Sermon Text: Luke 1:5-23
The following is my original manuscript for this sermon.
I hope your Christmas season has gotten off to a great start. Ours has. Lisa and I gave ourselves an early Christmas present by finally entering the 21st century and buying a high definition television. Last Tuesday, we decided on the TV that we wanted. Wal-Mart had it on sale at 5:00 a.m. on Black Friday. So we had planned on getting up early Friday morning and getting our new TV… That is, until we saw that Target had the same TV on sale in its pre-Thanksgiving sale for just a little more money. So we thought, “Why get up early and fight the rush and the lines and the waiting on Friday when we can get our TV on Wednesday for just a little more money?” So that’s what we did. From what I’ve read, lines were long in retail stores across the country on Black Friday. I hope this means that maybe, just maybe, the economy is picking up. But I didn’t want to wait in line with everyone else!
I’m not good at waiting. And every year at this time, in the season of Advent, the Church asks us to wait… True, the commercial Christmas season begins with the arrival of Santa at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; or maybe Black Friday; or maybe when the local Christian music station begins playing round-the-clock Christmas music. But we, the Church, wait.
And this year in Vinebranch, for the next few weeks, we’re going to be waiting for Christmas alongside other people in scripture who waited—next week with Mary and the following week with Joseph. And today we’re waiting with Zechariah.
Zechariah was a priest. He was a part of one of 24 groups of priests, each of whom spent one week, twice a year, serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. At an evening worship service, he and the priests serving with him drew lots to see which duty they would have in that particular service. The lot fell to Zechariah to perform one of the most sacred duties of all: to enter into the room called Holy Place, by himself—while the congregation and other priests waited outside—and light incense on the altar of incense.
A funny thing happened on his way to light the incense. An angel—one of the very high-ranking angels named Gabriel—was standing to the right side of the altar of incense. There’s no description of how the angel appeared, but Luke reports that Zechariah was terrified and “fear overwhelmed him.” I can totally relate to this. I live on a street that is very dark at night—with only a couple of lampposts. I occasionally go running after work in the dark, especially this time of year—with headphones on, listening to music somewhat loudly. And I’m jogging along, minding my own business. When out of nowhere appears a dog on my heels, barking and growling. I’m so glad none of my parishioners are there to hear the colorful language I use when this happens! But it’s because it’s so unexpected and I have this over-active startle reflex. It is terrifying. So in part that’s what’s going on with Zechariah. Here he is minding his own business, not expecting even a human being to be in the Holy Place, not to mention an angel. I can only imagine!
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” Angels are always going around saying that. “Fear not” in the old King James. John Wesley, in his notes on this passage, writes, “Is it not then an instance of the goodness as well as of the wisdom of God, that the services, which these heavenly spirits render us, are generally invisible?” In other words, God’s angels are here to help us in ways that go beyond our understanding. But we almost never see them, and isn’t that a good thing? Because if we did, they would practically frighten us to death!
So Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” Why? “Because your prayer has been heard.” What prayer? “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.”
So we find out that Zechariah has been waiting—for a long time. Wanting and not being able to have a child is incredibly heartbreaking, as some of you know. But it was even worse in those days: In the eyes of the community it meant God was punishing the husband and wife. We know this isn’t true with Zechariah and Elizabeth—but outsiders didn’t know that. Women would be the source of scorn and gossip. And both husband and wife wanted children, especially sons, as a form of social security when they got old.
So Zechariah had been praying about this problem, waiting and hoping that the Lord would answer his prayer.
Zechariah is another example in scripture of faithful people who not only know how to pray, but also know how to wait for God to answer their prayers. Remember Abraham and Sarah? God tells them that despite their old age, God is going to bless them with offspring as numerous as the stars—and they wait 25 years for that promise to begin to come true. Rebekah and Isaac wait for 20 years to have a child, but they keep on praying for it. Waiting on God is a recurring theme. Even the people of Israel had had to wait hundreds of years for God to fulfill his promise of a Messiah and Savior, a promise that was soon to come true.
