Last week we we were all here together for worship, we discussed stewardship—t’is THAT season as well as Advent season. Then last week, we had a snowstorm and had to cancel worship. This week, finally, we are setting our sights on Advent in earnest. Our lectionary picks up a new gospel every Advent season. Last year we studied the gospel of Mark. We began that study in December, 2017, and followed Mark all the way through to November, 2018. The lectionary cycle we are not in, runs from Advent 2018 to the beginning Advent, 2019. We will be studying the gospel of Luke.
A sigh of relief here, for me. I love Mark, mostly because it was written first of the gospel narratives. That means it is more bare-boned, shall we say, than the other gospels. The later gospels all have a particular slant, according to the author and the community he is addressing; and they include stories, which may or may not be based on fact. What?! Say that again? I don’t mean to say that Luke is comprised of lies, but stories that speak to a greater truth. You remember Joseph Campbell? I know many of you listened to his PBS series on video here at the church many moons ago. Joseph Campbell says that mythical stories point us to greater truths. We believe that the Biblical myths tell us truths about human nature and about God. That is why they are preserved and handed down from one generation to the next.
Keep that in mind if you are a questioner—a seeker, shall we say—if you have trouble believing in angels and virgin births, and miraculous healings. You are not a bad person. You can still be a questioner and be a Christian.
Sad to say, the gospel of Mark doesn’t have ANY birth narratives, then, remember bare bones, but Luke makes up for that. Luke begins with two birth narratives. Today we are looking at the birth of John the Baptist and even before that, the announcement of that birth. An angel comes to the faithful Jew and Jewish priest Zechariah.
Now, in Hebrew Zechariah means “The Lord has remembered.” The Bible further tells us that this man Zechariah, the one the Lord has remembered, is of advanced years as is his wife Elizabeth. The angel tells Zechariah that he and his wife are going to become parents.
Hello! Time to wake up! Hold on to your hats, and your scarves, and your mittens and overcoats. God’s holy spirit is blowing through! When people of advanced age have babies, that means that God has broken into the world in a big way. You want examples? Who else do we know who had babies at an advanced age? Well, Abraham and Sarah, of course. We make the connection between them and today’s reading and we are primed. The LORD has remembered, again.
God picks this particular time in history to remember his people, because they are suffering. Herod is King over their land. There is a saying in Herod’s day, “Herod treats his pigs better than he treats his sons.” That is to say, he is ambitious to the point of ruthlessness. So ruthless is he that he executes some of his family members. He does that to advance his political agenda.
Herod is paranoid. The historian Josephus says Herod has a paid staff of undercover agents who spy on his subjects. These report to him any rumblings of dissent. He also employs 2,000 body guards, so fearful is he of a violent revolt.
Herod is not loyal to the faith. Yes, he is a Jew, but what a Jew he is! Herod refurbishes the temple—a project that had languished after the Jews returned from exile. He expects that to be proof of his faithfulness. “See this great thing I have done?” But had Herod ever asked input from the priests in his rebuilding campaign? NO. Add to that egregious blunder, “King,” Herod has the audacity to plop a gold eagle—the symbol of Rome mind you, smack dab on top of Israel’s new gleaming place of worship. That’s a clear sacrilege. One more thing. Herod is cruel. He has no compassion for his people He carries out massive building campaigns paid for by? The already poor and rapidly-growing-poorer people. Would you show allegiance to a King like that?
But, we need to address Zechariah’s personal situation, too. He and his wife are childless. We know people who are childless here in 2018—some are childless by choice. In today’s world, we believe people have a right to choose their lifestyle. Whether to be single or married, to have children or not to have children, (shrug) well, that’s up to you.
In THAT world, though, having a son, especially, was a family duty—you had to carry on your lineage. It was also your patriotic duty, you had to do your part to maintain the national population; and to provide soldiers in times of war. Finally, to the Jews it was almost a religious mandate— it’s up to you to make sure our cherished traditions continue on into future generations.
But the thinking in that day, went further than even that. There was the conviction that if a couple didn’t have children, they hadn’t been blessed by God. They believed, and we continue to believe, I hope, that children are God’s blessing. Elizabeth and Zechariah abided by God’s laws. They prayed. My goodness, Zechariah was a priest. But, their neighbors whispered, “Poor things! Why would God choose to make Elizabeth barren? God must be punishing her and her husband.” Some people even suggested, (whisper) “Zechariah should find himself another wife. Time is running out. He’ll be dead and gone and there won’t be anyone to carry on the family name.”
