What if … Zechariah believed the first time?

by | Dec 3, 2023

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Jarrett McLaughlin
What if … Zechariah believed the first time?
December 3, 2023
Luke 1:5-20

Cold Open:

And in a flash of greenery and glitter – the season of Advent is upon us.
Nancy made a point to NOT have any glitter at this year’s Advent Craft festival.
Glitter does remind us of the grace of God – it covers you all over and it is FOREVER.
That said, I celebrate its absence in the craft bags this year.

For Advent this year, we are hosting a sermon series called “What If…”

Popular culture has been mildly obsessed with the concept of a multiverse lately – that there could be infinite other universes, each one stemming from a different set of decisions that fatefully alter the course of what is to be. What if this happened instead of that – where would we be? What might our lives look like?

We should note, however, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe did not invent this concept. Heck, if you go over to the Carrboro Arts Center to see Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol (with our very own Erin, Mike, Grace and Norah Kent starring as the Cratchits) what you will experience is a “What If…” story. What happens if Ebenezer Scrooge fails to repent and become a more generous man?

Across the next few weeks we’ll be exploring some “What if…” scenarios from the Christmas story in the hopes that it might illuminate the gift of how the story actually does turn out?

Today we begin with the story of the husband and wife who birthed and raised Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Before our reading I invite you to pray with me:

It may not have been flawless, Lord, but the story is so very good – and we could all use some good news. Open us to the comfort and the call of these old, old stories. Amen.

Scripture:

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, but they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, [Zechariah] was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.
Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.
But the angel said to him, “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, for 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.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
The angel replied, “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.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Sermon:

Have you ever lived with somebody who’s…..idea of preparing for company was very… different from your own?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received this text from Meg:
“Guests are arriving in two hours – clean downstairs please.”

And that is exactly what I do…I clean. I sweep the floor, Vacuum the carpet, Clorox the counters until they’re gleaming white…I even fold the toilet paper up like an origami rose – okay, that is NOT true…but I CLEAN!

Every time – without fail – Meg will come home and say “I thought I asked you to clean.”

“I Did! Look at that counter – and those floors…you could eat off those floors.”

“I see that it is clean…but there’s stuff all over the place…books piled on the side table, laundry basket shoved in the corner, dog toys in every room of the house?”
(Hey…the dog wasn’t my idea…just sayin’)

At this point, Meg then flies into a flurry of TIDYING…totally different from Cleaning.
With great purpose she starts flinging open cabinets and drawers and banging things back into place and let me tell you, it’s best to just stay out of the way. She is what her family calls – Buzzing.
Meg comes from a long line of buzzers. – They flit and they fly and with great purpose they make things ready.
When it comes to making preparations – they are professionals.

Zechariah was a preparations professional. To make sense of this story it might be helpful to describe the layout of the Temple in Jerusalem. It consisted of a number of chambers and who you are determined how far you could go towards the center.

On the outer rim was the court of the Gentiles – so if you weren’t Jewish that is as far as you could go. Then there was the court of the Women, of course for Jewish women only. Then the Hall of the Israelites (referring to the men). Then a hall of the Priests where there was an Altar for animal sacrifices. Up the stairs from that Altar was the innermost part of the Temple and hardly anyone went in there. It consisted of two chambers – “The Holy Place” and the “Holy of Holies,” and they were separated by a curtain.

The Holy of Holies – you had to be the High Priest to go in there – and you only went in once a year on Yom Kippur. But every once in a while one of the priests would be selected by lot (so randomly) to go into the Holy Place and offer incense and pray on behalf of the people. Priests could live and serve their whole lives and never go into the Holy Place.

Zechariah belonged to one of the twenty-four divisions of priests who rotated in and out of service in the Temple, and as fate would have it, he was selected to go and offer incense in the Holy Place. This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

With incense in hand, he steps into that Holy Place and he does precisely what he has trained his whole life to do – he burns the incense and offers the prescribed prayer on behalf of the people. He prays for the restoration of Israel just as so many other faithful priests have done before him. After all, Zechariah is a professional. He is nothing if not prepared.

But it would seem that Zechariah had a second prayer piggybacking on the first; a prayer that was not exactly sanctioned, but so close to his heart. A prayer that some might have said was UN-professional on account of it being too personal.

You see, Zechariah had a prayer he just could not let go of – a prayer for a child.

