“Anticipation of the Journey”
November 29, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Today’s sermon will be a little bit different. I will be telling you the story of Zechariah, but what makes this sermon different, is that I will be telling this story in first person, taking on the perspective of Zechariah. So far we’ve heard the “canticle of Zechariah,” the joyful proclamation at the birth of his son, John, later to be known as John the Baptist. But, this story is much more interesting than a proud father’s exclamation, with many unanswered questions for us to explore. And so together let us listen to what Zechariah might’ve said and thought, and may we hear in it God’s message for our own lives as well.
I’m not used to being quiet. As a priest, I spend many of my days surrounded by words, teaching what other priests throughout time have understood about the meaning of our sacred texts, preaching so that those who can’t read may hear what God has told them to do, and debating with others in the temple so we can better understand.
Then the silence came, and nothing was the same. At first it was hard to remember what had happened. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to say my prayers, and my lips just moved wordlessly. I’d see a friend approach me in the synagogue and start to say hello and couldn’t even manage a squeak. Eventually it set in and I’d try different ways to communicate. I could always write things down, but not everyone could read what I was trying to tell them. Even those who could didn’t always have the patience to follow along with what I was trying to convey. After all that had happened, to be silent was maddening.
You see, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for what was now happening. My wife Elizabeth and I had waited our whole long, long marriage for a child, someone who could carry on our legacy and family name. But at our age? Impossible. Or so I thought.
As a priest, I’ve read over and over again the scriptures of the prophets, telling of a Messiah, one who could start a new future for us, saving us from the oppression of the Roman emperor, saving us from the oppression of our own sinfulness. And for year we’d waited for the opportunity for me to go to the Holy of Holies and offer incense. You see, we priests serve in a group, two times a year for a week we would draw lots each day for the chance to approach the temple Holy of Holies. Again and again, my lot was not called.
For years I’ve wondered what my purpose was as a husband, and as a priest, if all I’ve been waiting for and hoping for just weren’t happening. Had God forgotten me? Was I so stuck in going through the motions that somehow what I’ve been doing has ceased to honor God? I thought God was through with me, that is, until the day of the silence. That day that changed everything.
It seemed like just a typical day, traveling to the Jerusalem temple with my fellow priests. Chatting with each other as we walked, sharing our joys and our frustrations. I knew the way this worked, we would go to the temple draw lots, and I’d try my best to graciously support whoever was chosen that day. But then, my name was drawn, and I was to experience the Holy of Holies!
For all my training and years of experience, as I entered into the chamber I’ll admit my hands shook a bit. I was about to enter into the very presence of God! I knew what that space was like by rote, and had heard others talk about the stillness, but couldn’t imagine it fully until I was there. Lighting the incense I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. I looked and gasped as I saw…well, it’s hard to put it in words… but there was a presence in front of me, winged and bright and powerful. I was terrified! Wouldn’t you be?
This, this… angel spoke me, I’ll never forget this part, it said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, or he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
I was shocked, incredulous, frightened, and I’ll admit, a bit angry. What on earth was this thing telling me? We’ve never been able to have a child and now, we’re being given instructions not only what to name him, but also what he should drink? This was absurd!
I made the mistake of expressing my… disbelief and was immediately admonished. The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
I started to object again, but found my mouth would make no sound, try as I might. Stumbling out of the inner sanctuary into the daylight I’m sure the gathered crowd thought I was stunned. And well, I guess I was. Try as I might I couldn’t tell them anything of what had happened, couldn’t explain my silence, couldn’t explain my incredulous joy. Then after the week was up I headed home to Elizabeth.
It was one thing to not be able to tell the other priests, but to not tell my wife? Especially about something so dear to us, so immediate to her own body, it was maddening. Try as I might I couldn’t speak a word. And my dear, darling wife, had never learned to read, so I couldn’t begin to share this story.
But soon, she knew for herself what miracle was happening within her, the family forming between us, the journey that was before us. We’ve been waiting so long, that this additional nine months of waiting seemed like nothing, but in the silence, it was so, so hard.
For so, so many years we had hoped for this, but after so many years, we dare not plan for this. Even after the birth of our child we couldn’t be sure of our own ability to support him into adolescence, or adulthood. What would be come of this child of ours, this John. His name was John. But I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that. I couldn’t share the promises of the angel. I couldn’t say a thing.
But I could listen. And in listening I heard Elizabeth weep with joy. She told me of so many times she was overlooked in the synagogue, in the town, in our own family, for not being able to be a mother. She spoke of her pain. And all I could do was hold her and listen.
In this silence too, my prayers changed shape. I was so used to talking, sharing with God the ways I had been left out, the way I wasn’t getting what I hoped for. But in the silence, I learned to listen, listen to the ways that God’s bigger plan was unfolding. The way that my meager hopes could be used for eternal glory.
Finally the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, our son. The one to prepare the way of the Lord! Over the past many months I had made peace with my silence, and with the future that lay before Elizabeth and me. My incredulity had been transformed into joy, my distrust into steady belief. I knew that God had a plan for this child, our child who was so much more than ours. The one who would make a way for the Messiah.
After so much silence the family knew Elizabeth spoke for the both of us and so asked her directly what our son’s name should be. She said “John,” the name I had been unable to share with her for months, the name I had heard in the temple. How could she know his name? Surely she had felt God’s presence too. When those at the temple for his circumcision questioned it I confirmed by writing “His name is John.” And all at once I could talk again. My voice had come back and I had so much to say, no longer bitter from waiting, no longer fearful from mistrust, I had nothing to share now but praise: And so I began: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.