Through the month of December we are going to be focused on unexpected things. I think this can be a fruitful theme, though perhaps an unwelcome theme. Why unwelcome? Because for many people December is a month for traditions. This is how we always do things at our house for Christmas, right? We get the tree and decorate on this day. We have a Christmas dinner with this side of the family on this day and that side of the family on that day. We get together with friends at this restaurant. We open gifts at this time and in this way and this person hands out the gifts. Don’t look at me as though you don’t know what I’m talking about!
So when unexpected things break in and cause disruptions to those traditions, it can be very disorienting. An unexpected illness or move or job change can really put a damper on things. A death or divorce can be so overwhelming that every single one of the traditions which have brought so much joy and contentment in the past now become almost unbearable to face.
The irony is that the events we are celebrating in December involve nothing but unexpected events and lives being turned upside down. Israel was expecting a Messiah, yes, but nothing about the actual Messiah who came actually fit the bill of what was expected. Maybe by focusing on how people in the story dealt with the unexpected things God sent their way will help us learn to accept and deal with the unexpected things that come in our lives in a better way.
We start out with two unexpected children who are at the heart of the Advent-Christmas story. Today our focus is on the child born to Zechariah and Elizabeth whose name was John.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were, as we say here in the south, good people. They were right in the heart of traditional, mainstream Judaism. Both were from priestly families, descendants of Aaron, and Zechariah was himself a priest. Luke says, “They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless.”
There was a big hole in their lives, though, that did not seem to fit with all that. They had no children, and they were both, as Luke puts it, “advanced in age.” In that day and time to be childless was a tragedy, and it was seen as a sign of disfavor with God, which certainly seems out of place given the character of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They had not given up, and still prayed for a child. They knew their story, after all. Abraham and Sarah, having a child at one hundred. Hannah and Elkanah, having their first child late in life. It wasn’t impossible, but it surely seemed less and less likely as time went by.
As I said earlier, Zechariah was a priest. This was not because he felt called to be a priest or had always wanted to be a priest, but because he was a male descendant of Aaron which meant he automatically would be a priest and was prepared for that task from the day of his birth.
Since it was a hereditary office, by Zechariah’s time there were far more priests than were practically necessary. It is estimated that there were probably 20,000 priests at that time, so many that they were divided into 24 sections for organizational purposes. Each section had nearly 1,000 priests, and each section was assigned only two weeks a year to serve in the Temple. The highest honor was to be the priest to go into the Temple on behalf of the people to offer the morning or evening sacrifice. To decide which priests would do this, the priests in the section would cast lots, which was like drawing straws. It is certainly possible that it might have been a once in a lifetime thing for a priest to have the honor, and on this particular day the lot fell upon Zechariah.
I can only imagine the exhilaration and anticipation Zechariah must have felt as he entered the Court of the Priests alone to represent the people of Israel before God as he burned the incense offering. He was supposed to offer prayers for the people of Israel, but in addition to that he must have taken the opportunity to plead with God one more time for a child for Elizabeth and himself.
Suddenly, Luke tells us, “there appeared to Zechariah an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” Zechariah had the good sense to be terrified, because he was supposed to be the only person in there. The angel said, as angels always seem to say in the Bible, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
Maybe Zechariah thought he was being pranked by the other priests, who had dressed one of their number up like an angel and snuck him in somehow where he could make him think God was actually sending him a message. But more likely, this priest who entered the Temple expecting to be closer to the actual presence of God than he had ever been in his life could not believe that the God of the universe could really take a personal interest in his life and his concerns. Either way he looked at the angel skeptically and said, “Whuuuut?” Actually, he said, “How will I know this is true? I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in age.” Just in case this was an angel, and just in case the angel went to Elizabeth also, he didn’t want to be quoted as saying she was old. She was “advanced in age.”
The angel didn’t have much patience with this. He said, “Look, my name is Gabriel and I stand in God’s presence. You want some proof? Fine. You will be unable to speak until the baby is born.”
After the incense was burned, the priest was supposed to come out to the throng of people gathered in the Court of the Israelites and pronounce a blessing upon the people. The people waited, and they wondered why it was taking so long for the priest to come out. When Zechariah finally came out, I’m sure he looked visibly shaken and he was unable to speak to them. He made gestures and signs to them, and they understood that he had seen a vision. He went home unable to speak, and soon Elizabeth was pregnant. Make of that what you will.