He knew it was a silly prayer, worn threadbare for how long he’d held onto it. He and Elizabeth were awfully old now, but he just couldn’t let it go. Or perhaps more accurately, that prayer would not let go of him. So – professional or not – as Zechariah stood in the Holy Place he could not hold that prayer in one second longer. It came tumbling right out of him.

I wonder if you have a prayer like that – one that is threadbare from how long you’ve held onto it.
Perhaps you, too, are praying for a child – to have a baby, or perhaps you had your babies long ago but you have not stopped worrying about them since. The challenges they face have only grown more formidable as they have grown and you can’t stop feeling anxious about their future.

Or maybe your prayer reaches back to your own childhood. Perhaps you’re seeking some semblance of peace for something that happened long ago – an injury you endured…or perhaps an injury you dealt out.

Or maybe your prayer is for a relationship that has ruptured and shows no signs of recovery.

I don’t know what your prayer might be but perhaps you also feel foolish for praying it so persistently.

I have to think that Zechariah muttered his prayer into the Holy Place, expecting absolutely nothing to happen. But then something DID happen. Suddenly an angel appeared right beside him, saying “Your prayer has been heard, Zechariah.”

I can’t say for certain, but I do wonder if Zechariah’s first thought was “which one? Which prayer has been heard. The one I am supposed to pray – the one about restoring the kingdom of Israel? The one about God lifting my people out of their despair and renewing within us the conviction that we can be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth? Is that the prayer God heard?”

“Or did God hear the other prayer – the one I wasn’t supposed to pray in the first place? The
prayer of a foolish old man who longs to hold a child in his arms? Which prayer did you hear?”
And what if the Angel’s response was simply “Yes. Big Yes. All of the above Yes.”

This is good, good news…but perhaps too good to believe because, then, Zechariah asks a fateful if not idiotic question: “How will I know this is so?”

This is one of those moments where tone really matters. I don’t know if angels are capable of speaking with sarcasm but I sure hope so: “How will you know? Uh – I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. That’s how I know! And if that isn’t answer enough for you then, I don’t even know what.”

Well, from this point onwards, Zechariah – the professional priest, the wizard of wordsmithing – is struck mute…he has no capacity to tell anybody about what he has seen, about what he has heard.

So Zechariah steps out of the Holy Place and back into the Normal Place, and lo and behold Elizabeth did become pregnant, just as the angel promised. Trimesters come and go. Neighbors say to Elizabeth “Isn’t it just terrible that as soon as you’re pregnant, Zechariah can’t speak a word.” She replies with a snort “Actually, it’s working out pretty well for the both of us.”
But indeed – Zechariah cannot speak a single word – so why?

The sermon title is “What if Zechariah believed the first time?” That title alone suggests that there is something deficient about Zechariah…that being struck mute was some kind of punishment for his failure of faith. If he had only trusted the good news, he could have spoken hope to a people in the pits; he could have summoned all of his skill with the spoken word to inspire courage and confidence in a brighter tomorrow.

I’d always read the story this way – that the silence is a punishment.
That is, until my friend Becca – who is as fine a preacher as you’ll ever hear – invited me to see it a different way.

What if………the silence is the gift? Instead of a punishment, what if the silence is an invitation to remember that sometimes all of our buzzing to and fro; all of our professional preparations and all of our carefully chosen words only get in the way. Our obsession with explanations, our relentless need to answer that question “How will this come to be?” – it is all besides the point.

Some things are too holy for something as feeble as words.
Let me, a fellow words professional, say that again – Some things are too holy for something as feeble as words.

So what if Zechariah wasn’t being punished, but rather invited to discover the gift of silence. Would it not be perfect if human silence preceded the Word of God becoming flesh?

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.”

Trappist Monk and modern mystic Thomas Merton said “there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”

Today we lit the candle of Hope. If hope is what you seek but you find it in short supply – take a page from the pregnant pause of Zechariah.

This Advent – Try staying still. Try saying less. Try surrounding yourself with those who know how to keep a holy silence.

And don’t do this because your faith is insufficient.
Don’t do this because that second prayer of your heart is ridiculous and not worth of God’s attention.

Be silent so you can hear what God is saying.
Yes, in the Holy Place, but in the Normal Place too.
As well as the Painful Place, the Joyful Place…in every Place. Amen.