Luke 1:5-13, 18-20, 57-66
December 11, 2005
Today we look at one of my favorite stories of Advent! This is the story of Zechariah, who was the father of John the Baptist. It tells how he was visited by an angel, and how he learned about his part in the coming of the Messiah. It is a powerful story that I want to revisit for today and maybe “flesh out” a bit. My goal is for us to see this in a more vivid picture, so we can come to a deeper understanding of this together.
This week we’re dealing with the third major theme of Advent, which is the one we think about most often. This is the theme in which we chronicle the coming of Christ into the world. This is where we remember the Old Testament prophecies, think of the world events at the time, and retell the stories leading up to the birth of Christ, as recorded mostly by the Gospel writer Luke.
Actually, we’re going back in time from our story of last week. That gives Advent kind of a “Back to the Future” feel, doesn’t it? Last week, we looked at the theme of Advent in which we celebrate the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry, and the coming of John the Baptist. That’s where Mark begins his Gospel. Today we’re backing up some 30 years, and we’re talking about John’s dad, a man named Zechariah. And that’s where Luke begins his Gospel.
For him the story of Jesus begins, “In the days of Herod the king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah…” That’s how Luke begins. Yes there’s this first little paragraph. But it’s only an introduction, in which Luke is writing to his friend who he calls “The most excellent Theophilus,” telling him that he too felt compelled to write down the account of what had happened in those days. And as he did so, he starts with this priest Zechariah.
As you think about that first Advent, I want you to understand that this is predominantly a Jewish story! Sometimes we tend to “Christianize” these stories. Sometimes we forget that the framework of all these Christmas stories is set deeply in the Jewish tradition. After a brief introduction, we are told that Zechariah was serving in the temple at the “hour of incense.” That was a major worship time for the Jews, and many people were there. Zechariah was by himself in the inner part of the temple, performing his priestly duties, and an angel appeared right next to the altar.
Now, I’d like to say a word about angels. People are thinking a lot about angels these days. I think there are three common misconceptions about angels. And I know I say these things at the risk of bursting some bubbles. I hope I don’t do that to badly. But I really believe this will help us better understand what’s going on in this story.
First of all, it is sometimes thought that angels are people who have died, gone to heaven, and received their robes, their wings, their halo, and their harp. In the Bible, though, angels are understood to be a separate created order of “spiritual beings,” some of which, you may remember, rebelled against God. Angels are servants of God and in the Bible, they are often “messengers” – which is what the word means.
The second misconception we often have about angels is their appearance. Too often they are thought to be tall, thin, blonde, women. I’m not sure where that image comes from, but it’s odd when you think that the only two angels actually named in the Bible are Michael and Gabriel!
The third misconception about angels is one that I really want you to think about. It is about their demeanor. Angels are often seen as serene, peaceful creatures who elicit feelings of holiness and wonder whenever they appear. But in the Bible, angels are powerful, fearsome, spiritual beings that usually scare the dickens out of people! Think about it. What’s usually the first words out of an angel’s mouth? “Be not afraid!” Sometimes we don’t do the Biblical stories justice, because we softly read things like “When the angel appeared, so and so was greatly troubled.” We think that means they were confused, or maybe concerned as to why the angel was there. When in reality, the person to whom the angel appeared was terrified!
Here it says, “And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and (what?) fear fell upon him.” He was scared! And rightfully so! “But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid…’.” And then this angel – whose name was Gabriel – stood before Zechariah (with his trumpet!) and told him that his wife Elizabeth was going to have a baby. Not only that, but he gave this prophetic word about the child. “…And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before them in the spirit and power of Elijah…” (There’s that name Elijah which we talked about last week.) The angel also told Zechariah what to name the baby!
