By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 1:5-20
Several years back a single woman, living alone, was leaving for work when she noticed… it looked as if someone had tried to break into her home. On her way to work, she dialed the police. The detective on the other end of the phone listened to her then said, “When you leave work today, don’t go into your house. Call us and an officer will meet you at your home and check and clear the house before you go inside.” At the end of the work day, the woman decided it would be fine to just call the officer once she got inside. Who knows why? Maybe she was tired or just didn’t think it was that important. But, someone had broken into her home and was still there and the intruder tortured her and held her captive. She barely escaped with her life. The detective who caught the case was the same detective she’d spoken to on the phone. When he went to the hospital to take her statement, she said to him, “That officer on the phone told me not to go inside until police checked the house. But I didn’t listen.” She didn’t heed his words; but he never forgot hers.
This morning we continue through this season of Advent looking once again at the story of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, parents to John the Baptist whose career will be about preparing people for the ministry of Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth are an elderly couple; good, righteous people who have spent years longing for a child… but to no avail. Likewise, the people of Israel had also been waiting a long, long time: waiting for a prophet, waiting for a Messiah, waiting for a Word of hope from God. They were living under harsh circumstances; conquered by Rome and forced to support its large and expensive political and military machine. Rome cared little for their religious faith and heritage; just so long as they paid their taxes and didn’t cause any problems.
Still those people of God had hope… as I spoke of last Sunday. But what is hope, really… other than the name of my youngest dog.
In scripture, God is the source of hope; more specifically, people place their hope in God’s promises to them and the agreements God enters into with them. Those agreements called covenants in the bible. In other words, God’s Word is the foundation of hope since God’s Word is always worthy of our trust. God’s Word is the very revelation of God’s nature and God’s character. So, we can and should put faith in God’s Word.
On that day long ago Zechariah entered the temple and encountered there the angel Gabriel sent to deliver the Word of God; a good word, a wonderful word: “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,” Gabriel said.
But it made no sense to Zechariah. They were too old.
It’s an interesting thing if you think about it. Gabriel himself points out that this is the very thing Zechariah has been praying for. “Your prayer has been heard,” Gabriel proclaims.
Words are a powerful thing you know. They hold great meaning; yet we often give them little thought. If you doubt my word, try an experiment: when strangers in a casual setting ask you how you are just smile and flatly say you’re awful and notice how few of them even notice… especially if they’re doing something on their phone or on their way to work or trying to complete some task. Words just don’t get much respect. And maybe that’s understandable. After all, usually if a stranger asks me how I’m doing, I just say “fine,” even if I’m having one of the worst days ever.
But the words – the prayers – that Zechariah had been lifting up to God were respected; they were heard; and they were ultimately answered… a reality so shocking that Zechariah challenges the angel’s words: “How can this be… I’m old; me and the missus.”
Clearly Zechariah didn’t have much faith in the angel’s words and so the angel responds: “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 trust my words… you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”[i]
And so it was. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this: “Because he could not say something nice, he was not allowed to say anything at all.”[ii] Or, as Kathleen Norris writes, “I read Zechariah’s [so-called] punishment as a grace, in that he could not say anything to further compound his initial arrogance when confronted with mystery.”[iii] Zechariah’s doubt in the word of God renders him mute and, as many bible commentators point out, likely deaf as well.
I have a friend who is an off-the-chart extrovert. Her husband sometimes goes on silent retreats. She can’t imagine any worse fate; to live without words seems to her to be torture.
But perhaps we are too inundated with words; so inundated that we no longer are able to filter out the words that matter most; the words that are worthy of our trust, the words that bring us hope. While Zechariah’s condition might sound like a punishment, perhaps it is better interpreted as an opportunity. One thing for sure, if Zechariah was deaf as well as mute, the only words he would have experienced during those nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have been his engagement with God’s Word through prayer and scripture and reflection. And, I imagine if there’s only one voice to be heard, you couldn’t do much better than God’s.
I had an interesting experience this week. I was getting groceries at the Payless in West Lafayette. Unloading my bags into the hatch of my car, an employee was rounding up the carts to take them back into the store. She caught my eye and said, “My day just keeps getting better and better.” Usually people say those words with sarcasm, but I didn’t detect any sarcasm. Without any encouragement, she began to tell me (a total stranger) about how her day had begun with car problems and financial woes. But someone had helped her get her car fixed and then Payless had discovered they’d shorted her on some pay and she got an extra check that day… giving her more money than she thought she had. I said to her, “That’s nice; have a merry Christmas,” and got into my car. But I can’t stop thinking about her. What a flippant response I gave. I just wasn’t expecting a stranger to be so candid and transparent with me. Perhaps she was simply looking for someone who would celebrate good news with her. But I wasn’t expecting it from a stranger in the parking lot of Payless. So I just tried to be polite and hurried on my way. Hers was good news; a good word that pretty much bounced right off of me. But it was a busy day; I had a lot to do, like a sermon to write.
Friends, the season of Advent dates back to the year 380 when it was decided that Christians needed a period of time to prepare to celebrate an event as significant as our Savior’s birth. It was to be a time when people were more intentional about their spiritual practices: things like worship and prayer and the reading of scripture. Today, most of our Christmas prep consists of decorating and shopping and baking cookies… none of those bad things in and of themselves. But are they really the things that prepare us to celebrate our Savior’s birth? Are they really the things that prepare our hearts to hear the angelic proclamation: “I bring you good news of great joy…”? Do the things we do to prepare for Christmas grow our faith and our trust in God’s Word? Are they really the things that remind us that God’s promises are reliable and a source of hope?
Are they really the things that remind us that, on that night long ago, God’s Word put on flesh and came to live in our midst. What we celebrate this season is that the life-giving Word of God came to life, right before our very ears and eyes, an embodied revelation of God’s mercy and grace.
[i] Luke 1:19-20
[ii] Bread of Angels by Barbara Brown Taylor; “The Silence of Angels,” Cowley Publications; 1997; p. 93
[iii] From the Advent devotional Watch for the Light; Plough Publishing House; 2001. Norris’ devotion is for November 30.
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