai… and his son, this son that he had longed for and nearly given up hoping for, would be a prophet? Not only a prophet, but a prophet to prepare the way for God? The Most High was finally coming? And his son was going to turn the people’s hearts to God…

“How will I know that this is so?” he asked. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” As soon as he said it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. As soon as he said it, he remembered Sarah and Abraham again. He had longed to follow in their footsteps and had formed his life around following the faith of his ancestors. In his own doubt he heard Sarah’s laughter. He realized that in all his attention to holiness, in all his prayer and singing, he still wasn’t really expecting God to show up and do something new. And he was ashamed.

The angel said to him with strength and kindness, “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.”

Zechariah was never sure how much time had passed in the temple, but the people outside were restless by the time he returned. He started to speak the blessing expected of him. He knew it by heart. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” But when he tried, he could not speak. Though the words sprang to life in his heart in a new way – “The Lord be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” – he could not speak them. They could see it in his face, though. He had seen a vision and it had left its mark on him.

He went home and soon after Elizabeth conceived. The preparations for the baby began, and Elizabeth was in seclusion, Zechariah still unable to speak. He paid attention to life at home in a new way in those days. He watched Elizabeth make bread, and he sensed in it the same kind of holiness – the same practiced care, the same mundane beauty, the same gentle revelation – as in the priestly duties he so cherished.

He thought about what he wanted to pass on to this baby, this child. He hoped he would be able to prepare him well to be the prophet of the Most High. But he sensed that this child would go far beyond anything he could imagine. The old ways would echo through the ages, the scripture and songs and identity would find its expression in the future. But what was coming was also so different from what had been. Zechariah knew that he would need to let go and watch his son rise, and there would be a grief in that.

But first, there would be teaching and learning. Could he communicate fully the joy he found in God? Would he be able to offer John enough hope, even in the midst of occupation, to carry him through?

Zechariah’s prayers shifted. Now he prayed to be able to center himself so much in God, in the faith of his ancestors, that it would radiate to his son. His legacy had come as a gift, a surprise, and ultimately it would not be his. This child’s ministry would come through Zechariah, praise God, but not from him. If he held too tightly, he would risk making small the vision. If he did not give his whole self, he would risk making it anemic. And yet, with Zechariah, through Zechariah, in spite of Zechariah, Zechariah knew that God would work and would bring his reconciling plan to fruition. Zechariah had found himself again in the midst of God’s plan, and his life had its meaning because of its part in a larger and glorious tapestry.

Given all these wonderings, all this noticing, all this reorienting, Zechariah was sometimes very glad for his muteness. And he was bursting at the seams with praise. So after John was born, after his parents had cuddled and cared for him for 8 days, welcoming him to the world and beginning their vigil to watch who he would become, when it came time to name him, Elizabeth told the crowd that he was to be named John.

Finally Zechariah could speak again, and all his joy, his sense of legacy and purpose, his sense of hope and wonder… it all came bubbling out of him in song as he looked into his son’s face. Ringing with the ancient words and finding new rhythm in God’s new revelation, he sang of a God who is unfailingly good and of a world yet to be:

“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.”

His neighbors were confused by all this, because they could sense the hand of the Lord upon Zechariah, and they asked “What then will this child become?”

Zechariah smiled to himself as he cradled this baby, protected and nurtured this new being. “What will this child become?” he wondered. This little one, who would be raised in the foundation of the ancient faith, would carry the beauty of the old songs and scripture, and yet would go far beyond what Zechariah could imagine now – this little one would be part of building, with God’s help and in harmony with what had come before, a glorious world yet unknown.

“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.”

Benediction:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.

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