A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Advent 3 ~ Luke 1:5-25
Today we get the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were the parents of John the Baptizer. Next week we’ll look at Mary, the mother of Jesus, who right after she became pregnant went to visit Elizabeth, her cousin. Today’s scripture takes place 6 months or so prior to that. I’ll be focusing on Zechariah today, who doesn’t really have anything directly to do with the story of Jesus’ birth, but Zechariah does serve as the embodiment of Advent waiting.
The story begins by establishing that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful and righteous people who come from good family lines. Unfortunately, they were never blessed with children (which was a significant cultural piece for folks then), and now they are “getting on in years” – the implication being that they’re beyond the usual window for baby-making.
Zechariah was a priest who lived in the hill country. The way it worked was that there was a rotating schedule of priests who took turns going to the big city of Jerusalem to serve in the Temple there for a couple of weeks at a time, then they’d go back home. The story picks up with him taking his turn at the Temple.
As it happened, he was selected to be the priest who would go into the inner sanctuary of the Temple to offer incense. This was a big deal and a great honour – a once in a lifetime kind of thing for a priest. It even says how the people were outside praying during this, which underlines how it was seen to be a very important and holy event. You could say that Zechariah was about to have his highest “achievement” as a priest. He would likely never again be given this opportunity, and he was about to enter what was, for him, the holiest place he could ever be in. Needless to say, he is primed and pumped, ready for a great spiritual experience – and man, does he get one!
Suddenly an angel appears and he’s terrified. The angel says, Luke 1:13-17
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. 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, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
How would you react?
I mean, first of all you’re completely overwhelmed by the whole experience, there’s a manifestation of the Presence of God before you, and it’s telling you that even though you and your partner are old and have never been able to have children that now you’re going to have one, and not only that the kid’s gonna grow up to be a major influencer in your religion.
Standing there in that moment, how would you respond?
Luke 1:18 Zechariah said to the angel, “Sh’yeah right!”
(I may be paraphrasing a bit!)
Well, I guess Gabriel the angel didn’t think that was all that funny, and he gets a little testy!
Luke 1:19-20 The angel replied, “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 believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
And the moral of the story is that if an angel appears to you it’s best not to tick them off!
Because Zechariah doubted the blessing of the angel he’s struck mute until it all comes to pass. He leaves the sanctuary after having been in there much longer than was expected, and the people outside (remember, they’re the ones who were praying all through this) can tell just by looking at him that he’s had a significant spiritual experience.
Have you ever looked at someone who had a glow about them? That was Zechariah!
He couldn’t talk, but his face was apparently speaking volumes!
Then when his time of service ended he went back home, and sure enough Elizabeth becomes pregnant. With echoes of Abraham and Sarah we have an older couple somewhat miraculously, or at least unexpectedly, producing a child.
I find it amusing to think that Zechariah had to go home and try to explain to Elizabeth everything that had happened, and to persuade her to, well, you know, without being able to speak.
So, that’s the reading with a bit of explanation.
I’d like to draw three things out of this that I hope will give us something to ponder as we draw nearer to Christmas.
The first is that Zechariah’s state of mind and openness to a spiritual experience made all the difference for him. He has the greatest, most profound spiritual experience of his life when he enters into the most sacred space he could imagine. He was walking into a place that in his understanding was holiness amplified. In other words, he was primed for it. He was expecting something wonderful and spiritually meaningful to happen, and it did.
I don’t know if you consider this church to be the holiest place on earth. I would doubt it. But I do hope that when you enter into this place you come primed for something spiritually meaningful to happen!
Sure we can, and do, have deeply profound spiritual experiences in all sorts of places – but this place is quite literally built for that.
A church sanctuary is to spiritual journeys what a health club is to physical fitness.
It’s a place set apart, designed to help the thing happen in a focused way.
It has dedicated equipment in it.
It has specially trained staff to facilitate.
It’s filled with others on the same kind of journey who can support and inspire you along the way.
But just strolling into the place doesn’t magically make things happen.
We have to do the work.
We have to have a positive mindset, an intention to grow, and most importantly we have to have an open heart and an expectation that by being there our journey will be enhanced, and our lives will be richer.
Zechariah wasn’t just doing his job or going through the motions – he was wide open and ready for a deep spiritual experience from the moment he stepped into the sanctuary.
I hope you come here that way!
The second thing I want us to ponder is what this story means for us in Advent. What did Advent waiting look like for Zechariah? He already knows the good news, but he can’t really act on it yet. He has to wait.
Of course he could have been using sign language or writing things down, but they didn’t have cool stuff like cell phones with text to speech apps on them. The implication in the scripture passage is that he is being prevented from communicating much of anything. That would mean he couldn’t do his job either. He couldn’t function as a priest if he couldn’t communicate.
All this to say that being struck mute in this situation is meant to paint a picture that he has had silence thrust upon him. He has wonderful and amazing blessings to share but he can’t share them – yet.
He has to wait. And wait. And wait – in the silence.
Perhaps in Zechariah’s honour we ought to all adopt a new spiritual practice of a silent Advent!
We’ll keep silent for four weeks in order to pray and joyfully ponder God’s blessings as we wait for that moment on Christmas Eve when we can finally erupt into joyful praise and singing as we celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Who’s with me?! (Who wants to volunteer somebody else for it!?)
Zechariah was forced into silence. Instead of speaking he could only listen, and pray, and ponder, and anticipate a wondrous blessing. What a profoundly deep and introspective time that must have been for him.
Nine months of Advent anticipation – waiting to see what God would birth through them.
And then, when the big day finally came, he was finally able to have his praise burst forth.
That’s a pretty good model for us to learn from for making our Advent journey into something special.
And the last thing I want to lift up for us to reflect on is how ordinary these now famous biblical characters are. They are the unlikeliest of heroes.
Joseph and Mary were peasants who lived in a backwater little town and expected to live an unassuming working class kind of life.
Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in a village in the hills. He was an ordinary, run of the mill priest taking his turn at the Temple. It’s no accident that the scriptures make a concerted effort to assure us that these are righteous and faithful people – but apart from that they’re just regular folks – just like us.
The big lesson for us in this is that into such ordinary, faithful lives, God shows up, and new life happens!
Now, it’s also important for us to note that when we’re open, and God does God’s thing and the Spirit moves, that our ordinary lives are transformed in often unexpected ways.
These ordinary, faithful folks have extraordinary experiences and their lives are changed for the better, but they couldn’t possibly have expected things to turn out the way they did. They don’t encounter angels and place an order for what they want like they’re at a drive thru.
They encounter the holy Presence of God and simply say yes. They simply allow God to move. Simply.
Zechariah has shown us some pretty awesome stuff.
He was open and expectant for a deep spiritual experience, and he got one.
He benefitted from having to refrain from following his usual patterns and had to instead step off life’s merry-go-round and enter into a long Advent period of prayerful, reflective silence during which his faith deepened and his joy grew until it gushed forth in God’s good time.
And he shows us how God moves in quirky and unexpected ways within the ordinary lives of ordinary faithful folks, if we’re open to it, even if we kinda doubt what might be happening in the moment.
And when we let God move, like Joseph did, like Zechariah did, like Mary did, our lives are transformed for the better – in ways they could not possibly imagine.
May our Advent journeys be as wonderful and as joyful as theirs were!