I tend to be a pretty linear thinker. When it comes to the church calendar and following the stories in the Bible, I like to have them in chronological order. But, hat doesn’t always happen, especially in Advent.
In the season of Advent, we want to talk about the anticipation of Jesus’ birth. We try to travel with Mary and Joseph as they discover their ill-timed pregnancy, as they receive God’s Word from the mouths of angels, and as they make the arduous journey towards Bethlehem and the awaiting manger. We try to connect with the Jews of the time – oppressed by the Roman Empire and awaiting the coming of a long promised Messiah to free them. And we hear the story of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness that the savior is coming and it is up to us to prepare the way.
For a linear thinker like myself, this season can be a bit frustrating. Sometimes we jump back and forth in the story, sometimes we get the parts jumbled up, sometimes we even combine different narratives into one. For the sake of convenience and tradition, we move things around, we rephrase and rewrite, we work to make the story our own.
It’s not a big deal. As long as the changes don’t detract from God’s story, it doesn’t matter that Luke’s gospel has no mention of the wise men or that Matthew’s says nothing about the shepherds. It’s fine that one gospel has the angel talking to Mary while the other has Joseph receiving the heavenly message. And it doesn’t matter that last week we talked about John the Baptist as a grown man and today we talk about his father’s reaction to his John’s birth.
You may remember the story from Luke’s gospel: about six months before Mary is visited by a messenger of God named Gabriel, the angel pays a visit to Zechariah.
Zechariah is a priest in the temple of Jerusalem. He and his wife, Elizabeth (one of Mary’s relatives) are considered holy and blessed people. The serve God in the temple and they do their best to follow God’s way. Elizabeth and Zechariah seem to live a good life – one with which they are satisfied. However, they were never able to have children. Perhaps they wanted to but now, in their old age, they seem resigned to the fact that they never will.
Well, you might be able see where this is going. As tends to happen in the Bible, the old, childless couple gets a visit from an angel. And the angel promises them a child. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife will give birth to a son; A son who will grow to be a great man with a mission to turn many people in Israel to follow the path of God; A man who will fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah and become the forerunner to the Messiah; a son named John.
Zechariah is – rightly – shocked! Even though he is a holy man who has heard stories just like this through the holy scriptures of his tradition, he doesn’t believe that God is playing a part in his life. And Zechariah makes the mistake of expressing his doubt to Gabriel. “I’m an old man,” he says, “my wife can’t have kids anymore. “
Gabriel gets pretty upset about this. As punishment for his doubt, Gabriel takes away Zechariah’s voice and tells him that he won’t be able to speak until he sees that what the angel tells him is true.
So, Zechariah spends the next nine months unable to speak. When the child is born and the time comes to name him, friends and relatives expect the child to take the name of his father. But Elizabeth and Zechariah insist that the child be named John, just as the Gabriel proclaimed. As soon as Zechariah agrees to name the child John, his voice is restored. The first words out of his mouth show that he sees the blessing of God in the birth of his child, he recognizes that great things are to come, he knows that John’s birth heralds the coming of the One who will light the way to God.
Listen for the Word of God in Zechariah’s declaration in Luke chapter 1, verses 68 to 79. If you’d like to follow along, it is printed in your bulletin.
May the Lord God of Israel be blessed indeed!
For God’s intervention has begun, and He has moved to rescue us, the people of God.
And the Lord has raised up a powerful sign of liberation for us from among the descendants of God’s servant, King David.
As was prophesied through the mouths of His holy prophets in ancient times:
God will liberate us from our enemies and from the hand of our oppressors!
God will show mercy promised to our ancestors, upholding the abiding covenant He made with them, remembering the original vow He swore to Abraham, from whom we are all descended.
God will rescue us from the grasp of our enemies so that we may serve Him without fear all our days in holiness and justice, in the presence of the Lord.
And you, my son, will be called the prophet of the Most High.
For you will be the one to prepare the way for the Lord so that the Lord’s people will receive knowledge of their freedom through the forgiveness of their sins.
All this will flow from the kind and compassionate mercy of our God.
A new day is dawning: the Sunrise from the heavens will break through in our darkness, and those who huddle in night, those who sit in the shadow of death, will be able to rise and walk in the light, guided in the pathway of peace.
(Here ends the reading)
Zechariah had to deal with the consequences of his doubts but, in the end, he was finally able to see that God was present in his life. When he was able to hear God’s still speaking voice, he regained his own.
There may be times when we find our life has plateau-ed, we may be satisfied with where we are – like Elizabeth and Zechariah – times when we don’t realize that God has so much more in store for us. And there are times when we feel alone, when we question if God even knows that we exist. In those times, our doubts steal our voice from us.
Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph and Mary may have gotten as clear a sign of God at work in their life as anyone ever could. Many of us here might appreciate a visit from Gabriel telling us exactly what to expect and how we should respond. But even a visit from an angel wasn’t enough for Zechariah. Sometimes, God voice is all but screaming in our ears but we choose not to hear. We doubt and we shut down. We shut out God’s voice and lose our own as well.
When Zechariah once again regains his speech, he declares his praise for God for everyone to hear. He is able to resume his role as priest, helping to connect the people to their God. I imagine his faith helped others to find God. And as a father, consider the role he played in raising his son. He helped John to develop his faith and he helped him become the prophet he was to be. Zechariah’s voice helped John to find his own. John in turn spent time with Jesus as they both worked together to understand God’s call for them. Their voices together ring out to us even today, telling us that God is with us, hear and now, that the kingdom of God is so close and that we are called to be the ones who help it come to life by bringing good news to the poor, comforting those who are sad, declaring to everyone who has imprisoned their hearts away from God that we are all free!
Zechariah finally opens his mouth, finds his voice and tells the story of God at work through our ancestors of faith. Zechariah had to lose his voice in order to find God speaking the story through him. The story starts at the beginning and it goes through Abraham and David and Zechariah and Mary and it continues past the pages of the Bible all the way up to and through us today.
After he reclaimed his voice, Zechariah’s teaching grew John the Baptist’s faith and very well could have even influenced Jesus. Think about the influence that your story carries. When you talk about where you see God in your life, you may very well change someone else’s. Let people know about the times God has lifted you up when you were sad or knocked you down when you were full of yourself or challenged you when you were stuck. Tell everyone that, no matter how dark the winter seems, the light of Christ is burning just around the next corner. Use your voice to lift up the broken hearted and to bring joy to the oppressed.
Our voice is needed now to continue telling God’s story. Even if we sometimes get the details wrong or arrange the parts out of order, our role in the story is right up there with Zechariah’s. Whether it comes in the form of an angel or a quiet whisper in your heart, listen for God’s still speaking voice and reclaim your own voice to tell everyone about the part that you play in God’s story.