So here when God is ready to act in a decisive way in the history of Israel and indeed the history of the world, the way in which he begins is perfectly in line with how God has acted in the past and how God might be expected to act again. There is absolute continuity with the Old Testament story. As with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob and Rachel, Elkanah and Hannah, God brings forth new life where new life seems highly improbable. And he is at work through people who are cornerstones of the Jewish community. Fred Craddock writes, “God is at work from within, not from outside the institutions, rituals, and practices of Judaism… For Luke, God works in and through the normal avenues of life in the believing community. Continuity with Israel’s institutions, rituals, and faith puts one in position to be used for God’s purpose. The old (in this case, an old couple) will usher in the new.” (Interpretation, Luke, p. 26) But seeing that in hindsight is different from Zechariah being able to accept and trust this fantastic news to be true in the present.
Even if God has shown a propensity in the past to do the impossible, it is still highly unexpected when it is you who is suddenly expecting a child at an age you never expected to be having children. And the unexpected really kicks in as the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth grows up. Instead of following the normal expectation as a male descendant of Aaron in following his father’s footsteps into a priestly role serving in the Temple, John sort of opts out of society and moves out into the wilderness. He wears weird clothes and eats weird food, and he is highly critical of the status quo and those who represent it, like his parents. Instead of pointing people to the Temple to take sacrifices, he baptizes them in the Jordan and tells them to turn their lives around and start living like decent human beings. He tells them he is preparing the way for a greater one to come, who will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. I have to wonder how Zechariah handled it when his colleagues rolled their eyes at his son’s crazy lifestyle and radical rebellion. Maybe they said people Zechariah’s age shouldn’t have children because they were too old and weak to control them, too permissive because they had waited so long and doted on them too much. On the other hand, perhaps Zechariah was convicted by his son’s message and ministry and was himself baptized. It’s a story I’d love to know more about.
Zechariah was speechless through Elizabeth’s whole pregnancy. The baby was born and on the eighth day the community gathered in joy for his circumcision and naming. They were prepared to name the baby Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth said, “No, his name is John.” The people objected to that, saying, “Nobody in your family has that name,” and they asked Zechariah what his wishes were. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And immediately he was able to speak, and all were astonished at this.
And filled with the Spirit, Zechariah burst into poetry, perhaps even song. It is filled with praise, with joy, with hope, with prophecy. It has notes of traditional ways in which God has acted and it anticipates new and unexpected ways in which God is acting. Zechariah intertwines his unexpected child with the other unexpected child we will focus on next week in talking about the astonishing things God is doing. He says they will set five opportunities before God’s people.
The first opportunity is to serve God without fear. When you know God’s unconditional love for you and God’s promise of eternal life, there is nothing to fear in this life. Paul even said that he couldn’t decide whether he would rather live or die. Life means the opportunity to serve Christ, but dying means to be with Christ. When you believe this, you can serve God without fear, and you can face those unexpected changes that threaten to disrupt your life with confidence and hope.
The second opportunity is to gain knowledge of salvation. Before the coming of Jesus, God’s self-revelation was indirect, and the usual understanding was that obedience to the law was the way to salvation. In Jesus we see and hear God face to face, and we learn that God is love and salvation.
The third opportunity is to gain forgiveness of sins through the tender mercy of God. The gift of forgiveness cannot possibly be overestimated in its importance. To forgive another truly is a life changing gift, both for the forgiver and for the forgiven. To be forgiven by another is a life giving gift. To be forgiven by God lifts all our burdens and sadness and fear and gives joy and life abundant and eternal.
The fourth opportunity is to walk out of darkness and the shadow of death into the light. There is so much darkness that threatens to swallow us up and engulf us in depression and fear and sadness. The true light which enlightens every person has come into the world. When we follow the light of the world we follow a light which can never be overcome, and when we follow it closely enough we participate in becoming the light of the world and help put death’s dark shadows to flight.
The fifth opportunity is to walk in the way of peace, the way of health and wholeness and restored relationships with God and with other people. It is a peace which passes understanding, but which can be experienced thanks to these unexpected children we celebrate.
The hymn we will sing after the creed is based on Zechariah’s song. As we sing it I encourage you to reflect on ways God fulfills his promises both through tradition and through change, in ways expected and ways unexpected. If you have been or are going through some unexpected, unwelcome changes in your life, I hope Zechariah’s story will give you hope that our faithful God can be at work doing the impossible once again in our lives and in our world.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 6, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church