The audio version of this sermon is available at SoundCloud and through iTunes podcast. (I was in great need of a cough drop.)
The good news of Jesus Christ according to St. Luke does not begin with an angel telling Mary that she will bear the son of God. Luke gets to that soon enough, of course. But the good news of Jesus Christ according to St. Luke begins with Gabriel visiting Mary’s cousin’s husband. The angelic message is this: Zechariah’s wife, the aging Elizabeth, would bear a son, whom they were to name John.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for this child - but they had long since lost hope that they would ever conceive. They had long since lost hope that their household would be filled with the cries of a newborn. The pain, and longing, and unanswered prayers had taken a toll on Zechariah.
Although he and his wife still dutifully honored God by following God’s law, the elderly priest had long since lost hope in God.
It was in this state of resignation that Zechariah was tapped to perform his priestly duty. He was to enter the most sacred space in the temple to light incense on behalf of the people as an offering to God. It was a big deal, so far as religious ritual goes. But really, it was as simple as lighting a match and murmuring the appropriate prayers.
Zechariah knew what to expect as he walked into the temple, alone, and passed through the curtain into the Holy of Holies.
Only he didn’t know what to expect. Because, apparently, Zechariah believed he would remain alone as he went through the motions of offering the sacrifice to the Lord.
And suddenly the priest was very much not alone, because he was joined in that holy place by Gabriel, an angel of the Lord.
“Do not be afraid,” is what the angel said to Zechariah, because that is, as we know, what the angel always says to the quivering, terrified human. “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard.”
Zechariah’s level of surprise at actually encountering the Holy within the Holy of Holies is rather comical. I mean, I suspect we’d be right there with him, walking into God’s very dwelling place without ever in a million years expecting to encounter God. If I popped over to our sanctuary on a Tuesday morning to fetch the bible I invariably leave in the pulpit after I preach, and found myself face to face with an angel of the Lord,
you had better believe that he or she would have to tell me not to be afraid. He or she might also need to give me mouth to mouth resuscitation. I would be scared out of my wits.
But the angel had more in store for Zechariah than the shock of his mere presence. The angel delivered a calm and detailed message that fulfilled every last hope Zechariah had long abandoned. Zechariah would not only have a son. John would be a very special son. John would be filled with the Holy Spirit. He would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. John would come to be known as John the Baptist, the strange prophet who would emerge from the wilderness preaching repentance. John would prepare the way for the Messiah - his cousin, our savior.
Gabriel promised these things with all the authority of a divinely-appointed messenger. He even promised that the sad and frightened man quaking in holy fear would have joy and gladness. Zechariah could not believe it, could not see it. His vision was clouded by despair. His faith was compromised by distrust. Zechariah’s spirit was imprisoned by hopelessness, and so he flunked the test.
“How will I know that this is so?” he demanded of Gabriel.
He asked for a sign, for proof, for an assurance more trustworthy than pretty promises. Gabriel seemed a bit miffed, am I right? As if the priest had questioned the angel’s credentials or something. Zechariah was therefore rendered mute until the prophecy was fulfilled - which is to say the aging man was unable to speak for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy. Nine months of silence.
I am drawn to Zechariah at the beginning of this season for a reason that is perhaps a bit sad. I am drawn to Zechariah because I recognize myself in him. And not merely that I would have been just as fearful if I’d been in his shoes. I recognize, in Zechariah, my own slow descent into hopelessness, my own desperation of spirit in light of a world that seems to get darker by the day.
I reckon I am not alone in this. If we are paying attention to the news, our hearts are heavy with grief. Terrorism, violence, hatred, racism, cruelty, and fear are gripping God’s beloved Creation. Yes, there are good stories being told, too, stories of heroism, courage, love, advocacy, kindness, and hospitality. But it seems an awful lot like history is repeating itself in some profoundly disturbing ways.
I read these words from a veteran preacher last week: “Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that Zechariah’s sin was not so much doubt and disbelief as “a failure of imagination . . . a habit of hopelessness.” Zechariah is the one who is truly barren because he cannot imagine a different future, cannot entertain something new and hopeful. His is the barrenness of all of us who fall into despair because we cannot imagine or have given up on a world different from the one that we confront every morning in the newspaper. Advent is God’s response—God’s quiet, re-creating, reconciling intrusion into the world and into our own lives" (John Buchanan, "Zechariah's Problem," December 9th, 2015 edition of the Christian Century).
Throughout the season we light impossible candles: a candle of hope in a hopeless world. A candle of peace in a war-torn world. A candle of joy in a grief-stricken world. A candle of love in a hate-filled world.
And finally, in a few short weeks, a Christ candle that is supposed to bear witness to our unwavering trust that God is working to redeem this seemingly irredeemable world by becoming human, by enfolding all that divinity into the tiny body of a newborn boy.
A newborn boy so vulnerable that his parents have to flee in the night to Egypt to take refuge from a king who would like nothing more than to kill him.
Frankly, it seems like a risky plan, destined to end poorly. End poorly it does: death on a cross. And yet, all those witnesses swear that it did not end at all. Those witnesses swear that death did not prevail. Christ has died, but Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. Which is to say God knows the work here is not done; God is yet working to redeem this seemingly irredeemable world. God is yet quietly intruding, showing up in the most unexpected places.
It is well and good to prepare for the birth of Christ in a stable in Bethlehem. It is perhaps a bit harder to prepare for the Advent of Christ in the chaos of the present, but this is precisely what we are called to do. This is what we are charged to prepare for. It is work that requires imagination, courage, faith, and above all: hope.
And this is why hopelessness is such a grave spiritual condition.
There is a place where my reading of this text in our context seems, in my estimation, to fall apart a bit. Though I have felt pangs of hopelessness in recent days, I have also felt moved to speak, to lend my voice to the choir of those who are speaking out against violence and injustice. If we are, as disciples of Christ, called to be prophets and advocates of social justice, we can’t very well do that with our mouths tightly shuttered.
But I suspect this is the key: we cannot speak faithfully if our words are not rooted in hope. If we do not confess that God is making all things new, if we do not trust that Christ dwells within and among us, if we do not believe that hope, peace, joy, and love will change the world: we are but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
When Zechariah speaks again, finally, after the squalling cry of his impossible son frees his silenced tongue, he sings a song of praise to an unexpected God, his hope utterly restored.
"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.”
By the light of the Advent candle of hope, may it be so.