Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus who was and is and is to come. Amen.
I feel bad for Zechariah. Maybe that’s not quite right. I empathize with Zechariah. No stuffy. I get where Zechariah is coming from, don’t you? I mean the guy just asked a question, one question and now he’s gonna be mute for the next nine months. It’s a bit of an overreaction on the part of Gabriel don’t you think?
Come on, here Zechariah is, minding his business, doing his job and then suddenly there’s an angel standing right there in front of him, promising Zechariah that he and his old wife are finally going to have a child, after decades of waiting. So Zechariah says to this heavenly messenger, “How will I know that this is so…”
It’s a totally fair question, isn’t it? Gabriel makes a big promise, a huge promise, and Zechariah is just supposed to accept on face value? Really? If some dude in white came busting into my workplace, telling me that my world was about to get turned upside down I’d have a question or two as well.
Except, it’s worth remembering where Zechariah was. He was in the temple. Not just in the temple generally, but he was in the inner part of the temple, near the holiest of holies, where God was believed to dwell. His group of priests was on duty, they cast lots and it was his turn to enter into this sacred space, this holy space to make an incense offering to God. A priest might get this opportunity once in his life. It was a special honor, a significant role, a holy moment.
So maybe Zechariah should have been thinking something special could happen.
Then you couple that with Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” This is the first that we as the reader hear of it, but it’s surely not news to Zechariah because he’s been praying for this to happen.
The text says prayer, but I think it’s more than one. A couple from a priestly family, who surely had been longing to pass on their calling to the next generation but was without a child, didn’t just pray one time. No, I think it’s safe to assume that this prayer had been on Zechariah’s lips for some time.
So he’s been hoping this would happen..
And then, well, Zechariah’s heard this story before. An old man and an old woman without a child, neighbors and friends believe them to be barren, unable to do what they’re supposed to do in their society. Yet, somehow, miraculously God visits them and promises a child. For Zechariah it’s an old story, it’s a familiar story, it’s the story of his people, of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Elkanah and Hannah. So to be a priest, to be rooted in this old story, well it shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise…
Because God’s done it before.
So maybe Zechariah should have been expecting something that day when he entered into the temple, when his lot was cast and it was his turn to offer the incense. Maybe Zechariah shouldn’t have been quite so surprised when his prayer was answered and God did what God had done before for Zechariah’s ancestors. Maybe he should have been ready for this.
But he wasn’t.
And I wonder if you or I would have been any different.
That is to say, I wonder if I am any more adept at recognizing the ways that God is entering into holy places and spaces in this life? Do I expect that God will indeed answer my prayers – those that have been on my lips for quite some time? Have I tuned myself to God’s story, in such a way that I see how God has been faithfully at work among God’s people throughout history even up until this moment right now? Would I be just as surprised and overwhelmed as Zechariah?
I’m not. I don’t. I haven’t and I would be.
In Zechariah’s shoes, I’d be rendered mute too.
But maybe that’s more gift than punishment.
In this advent season, this time of preparation, I think people like me, like Zechariah. People of influence, of means, of power and privilege, would do well to be silent. We would do well to listen.
We would do well to be reminded that the ground on which we stand is holy ground. We ought to remember that our prayers will be answered, maybe not how we imagined, wished or expected but God has heard us, now it is time to listen. We desperately need to be told again and again that we are a part of God’s story. We are part of God’s unfolding and unending story of grace and mercy and love. We are part of a story with a past and a future so powerful that shapes our present if we can only listen for God’s voice and see what God is doing.
I know, I really know, that it’s hard to hear and it’s hard to see. Amid the noise that we live in, amid the onslaught of disturbing images, it can be hard to hear God, it’s difficult to see God’s work. Some days it seems nearly impossible to trust that God is near. I get that. I do. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I grew up watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood every afternoon. More accurately, I grew up falling asleep watching Mr. Rogers every afternoon. But Fred Rogers has a special spot in my heart as a result. We tragedy would strike, or when there was particularly difficult news, parents would often look to Mr. Rogers for counsel on how to speak to their kids about what was happening.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
When we look for the helpers, when we join we the helpers, we, in fact, realize that where we stand is holy ground, we embody God’s answer to prayer and we become a part of God’s unfolding and unending story of grace and mercy and love.