We will assume that Zechariah loved Elizabeth. He would not put her aside. Zechariah remained loyal to God, the nation of Israel, and his wife even as he faced public scorn. He lived among his people, head held high, and hid his grief.
So, to recap. Judah is living in deep darkness, and Zechariah is living in deep darkness. Into this darkness comes an angel. We read at the start of Luke: The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah, the man the Lord has remembered. Gabriel announces to him, “A son will be born to you and Elizabeth, and his name will be John. “
I’m going to skip over the months that follow. The pregnancy, and so on—that’s fodder for another Sunday. In our lectionary’s scripture reading for today, Zechariah’s baby boy has just been born. Zechariah is one proud papa. He has, in his old age, fulfilled his responsibility to sire a son. He predicts that son John will have a great impact on the future of his people. John will go before the Lord (Jesus) and prepare his coming. He will give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Happy Day.
And now we will leave off scripture so that we can talk about our present day. If you don’t pull (like with a rope) what you read in the Bible into the present, then scripture is just lying there on a page, like a dead fish or a wet sock. Lifeless. I believe and I hope you believe, too, that God didn’t just do what he did back then, and then go to sleep. God continues to be active in the here and now. It’s important to find and acknowledge those ways in which scripture intersects with our own lives. Our current-day God sightings give us hope.
One obvious connection we can make between Zechariah’s time and our own is the darkness into which our world has devolved. These ARE dark days, too. Because we know that God was at work in Zechariah’s day, we can rest assured that God is working to right things in today’s world, too. It’s just difficult for us to see that now. Looking back on this time, though, our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren may be able to say, “Ah, yes, isn’t that remarkable that thus and so happened.” Just like we look back at history and say, “Isn’t it remarkable that slavery is now illegal in all parts of the world?” or “Isn’t it remarkable that the world came together to defeat Hitler, and Mussolini, and Hirohito?” So, we will continue to believe that just as in days of old, God has remembered—US in the 20th century, and also in our own.
We may not be able to see what God is doing among the nations today, but I hope all of us can call up instances of how God has acted in our own or someone else’s personal life—you may even know of an instance when God gave a son to a man who yearned to have a son, just like happened with Zechariah. Here I will relay to you one instance that came immediately to my mind this week. And yes, I think I have told some of you this story before, but it is worth repeating.
It concerns a man I’ll call Sam. He lives not too far from here, actually. Attends Cove Church. I got to know him when I served there. He and his wife were childless, and just like Zechariah and Elizabeth, they were of a “certain age.” I didn’t think too much about that, but I assumed that since Sam and his wife both have demanding careers, they just didn’t have the time to devote to childrearing.
Just so you get an idea of what Sam looks like. He’s a tall man, and big—muscular. Think my size X 2 or even 3. He has this shucks, gosh darn it, kind of demeanor. It throws you off balance when you first meet him. You’d never know he is a successful businessman.
Now Cove Church has basically the same layout as our own—two aisles, two doors at the back. Sam and his wife sat, where Cathey Reele sits in our own. Also like this church, Cove has a time for sharing celebrations and concerns. One Sunday, during the celebration time in the service, Sam stands up. He starts off by announcing, “God has blessed me. I have been blessed by God.” Then this big man with the broad shoulders chokes up. For support, he holds onto the pew back in front of him. He says, “Someone knocked on our door yesterday. Standing in the doorway was a woman I had never met. She introduced herself and asked if I was Sam. Yes. I invited her in. We had a seat in the living room. She explained that she was engaged. Then she said, ‘I think the man I am engaged to, may be your son. If so, we want to invite you to our wedding.’”
By this time, tears are running down Sam’s face, and the rest of the congregation is in tears, too. Where are those tissues when you need them!
“I had a girlfriend back in high school. Not too long before graduation, she disappeared. The word was that she and the family had moved. There was no way to connect with her, to even tell her goodbye. That was the end of our relationship. Turns out, she was pregnant, by ME. Her parents had sent her to a home for unwed mothers. She delivered our baby boy. She put him up for adoption. The woman sitting across from me yesterday, really IS my son’s fiancée. I am a father!” And then of course, there was a moment of stunned silence and then loud congratulations—as the tears continued to flow, you get the picture. I really don’t know how the service ended. Maybe a hearty “Joyful, Joyful we Adore Thee?”
Sam’s relationship with his son has continued. Before I left that church, Sam was able to announce to the congregation that he had become a GRANDFATHER. Imagine that!
So, just as God had remembered the Jews in Zechariah’s day, God had remembered Zechariah, God remembered Sam. God remembers each one of us, over and over and over again. You can believe it. Amen