Scripture: Luke 1:5-20
Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.
Most of us, I imagine learned that little nursery rhyme as a child. Childhood is, developmentally, a time for wishing. We wish when we throw pennies into fountains. We wish when we blow out the candles on our birthday cakes. We wish when we pull on the wishbone of the Thanksgiving turkey. When I was a child the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalogue was even titled “The Wish Book.”
Yet, here’s the thing. For many of us long-time church goers, as we grow older, our prayers can become dangerously like those wishes of childhood. There are those things we yearn for; we can’t stop thinking about them. They flood our thoughts by day and our dreams by night more vividly than the toys we longed for as children and begged Santa to deliver. There are things we yearn for so deeply. We have made known our desires to God in prayer; more eloquently and practically stated than those childhood letters to Santa. And yet, month after month, year after year, our wishes, our deepest longings, seem to go unfulfilled.
Now I don’t wish to trivialize them with talk of stars and Santa because they are nothing trivial at all. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth of old, they are the things that make our souls ache. They are the desires that, left unfulfilled, can begin to slowly corrupt our faith like a moth breaking down the wool of a sweater long stored away.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were devout, faithful people. Yet they remained all those years praying for a child to come. Children were a sign of blessing. Without children, who would care for you in your old age? Without children, who would carry on your family name? Without children, who would even remember you as the years passed into decades from your death? And Zechariah and Elizabeth weren’t the only ones waiting. Israel had been waiting: waiting for a prophet, waiting for a Messiah, hoping for someone who would make God’s salvation known in no uncertain terms. Years passed under Roman occupation and God seemed silent and, no doubt, for some, faith had begun to wane. Scripture and tradition assured them: it wouldn’t go on like this forever. Yet, it is hard to maintain faith when our prayers, our deepest longings, go unfulfilled. The book of Habakkuk begins with the prophet’s desperate cry, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”[i] Like the psalmists of old, perhaps we too cry out, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”[ii]
And yet, our God does not forget. In fact, the name Zechariah means “God has remembered.” My friends, we are always on God’s mind.
It was a day long ago when Zechariah entered the Temple, into the Holy of Holies to offer God a sacrifice on behalf of the people. In their thinking, that inner chamber of the Temple was where God lived; space so sacred it could only be entered by a priest once a year. It was an enviable honor and there stood Zechariah in the presence of God when the angel Gabriel made his visible appearance. That must have just about pushed Zechariah over the edge. Preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor tosses out some possibilities for Zech’s shock when she writes:
Maybe he was concentrating so hard on what he was doing
that he forgot whose living room he was in.
Or maybe he suffered from the curse of the professional religious
who are so often frightened when God interrupts their routines.
If you ask me, [Brown writes] he was scared because he was thinking
about Elizabeth instead of the incense.[iii]
Friends, however you interpret it, there’s no denying, this was not something Zechariah expected. This holy man, a seasoned saint, a religious professional; yet unprepared for his prayers to be heard. So, it’s the second sentence the angel speaks; just on the heels of his reassurance “Do not be afraid.” That’s his message: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”[iv] God never forgets about us. God always remembers us. He hears our prayers and he understands our deepest longings.
And yet, as I say, Zechariah seems to have given up hope. Perhaps his prayer had become simply a holy habit. After all, he’d been at it for so long and with nothing to show for it. The longing still there, the prayer still drifting over his lips; yet there he was, struggling to keep the faith.
And perhaps, some of you know that feeling. I wonder: what prayer did you carry in your heart as you came into the sanctuary to worship this morning? What prayer may have drifted over your lips? And did you expect to encounter God when you walked into this place, this holy place where God’s presence and our deepest desires meet?
To the prophet Habakkuk’s desperate cry “how long?” God responded, “There is still a vision… [God said] If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come…”[v] As the prophet poured out a litany of desperation, he concludes his prophetic rant with these words: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!”[vi]
The Lord is in his holy temple, friends; let all within keep silence before him. It may have served Zechariah well to have reflected on that very scripture on that notorious day long ago when he entered the Holy of Holies. Silence might have been a very wise choice. Again, preacher Barbara Brown Taylor quips, “Because he could not say something nice, he was not allowed to say anything at all.”[vii] But let’s not cast dispersions on our biblical ancestor; for here’s the thing: our silence, even our bewilderment and uncertainty can serve to build our faith. Our silence, our bewilderment, even our uncertainty; they become the raw material of prayer and worship.
Advent has begun, my friends; but are you prepared for the coming of God… into this sanctuary, into your life, even into the midst of your doubts, and most assuredly in response to your prayers?
Long, long ago, Israel’s waiting and longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise was paralleled by the waiting and longing of this old, childless couple. In both their cases, the wait was so long their faith appeared to be futile. And so, the annunciation of John the Baptist’s birth, forerunner of Jesus… well, it serves as a reminder that it is never too late for those who wait and pray. We don’t need a first century stone Temple to enter into the holy, awesome presence of God Almighty. We can carve out that sacred space, that metaphorical Temple, nearly anywhere we are committed to prayer and worship; silence and awe. God is still in his Holy Temple and, when we are silent and open in his presence, he still speaks his promise over our lives. He still speaks his word of promise over our lives. Do not be afraid; your prayer has been heard.
I want to invite you to turn to the card inside your program this morning. For the next four weeks of Advent, each week you’ll be encouraged to put into practice what we talk about during worship. This week, our focus is on faith as we’ve immersed ourselves in the story of Zechariah. So this week I want to invite you to follow the lead of Zechariah and practice silence, only self-imposed in our case. We don’t have much silence in these weeks leading up to Christmas. They’re busy and stressful and noisy. But silence and worship and prayer are all practices that bring us more deeply into God’s holy presence. So here’s our Advent spiritual exercise for this week: this week eat a meal in silence. Shut off your smart phone; turn off the TV; maybe unplug your land line if you have one. Spend the mealtime quietly reflecting on a promise from God found in scripture. Give thanks for God’s faithfulness. Give thanks that God remembers us and hears our prayers. If you are eating with a friend or family member, why not conclude your meal by sharing your biblical promise with one another. Now, if you need some help in identifying a promise from God’s Word, you’ll see there on the card in your program the spot on our website where you can go and I’ve listed some biblical promises. And hopefully one of those will resonate with your life and your longings.
Have faith, my friends. Don’t give up; but do worship and pray. Have faith and rest assured that your prayer has been heard.
[i] Habakkuk 1:2, NRSV (Note: “How long” is a frequent cry on the lips of the prophets)
[ii] Psalm 13:1, NRSV (Note: “How long” is a frequent cry on the lips of the psalmists)
[iii] Bread of Angels by Barbara Brown Taylor; “The Silence of Angels,” Cowley Publications; 1997; p. 92
[iv] Luke 1:13, NRSV
[v] Habakkuk 1:3, NRSV
[vi] Habakkuk 2:20, NRSV
[vii] Bread of Angels, p. 93.
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