Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today we begin one of my favorite seasons of the year here at Bethlehem. Yes, today. Some of you might be shaking your heads and saying, “You’re a bit behind the times, Kris. Advent started last week; we’re lighting two candles today.” Or you might be thinking I’m confused or over-exuberant about the weather. We did enter a winter wonderland overnight, but that’s not exactly a season of the year at church. Indeed, you would be right in both cases, but that’s not what I have in mind.
Today we begin a new cycle of reading through one of the four Gospels. It’s become our practice. For the last five or six years, from Christmas through Easter, we read a Gospel from start to finish. While it’s true that we don’t read every story in the Gospel in worship because we don’t have that many Sundays, we start at the beginning and read the stories in order, catching the narrative arc and taking note of the themes. Depending on the Gospel, we might start just before Christmas, or we might start on the first Sunday after Christmas, because every Gospel tells the story in a different way, each one with its own audience and its own objective, each one contributing to the whole. This year we’re reading Luke, and Luke begins today with a story that could easily be called…Promise, Possibility, and Prelude. It’s the story of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth and an unexpected visitor. But first, a word about these three words.
First word: Promise
My colleague Ellie is going to have a baby soon. I don’t see Ellie every day – I don’t even see her every week because our offices are on different floors – but the other day I saw her out of the corner of my eye, and I tracked her down. When is the due date, I asked? It’s getting closer. I see Ellie, and her physical presence is a sign that something is about to change, a promise that new life is coming.
Second word: Possibility
Early one fall, a second-year college student called his mother and said, “The dream is over. My lifelong dream of teaching music is finished.” A little surprised on the other end, the mother asked, “Really?” She knew how long her child had talked about sharing his love of music with students. “There’s no choice,” the voice on the other end said. “My chances of making it through Music Theory this semester are nil. I need to drop the class. I’m going to do it today.”
The student got to class early and presented the professor with a drop course form. “I’d like you to sign this. I need to drop the class,” he said. But the professor asked, “Why? Do you not like music?” “Oh, of course, I do. I love it. I’m just not cut out for it.” “Well, I’ll make you a deal,” the professor said. “I’ll assign my best tutor to you, and I’ll meet with you myself once a week. You go home and think about it, ok? Come back next week, and if you give me the drop course form, I’ll sign it without question. But if you want to try again, we’ll get to work. Deal?”
A week passed, the student came back and showed up to class early once again. But this time he sat in a chair and pulled out his notebook, ready to engage. The semester ended, and guess what…he came to love music theory. That which was impossible came to be.
And finally: Prelude
Luke’s Gospel begins like this:
“So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.” (Luke 1:1-4 MSG.)
And then he launches into the story that we heard today, one that is a Prelude to what is yet to come.
About 30 odd years before the Common Era, there lived a man named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. They were good, salt of the earth people, who tried earnestly to live as God’s faithful people.
Zechariah and Elizabeth both came from priestly families, and Zechariah himself served as a priest. They lived in rural hill country, but twice a year for a week at a time, he would go up to Jerusalem from the Judean hillside, and along with other priests in his division, he would serve in the temple.
It so happened that Zechariah and Elizabeth were getting older, and no children had come to them. It had become clear that they would be known as beloved aunt and uncle, but not mother and father; this was a disappointment to them.
Once when Zechariah was in Jerusalem serving his priestly duty, the lot fell to him to enter the “holy place” to offer incense – an honor that would only happen once in a lifetime. So at the appointed time of the day, with a crowd of people assembled outside for prayer, Zechariah entered this sacred place, a place that he had only imagined before. All alone he went about his task. He cleaned the altar and began to offer incense, when suddenly, there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing right there at the right side of the altar of incense. It took him by such surprise; he was terrified and overwhelmed by fear. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid….Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a child, and you will name him John, which means ‘the Lord has shown favor.’ This child will be filled with the Holy Spirit; he will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Incredulous, Zechariah said to the angel, “How can this be? I am old,” to which the angel replied, “I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of the Lord who sent me to you with this good news. These words will be fulfilled in their time, but until then, you will become silent and will not have a voice, because you did not believe me.”
Meanwhile, the people who were praying outside began to wonder what had happened to Zechariah; he was taking so long. It would have been customary for him to come out to the people and speak a familiar blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious onto you, the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace….” But instead when Zechariah finally came out, he beckoned to them and gestured to them, but there were no words that came out of his mouth. And the people realized he had seen a vision.
When his week of service was ended, he went home to his wife in the hill country. She conceived a child and was filled with joy. She kept to herself for five months, and when she emerged, there was no doubt: a woman beyond the age of bearing children is expecting a child. We’ve seen this before: Sarah and Hannah, who in their old age gave birth to sons, were signs of the Covenant. This is a sign that God is about to renew the promise of old.
And so it was on that day that the priest – the one who had been chosen by lot and supported in prayer by the people – fell silent for a time. He was not forgotten by God or being punished or made an example of for not having enough faith. He was silent for just long enough to convey a message: That God has not forgotten us or become disinterested in human affairs. On the contrary, God is passionate about being in a relationship with us, and God is about to do a new thing. This child who would be born would play an important role in announcing the one who was to come.
Promise, possibility, and prelude. This story holds the promise that God still longs for the age-old covenant with us, even though we live with broken dreams and broken promises. God never gives up on us and always offers grace and mercy and the desire for reconciliation. This story holds the possibility that God can bring life even from that which seems to be impossible, barren or even dead. And it’s the prelude to that which is coming, the incarnation itself, when God puts on human flesh and becomes one of us to show us how deep God’s love is and to share all that it means to be human and to draw us to Godself.
God still works through ordinary people, like Zechariah and Elizabeth and like you and me, doing what we do with a mixture of half-faith and devotion. This story is about more than just an aging couple’s joy about their unexpected child; it’s about the fulfillment of God’s purposes. And yet, God cares about our individual lives as well. Our stories get woven into God’s grand story of loving and caring for us, of pulling us back into relationship with God, of calling us home.
Here it is, Advent. We’re in that season of waiting and watching and listening, and we hear a story of promise and possibility. The angel Gabriel comes to deliver a message that a child is coming; a child named John will be a prelude to the One who is coming. Yes, God is coming, and we say, “Come. Lord Jesus, come. We await your coming.” Amen.