In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order off Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “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 their hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 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.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for you prayer has been heard.”
And so it came to pass in the days when King Herod ruled Judea, that a priest named Zechariah had his life turned upside down. Now Herod was a terrible king, responsible for countless atrocities, murders, and high levels of corruption. A man with frightening power ruled over a land and a people with such chaos that he dominated the attention of the masses. During his rule, a nobody priest married to a woman named Elizabeth, made his way through life.
Zechariah belonged to the priestly order of Abijah and was regularly responsible for activities around the Temple in Jerusalem. Though Zechariah and Elizabeth lived righteous lives, they had no children and were getting on in years.
One day, a day like any other, Zechariah made his way to the temple in order to perform his regular duties. As was the custom, lots were cast to decide who would enter the sanctuary and offer incense to the Most High God. While countless people gathered outside the walls, Zechariah made his way in to perform a simple task that had been done for as long as he could remember.
This is where the story gets interesting.
While standing within the closed room, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah. We receive no description of this heavenly messenger in the biblical narrative, but the sight was enough to overwhelm and terrify Zechariah. Let your imaginations conjure up the confrontation with an angel to the degree that you would cower in fear and trembling.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will be filled with joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Take care to make sure that he never drinks wine or other strong substances, even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. In time, he will turn the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
And how does Zechariah react to this momentous declaration? How does he respond to the heavenly messenger carrying news of great joy?
“How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
It’s moments like these in the scriptures that I wish I could jump into the story and smack some sense into the lives of the people experiencing the glory of God. How will you know this is so Zechariah? You fool! Don’t you know that with God all things are possible? Have you forgotten how he delivered your people from slavery and captivity in Egypt through the Red Sea to the Holy Land? Have you forgotten how the Lord provided a ram in the bushes for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son? Have you forgotten how David was able to triumph over Goliath because the Lord was with him? Moreover, have you forgotten how many barren women the Lord has provided for? Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah. Come on Zechariah, have a little faith.
The angel responds to Zechariah: I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to bring you this good news, but now, because you did not believe my words, you will become mute and unable to speak until these things occur.
So Zechariah made his way out of the temple, stood before the crowds unable to speak, and eventually returned home.
Of course, thats not the end of the story, but we’ll save that for later.
What are we to make of this remarkable episode recorded at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke?
God is at work here in ways familiar to us from the Old Testament: the story contains a casting of lots to make a decision, there is a vision in God’s holy Temple, a divine being appears to pass along a message, there is a promised sign, and a childless couple is given new life.
It is clear that God works in and through the normal avenues of life in the believing and faithful community. The community of faith can fall under the temptation to make God into whatever they desire for worship, but there is an important conviction present at the beginning of this New Testament: the stories of Israel are important, vital, and necessary for understanding how to be used for God’s purposes in the world.
Though this is a story from the past, doesn’t it sound familiar? Just as it is today, some horrible and frightening situation has gripped the people, a power reigns from above in order to control a community. Evil has taken root at the center of life and dominates the attention of the populace. This past week marked the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school and another shooting took place at a school in Colorado. You need only turn on the news or read a newspaper to be reminded how much fear and violence demands ALL of our attention.
However, in spite of all this fear and damage in the world, just as during the time of Herod, there is another sort of person, quiet, removed, and yet, more important than the powers that rule, men and women who are the core of society and give it the depth of its reality. Then and always there were and are the humble and brilliant men and women in whom the strength of the present and promise of the future lie.
Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son, John, will be great in the sight of the Lord. Sadly, according to the ways of the world, greatness has had its definition confused and reshaped. We have been told that greatness is measured in terms of selfishness rather than service, in terms of material rather than spiritual wealth, in terms of instant gratification rather than hard work and perseverance. But greatness as God sees it, the greatness that John will live into, is about being linked with the eternal purposes of redemption, about being an obedient instrument of God’s peace, and helping others to know and feel love in their lives.
But notice: the greater John will become for God, the more hostility he will arouse in those around him. Doing the will of the Lord, reaching out in love according to discipleship sends ripples through the fabric of what the world deems as “greatness.”
