A sermon for Advent 2
Malachi 3:1-4, Canticle 4 or 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
Zechariah is an experienced priest. He comes from a long family of priests. Elizabeth, his wife, is a descendant of Aaron, the first chosen priest for Israel. Censer in hand, he slowly walks through the temple, into the inner court, into the sanctuary of the Lord. Always the sanctuary is empty; ~ not today, today Gabriel Archangel of the Lord looms before him. Sensing Zechariah’s fear he speaks: 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 (NRSV Luke 1:13).
Don’t be afraid? It has been 400 years since there has been a word from God (Hoezee, Malachi). Not a single prophet. 400 years! To put this in perspective, the US is only 239 years old. 400 years ago was 1615, when Samuel de Champlain found Lake Huron; and French missionaries arrived in Quebec (hisdates.com). 400 years from now will be 2415. I Googled it and other than the reference to Zager and Evans 1969 hit In the Year 2525 the only references were to projections of real estate and energy prices (Google.com). 400 years is a long time; a very long time; and not a single divine word, not one. And now an Archangel shows up; in the Temple; in the sanctuary of the Lord no less; and he says, “Do not be afraid.” Too late!
The rest of Gabriel’s message is actually hopeful. Elizabeth has been barren lo these long years, and Gabriel says their prayer will be answered, Elizabeth will bear a son, and they are to name him John. There is the prediction about his life as the messianic prophet. There are some instructions about how to raise him. I wonder how Zechariah heard any of it; I do not think I could have; I would have just stood there, mouth gapping open – an archangel! Zechariah does better, well mostly. He asks How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years (NRSV Luke 1:18).
Apparently Gabriel gets annoyed and strikes him mute until these thing occur (NSRV Luke 1:20). When he come out of the sanctuary, the people notice Zechariah is mute. They believe he has had a vision. They apparently do not think anything is wrong because he finishes his term and goes home.
Sure enough, Elizabeth conceives. And then five or six months later, her younger cousin Mary conceives; surprise. An aside – Mary asks Gabriel How can this be since I am a virgin? (NRSV Luke 1:34) after his pronouncement that she will conceive and bear a son. A similar question to Zechariah’s, but there are no consequences for questioning. Perhaps this is another subject for another day; back to our story this morning. Mary and Elizabeth spend some quality time together. Mary goes home, and then Elizabeth gives birth to a son, whom she names John. It’s an unusual request; there is no one by that name in the family, that Zechariah confirms by writing on his tablet. Immediately he is able to speak. Bedlam breaks out in the midst of which Zechariah speaks his eloquent prophecy; we know as Canticle 16.
A colleague of mine notes how Zechariah expresses no anger towards Gabriel or God (Pankey). He simply praises God for a savior. Then he speaks to his son, You, my child, proclaiming him to be the prophet, who, as Gabriel said, will go before the savior. If we look at Elizabeth’s song (admittedly envisioned), Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song we will see a growing sense of the prophetic, that the power of the Spirt is emerging (Jacobson, Luke 1). Zechariah’s prophecy about the savior is in past tense: he has come, and he has raised up; this is classical prophetic tradition projecting the sense of that which is already in process but has not yet come to fruition (Bratt).
We know about John’s role as a prophet preparing Israel for the arrival of her savior. But he is not the only one who is a part of preparing the way. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary all help prepare the way. Even with their doubts, they take on their appointed divine tasks. And they do so for the benefit of all God’s people.
In his commentary, Joseph Pagano notes that with the invention of the light bulb, life has gotten out of balance. The light bulb eliminates the natural rhythm of day and night, interrupts the balance of work and sleep (Pagano). Is it any wonder we struggle to see God’s salvific plan (Lewis)? Is it any wonder we overlook God’s presence in our lives? Is it any wonder we live in darkness?
The last several weeks have been astonishingly dark: an Airplane blown up in Egypt, terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali, a mass killing at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, a probable terrorist inspired mass shooting in San Bernardino. There are the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. There is the rising tension between Turkey and Russia. There is the ongoing crisis of refugees fleeing the middle east to Europe. There is the less dramatic, though nonetheless tense, negotiations about climate change. And all of this is on top of the ebb and flows of everyday life.
This ~ this is a good time for our Advent traditions. It is a good time to stop, to slow down, to turn out off the light, if you will, and allow ourselves, body and soul, to regain our balance. It will take time to allow ourselves to be refined (Epperly). And I mean to be refined; while, like Zechariah Elizabeth, and Mary, we can open ourselves to God’s presence, it is the work of the Spirt that does the refining. Now is a good time to walk away from the powers of this world, who do all they can to convince us they are in control, they aren’t, and follow our forbearers out of Egypt, out of Babylon through the wilderness (Hoezee, Mark) (Jones). Advent is time for us to be unbound from the constriction of other ways; it is time for us to change our direction and begin the, perhaps, tentative journey along the way, along the path to divine light. And it is oaky, perhaps an expectation, for us, along with Mary and Zechariah, to express some doubt as to how. Even for committed Christians it can be a new experience: to see the appearance of the Divine presence, to see salvation unfold.
Though I have and will attend my share of them, Advent is not a time for programs, concerts, cantatas or Lessons and Carols. Advent isn’t really a time to await the appearance of the baby Jesus, or to await the return of the King. Advent is a time to see anew salvation ~ that is already present. It might even be a time to follow Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary in accepting our calling to prepare the way, for ourselves, individually and as a faith community, and also for all God’s people.
Bratt, Doug. Psalm. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 12 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Google.com. Google.com. n.d. 4 12 2015.
hisdates.com. hisdates.com. n.d. 4 12 2015. <www.hisdates>.
Hoezee, Scott. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Malachi 3:1-4.” 6 12 2015. Working Preacher.
—. The Lectionary Gospel Luke Luke 3:1-6. 6 9 2015.
Jacobson, Rolf. Commentary on Luke 1:6879. 6 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.
Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 3:16. 6 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Lewis, Karoline. The Being of Salvation. 6 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.
Pagano, Joseph. “Finding Balance , Advent 2(C) – 2015.” 6 12 2015. Sermons that Work.
Pankey, Steve. “What Zechariah Teaches Us.” 6 12 2015. Word Press: Draughting Theology.