By Pastor Tracey
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Luke 1:5-17
It’s the season of gifting. If you saw last week’s news reports about record-breaking Black Friday, Small-Business Saturday and Cyber Monday sales, you might wonder if there’s anything left to buy. But don’t worry. It’s America; there’s plenty of stuff and… plenty of time; plenty of time to prepare for Christmas. That’s what Advent is about after all. It was around the year 380 that church leaders in Spain first decided that Christians needed a special season – a set period of time – to spiritually prepare to commemorate and celebrate the birth of Jesus.[i] Now the gospel of Luke is especially helpful with this process of taking our time and preparing well to celebrate our Lord’s birth. Luke’s story doesn’t immediately begin with the birth of Jesus. It does not even immediately begin with the announcement of his birth. Instead, it begins with the story of his extended family, an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, whose own “miracle baby” – known to us as John the Baptist – will grow up to carry out the task of laying the groundwork for the public ministry of Jesus.
Zechariah, John’s father, is the first character to step on stage in this gospel. Zech and Elizabeth are good and righteous people. Not only is Zechariah a priest; his wife is a descendent of the very first Israelite priest, Aaron (the brother of Moses). Our gospel narrator emphasizes the righteous character of this couple because, well, some might wonder. You see, this couple is barren; childless… in a time and culture when children were considered evidence that one had been blessed by God. Now, for sure we still consider children a blessing and a gift from God. But, thankfully, we no longer consider those without children as being morally or spiritually suspect. We understand the science behind human conception and don’t assign moral blame to those who cannot conceive. But in the first century world, a couple without children were held suspect. Their neighbors would have assumed that something had been done by this couple or their ancestors to make God unhappy with them. So our gospel writer must take special pains to highlight that this is not the case, writing: “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”[ii]
As our story begins Zechariah is about to carry out the esteemed honor of entering the sanctuary of God to offer prayer and the sacrifice of incense. Again, dating all the way back to Moses’ brother Aaron (we read in the book of Exodus) God commands the priest to offer a sacrifice of incense on the altar every morning and every evening.[iii]
And it is at that very moment that Zechariah encounters the angel Gabriel who delivers a remarkable announcement that begins with these words: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”[iv] Now it was pretty standard operating procedure for angels to tell people not to be afraid because fear was the automatic response of people when they saw one. But once the angel gets that out of the way, notice how he announces the catalyst for this visitation: prayer. The angel comes in response to prayer.
In Israel and other surrounding ancient Mediterranean cultures, incense was associated with worship, sacrifice and prayer. In fact, it is as if the rising smoke of the incense becomes a sort of “carrier” or transporter of people’s prayers. They seem to co-mingle and drift up into the heavens together. We find a scripture in Revelation to this effect. In the 8th chapter we read: “Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”[v] So there is something fascinating and powerful about this blending of incense and altar and prayers and angels. And it may pull at something primitive, something visceral, in us.
When I was in college, I developed a boil on my foot. It was really painful. We happened to be visiting my brother and his family out of town at the time. My nephew was about four. I planned not to attend church that Sunday but to stay at home with my foot propped up. But my little nephew was adamant: it was important that we go to church so we could pray for my foot. I obliged.
Even as post-modern scientifically educated people, we still speak of God as being “in the heavens” and we long for some reassurance that our prayers are rising up and getting through. This image of prayers rising to God in the heavens like incense drifting up into the air is powerful. Still today during evening prayers in monastic communities included within that prayer pattern is this verse from the Psalms: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands an evening sacrifice.”[vi]
No doubt Zechariah was in prayer as he entered that holy space, sacred space. He enters on behalf of the people of Israel, a nation occupied by Gentiles, oppressed by the Roman government, mostly comprised of peasants poorer than dirt. They are a people who have been waiting a long time for a prophet and for their Messiah to come. That is their longing and Zechariah no doubt carries their longing into that sacred space to offer it up to God; to be lifted to the heavens, co-mingled with the incense. Zechariah carries in his heart the longings of a nation. But he is also a man; a man who is fatherless; a man whose own deep longing for a son has gone unanswered. And we can only assume by the words of the angel, that Zechariah offered this prayer as well. He lifts up the longings of a nation; but he also lifts to God his own deepest longings and desires, his own disappointment and pain.
And remarkably, it all co-mingles – the swirling smoke of the incense; and prayer for others and prayer for self and awe and wonder; then an angel in the middle of it all… sent, specifically, by God in response to Zechariah’s prayers. It is also interesting and important to notice that, while Zechariah is the only one standing before the altar, he is not alone in his worship and prayer. There is a whole congregation gathered outside waiting for him; and, as they wait, they too pray. And, one might assume, their prayers are like Zechariah’s – prayers for the Jewish people and their nation; yet also a lifting up to God of their own individual concerns – perhaps a family member who is ill or one who is grieving the death of a loved one.
Meanwhile inside the temple, the angel announces to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will conceive and they will have a son and that little boy will bring them joy and gladness. Yet beyond their personal joy, their son will grow up to answer the prayers of a nation when he carries out his prophetic work of preaching and baptizing to prepare people for Jesus, their long-awaited Messiah. Talk about a two-fer. God, with all the creativity of the maker of the universe and the author of all life, God has responded to the longings of an old barren couple and a desperate, oppressed nation in one fell swoop. Remarkable!
So, what about you? What do you long for today? What burden do you bear? What prayers did you carry into this sacred space this morning? We all see and hear the news. We carry a common burden for the suffering of our nation and our world: the poor, refugees, the homeless, the hungry, the uninsured, children neglected or abused. But we also gather in this space with our own individual needs and longings tucked within our hearts. Some we may not even speak aloud to others; perhaps we feel embarrassed or ashamed or vulnerable; perhaps we fear others would find them trivial. But they are not trivial to us. And so, even as the pastors pray and we sing our songs together, you silently lift up your prayer – your desires – drawn from deep within your soul.
Prayer is many things and often hard to define concisely. But, among many quite acceptable descriptions, I would offer this one: prayer is about entering into sacred (or specially defined) time and space. It doesn’t have to be church. But it is time and space we set aside to be attentive to God, tuned in to God. And as we give our full attention to God, we offer up the needs of others and the deepest longings of our own hearts… knowing and trusting that God, our God, is able and willing to respond to it all in ways that are creative and astonishing; in ways that draw us together; in ways that remind us that “no man is an island”; that we are in this together.
I once had a friend who didn’t make it a habit of praying for himself. He figured there were so many people with greater, bigger needs. And I once had a parishioner who considered it a sin to waste God’s time with prayers for dogs or cats. But friends, I don’t think that’s how prayer works. I don’t think that’s how God works. I don’t think God is concerned about quotas or time constraints and I certainly don’t think he’s limited by them.
Prayer ought not to be something that separates us or “prioritizes” us among other people… or other species for that matter. Prayer can be that which draws us together; one common people, one common creation, humbled in prayer before God in our common experience of need and longing.
Our prayers all co-mingle and rise up to God and our God, who is remarkably gracious and creative, can respond to our individual needs in ways that also bring redemption and hope and healing into the lives of others.
[i] The New Handbook of the Christian Year; Hickman, Saliers, Stookey and White; Abingdon Press; 1986; p. 23
[ii] Luke 1:6. NRSV.
[iii] See Exodus 30:7-8.
[iv] Luke 1:13
[v] Revelation 8:3-4
[vi] Psalm 141:2
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