What a wonderful scene! But, what was Zechariah’s reaction. He said to the angel, “That’s great news! Thank you!” No he didn’t! He said, “Hang on a minute! That can’t happen to us. We’re old guys!” That’s what he said! And that wasn’t such a smart thing to say, which we’ll learn about soon! Because the angel gets all indignant, and he says, “Hey, are you talkin’ to me?!” “Yo! I’m Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God! (We’re like this!) And He told me these things!” He then gives Zechariah this punishment for doubting him. “Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until these things come to pass!” (Some would say since Zechariah was a “Jewish husband” that punishment wasn’t much of a miracle!)
I was actually trying for a little play on words here, calling this sermon “The Voice of the Prophet.” Often when we use the term “prophetic voice,” we’re talking about the prophet’s message, or even the prophet’s authority. But in this case, the “voice of the prophet” is gone, since the voice of this would-be prophet is silenced!
At any rate, the story continues and lo and behold, Elizabeth does “convince in her womb” – I had to chuckle to myself last week when one of the young people read it that way about Mary! (However, lest you think that kind of thing is confined only to the young, I would be quick to tell you about the one Christmas Eve when an older gentleman – one of the pillars of the Church – calmly read from the pulpit that the wise men bowed down before the child and opened their gifts of gold, Frankenstein, and myrrh.
So Elizabeth is “convinced” in her womb. She is “convinced” she will have this baby. And then the story is interrupted for about 30 verses, as Luke tells of another visit of the angel Gabriel. This is one busy angel! This time he is sent to visit a much “younger” woman! This “girl” is named Mary. But then in verse 57 we come back to this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth gives birth to this promised son, and eight days later all the friends and neighbors are gathered for the “Bris” – the circumcision. Again, notice the Jewish framework of the story. That’s the time when the baby’s name is announced, and many of the people there seem to think the baby is going to be named Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says, “No, he is to be called John.” And the friends tell this mother, “No, that’s not a family name.” So they go ask the father! It says they made signs to him asking what the child’s name was going to be, which doesn’t make sense, if you think about it, unless John was unable to speak or hear!!
At any rate, Zechariah calls for paper and pencil and writes, “What she said!” No, he writes, “His name is John.” And at that moment, his voice returns – after 9 months! And he praises God, and he gives this prophecy. So the voice of the prophet is back – in both senses of that term! He has the physical ability to speak and his prophetic voice, his authority, is back as well.
So what does he tell them in this prophecy? He tells them the bigger picture of what is happening around them. He tells them of the coming of the Messiah, and of this his child who would herald his coming. He tells how the Christ would save them from their enemies, as well as give the knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins. And he spoke of bringing light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guidance in the way of peace.
That’s the story of Zechariah. It tells us so much. It adds to the picture of this time so long, a time when God was breaking into history. A time of angels and governors, and shepherds and wise men, and jealous rulers and their ruthless soldiers. I hope we see that as a great contrast to our world’s image of reindeer and snowmen and nutcrackers and sugarplums.
These were dangerous and trying times. Indeed the true light was coming into the world. But it was a world of darkness – as is much of ours. Let us not shy away from the fact that there was struggle associated with this. But may we also know in the depths of our heart that even with the struggle there is joy that is beyond our imagining!
Missing those things is a great sadness of Christmas. It may even get at the reason behind why some people at this time of year tend to be more depressed, even though they should be joyous. Like Charlie Brown, they know they should be happy, but they’re not, and they can’t figure out why. People who miss the big picture of Christmas – the picture Zechariah lives and also tells about in this prophecy – those people also miss the depth of meaning and the heights of joy and glory that this story represents.
Let that not be said of us! Let it be said that we are part of this celebration as never before. Let it be said that we understand better this year the meaning of all this, that we see the struggle, that we ponder the depth of this, that we are joyful beyond what we ever could have imagined!
Eternal God, help us to think seriously about this time of year. As we consider what you have done for us, we know it is a great joy. But we know these times we celebrate were difficult and uncertain times. Help us to know that what we celebrate is profoundly important – a turning point in history. May our lives reflect the importance and the joy of what we celebrate. Inspire us through these times to be more fully dedicated to you. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.