We are not wired for waiting. My grandmother had a green rotary dial phone that hung on the wall. You had to literally dial it. Very slow—especially if you had phone numbers with zeroes in them, because you had to go all the way around. And because it was on the wall, you stood by the phone while you talked. At my grandma’s house, you’d pick up the phone to place a call, and sometimes there would be someone on the line talking—because it was a party line. Anyone remember those? And you’re like, “Any day now… I need to use the phone!” Can you imagine that today?
Today we have a problem with people texting while driving, checking email and Facebook while driving. And it is a terrible thing to do. And some people say, “Why can’t you just wait until you’re not driving?” Are we so impatient that we risk our lives to read and respond to a message?
We don’t want to wait. But here’s the thing: God has not changed God’s timing in order to accommodate our impatient age. You know? We’ve changed. God hasn’t.
I know it’s difficult to wait, but think about this: waiting is often good for us; time is a gift, and God uses it to help us. Let’s say that Elizabeth and Zechariah had been praying and waiting for 15 years to get pregnant. It’s not simply that 15 years passed, and God finally got around to answering the prayer. God was answering that prayer throughout those 15 years! Don’t you think that during those 15 years God was working in this couple’s lives, preparing their hearts for this child? It’s easy to imagine that God changed them in a way that made them more ready to have this child than they would have been.
I think of my own experience in ministry. I have complained often about how long the ordination process took from start to finish, but during those eight years—which was at times immensely satisfying, at other times incredibly challenging—God changed me, made me into a better person, better equipped to be a pastor, in this place at this time. I know that.
My friend Chuck said it well in his Thanksgiving status update on Facebook. Listen to this: “I’ve come to realize that my best days come when I can look at both triumph and hardship with proper perspective and appreciate their equal importance. My worst days along with the best made me who I am today, and I can accept them both with gratitude and not regret. What am I thankful for? Everything.” That makes so much sense to me.
Zechariah was faithful, but I’m glad he wasn’t perfect! There’s hope for us! Like us, he was a mixture of faith and doubt. After Gabriel reveals to him that not only would he have a child but this child would play a special role in bringing God’s rescue plan for the world through Jesus Christ to fruition, Zechariah asks: “How will I know that this is so?” “Um, I don’t know, Zechariah. Maybe by the fact that you’ve had a divine encounter with a heavenly being who has told you that it’s so. Maybe in this case you just take his word for it.”
It was a dumb question, filled with doubt, but maybe being struck mute for nine months seems like a stiff penalty for doubting. And I’m especially sympathetic because, like Zechariah, I make my living mostly by talking… talking about God. I remembered last week that when I was 15 I visited Cork, Ireland, and went Blarney Castle. And what did I do? I kissed the “blarney stone.” According to legend, if you kiss this certain rock on the castle wall, you will be endowed with the “gift of gab.” Man, I hadn’t even kissed a girl at that point, but I kissed this stupid rock! No one else in my family would do it because of the germs of the hundreds of people who had gone before us, but oh well… See, no wonder I became a preacher! I kissed the blarney stone.
But talking has always been important to me. Imagine if God took that away? Except it was worse for Zechariah—the modern day equivalent would be taking away not only our voice but texting, Facebook, and email. You’ve heard that old cliché about how God gave us two ears and only one mouth so that we could listen twice as much as we talk. That sounds about right. We may think of being struck mute as great punishment for Zechariah, but maybe it was instead a difficult but necessary grace: Aren’t there seasons in our lives in which we ought to just be quiet, listen, and watch?
In my own life recently, I had a realization: I had become a professional Bible reader. What I mean by that is that I had fallen into this terrible habit of reading the Bible mostly for work—for sermon preparation, for Bible studies, for Disciple, for Sunday school classes. That’s still a lot of Bible reading, but not enough! If I say with my lips that God speaks his Word to us through scripture—that I can encounter God by spending time reading scripture—how could I not be taking time each day to read it, prayerfully, devotionally—including even the parts that I don’t like very much? It was as if God were telling me, “You need to stop talking so much about the Bible and start reading it more—and by doing so, you need to listen to me.”
Advent is a great season to listen to God. Is God trying to tell you something or teach you something or show you something new?
In the busy-ness of this season, may we find times of quiet so that the Holy Spirit can “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Amen?