Sermon by Keith, 12.22.19, Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
It has been said that the 9 months that Zechariah was unable to speak was God’s gift to Elizabeth during her pregnancy. You know, since he was a priest and she was the daughter of a priest, she probably spent most of her life listening to sermons, theological discussions, and issues with the local synagogue and the temple. Oh, the silent bliss!
But was it silent bliss? Zechariah has been told he is going to be part of God’s plans in a big way. How does one even react to news like that? To be given a part in salvation history is terrifying news and understandably so. A messenger of the holy has spoken. Why wouldn’t Zechariah ask, “How can this be?” Mary asked a similar question when this same angel showed up on her doorstep. Even way back in Genesis we find Abraham asking how he is to know for sure that he will possess the land and thus the promises of God. It seems understandable to ask “How?” and “Why?” When the holy crashes into our world, and our assumptions are confronted with new realities, a response of fear, shock, and even speechlessness would seem to be reasonable.
Was Zechariah’s speechlessness really a punishment? Maybe it was a natural response to being in the presence of the holy. Maybe it was a sign of God at work. Zechariah did inquire of the angel how he was to know that this good news was true. Lacking the ability to bless, explain, rationalize or fill empty space with words might certainly constitute such a sign, especially for a person whose livelihood is filled with blessing, explaining and rationalizing the holy. If we take a less literal and more poetic approach to what happened to Zechariah, might it also suggest that human speechlessness helps God to be heard, especially when God’s word falls so far beyond the scope of our expectations and experiences? In other words, maybe it is similar to what Henri Nouwen meant when he said, “You shouldn’t talk until you’ve been silent; there’s a difference between having to say something and having something to say.” The silence actually allowed Zechariah to have something to say.
Regardless of the “whys,” Zechariah in his silence and Elizabeth in her solitude find themselves in a time of gestation and incubation. It is a time of waiting during which they cannot fill the space with noise and busyness; it is a time of passive watching and discernment. There will be times to act and speak, and even in Luke, times to sing about God’s mighty acts. But those times come at the right moments, moments when God has worked on them, freeing them to speak of the holy because of a personal encounter with God’s messenger, not just empty words about God that have no personal depth.
So, how many of you came to church or will come to church Christmas Eve expecting to meet God in worship? Yes, many of us will be present, honoring our commitments and offering up our prayers. You may even long for an opportunity to be emotionally moved, to be challenged from the pulpit to live in the way of the Lord, or to receive from the Lord’s Table. That is as it should be. Having said that, how many of you are actually expecting to experience the holy or to have your prayers answered? How many are expecting God to do something new? For that matter, how many of us, no matter your age or education, clergy or laity, are expecting such and encounter or experience?
There certainly is no evidence in this story that Zechariah was expecting to come into the presence of the holy while fulfilling his duties, and perhaps that is good news in and of itself. If God will remember a faithful but otherwise forgettable priest, easily lost in a crowd of hundreds of other priests, then perhaps God will remember us. If God will answer the prayer of a righteous, patient, and barren woman named Elizabeth, then perhaps God will answer our prayers.
Indeed, in this gospel of assurance that Luke has set out to tell, his opening characters reveal much about the promise of grace for those who are to come. Yes, the powerful Herod is mentioned in the opening scene, but he mainly functions to set the story in the context of real human history. The main actors in this drama will not be the rich and powerful, but, rather, those overlooked by the world. The principalities and powers do not concern themselves with barren older couples, unwed teenage mothers, and those relegated to caring for animals. The good news is that even they play a part in this drama of salvation. The terrifying news, however, is that even we play a part in this drama of hope.
Friends, we are on the eve of the eve of Christmas Eve, when God did something new, taking on flesh and, as the Gospel of John puts it, pitched his tent with us. My invitation to you is that during this busy time of year, as you rush around filling those last minute gifts and making sure you didn’t forget to mail someone a card, take a moment and think about the Christ child and the ones who prepared the world for his coming. And sit silently with that. Sit silently with that for a long time if you need to. And listen for God and God’s messengers in your life. Yes, this is a time to sing carols of adoration, but also a time to sit and listen for God and God’s calling in your life. In Christ, God has invited you into his salvation story of humanity no matter who you are or your worldly status. And that is exciting and terrifying at the same time. What part will you play? It’s ok to ask “How?” and “Why?” Because even today the world is pregnant with divine possibilities. Perhaps those who can be still and nonanxious enough to watch and wait in this time filled with anxieties may again hear the glad tidings of the angels. Amen.