John is to be like the prophets from old: in light of their direct contact and experience of the divine, they drew the messages which burned within them like fire and would not rest until the decrees of God were delivered.
In every age we need the passion of people on fire for God to shout out in prophetic fervor. Our lives are so often filled with the dry wood of dull possibilities that desperately need to be rekindled by the divine spark that often comes through the words and actions of the prophets. We need to have our lives turned around and back to God in order to discover the passion that is waiting for us in our discipleship. The communion between God and the prophet allows for a divine condition to be present and the purposes of God can be realized in the world.
I love the juxtaposition of the story of Zechariah in the temple with Gabriel. It is precisely at the moment when John is being prepared to speak for God, Zechariah is struck mute for his unbelief. The typical, traditional, and tired voice of the priest, is being replaced by the fervent, fantastic, and faithful voice of the prophet.
Worship is at the center of the story. I’ve read it countless times, and heard it discussed and preached on during numerous advent services, but something fresh and new struck me this week about Zechariah’s encounter. I wondered: why was he so surprised and scared? Think about it for just a moment; Zechariah was a priest, well-versed in the stories from old about how God interacted with God’s people, a man who often found himself in the holiest of places performing the works of the Lord. What did he think would happen to him inside that holy space?
Being overwhelmed by the presence of an angel in the sanctuary of the temple is like going to McDonalds, ordering a Big Mac, and being surprised to discover beef between the bread… I mean this is how God works! God shows up, confronts us in the midst of a moment, and calls us to something. It does not need to be grand, and more often than not it occurs in the small silence in a moment we least suspect, but for Zechariah it came in a big way. He was in God’s holy temple confronted by an angelic messenger bringing the good news. So why was he so surprised? And more importantly, why did he doubt the validity of the message?
Our expectations about worship have major impacts on the way we live our lives.
What we believe shapes how we behave.
What to we think will happen to us when we gather in this space? Are we prepared to be confronted by the God who called John to greatness? Are we willing to let God dwell in our hearts and change the way we live in the world? Are we ready to take up our own crosses to follow Jesus. Are we prepared for God to show up in our lives in ways that we cannot expect or anticipate?
Unless we recognize the definitive need for real experiences and methods of discipleship which wake the whole depth of our experience, then what we do in worship will remain, as it did for Zechariah, thin and lacking. Until we prepare ourselves to be surprised by God’s desire to find us where we are, then this holy place will remain, as it did for Zechariah, boring and repetitive. Until we dare to step out into new forms of life and love, hearing the word of the Lord, and letting it become incarnate in the ways we live our lives, then faith will remain, as it did for Zechariah, dwindling and fruitless.
What do we expect will happen when we gather together at Christ’s table? Are we repetitively entering the holy space to burn incense unaware that we are meeting God in all of his holiness? Or are we excited and nervous about the prospect of being welcomed to a table that we have no right to join? Are we so rooted in our habitual worship that we can no longer remember why we join at this table? Or are we prepared to be called forth toward greatness in the world through the redemptive and life-giving properties of God’s presence at his table?
Just as it happened with Zechariah, a heavenly voice might be trying to break out into the world. Perhaps God’s good news is striving to strike forth through the closed circle of our expectations of church, faith, and discipleship. Important for us this morning is to remember that God is always on the move, reaching out to find us and change our lives, that there is always a new message for those with ears to hear. The great need for us is to realize, as Zechariah eventually did, to not be caught up in the limited imagination of what God can do in the world which assumes that the present must always be governed by the past.
Nine months after Zechariah was struck mute in the temple by Gabriel, his wife Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy. When it came time to name the child, the family wanted to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that it was to be John, and after Zechariah confirmed this with writing on a tablet his mouth was freed. The plague of his disbelief had been wiped away by the miracle of his son’s birth. Now filled with the Holy Spirit Zechariah spoke these great words to his infant son: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, 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 the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
This is one of the many places that God confronts us in our lives. Through the bread and the wine let us all be moved to live lives worthy of the greatness that God is calling us toward.