Title: An Advent Reorienting
Texts: Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-6
Date: Dec 6, 2009
Author: Monica Schmucker
As you looked at your bulletin and listened to the Scripture passages, you probably noticed that the lectionary has done something peculiar this week: the Psalm passage is replaced by a psalm of sorts from the New Testament. This week we have the Song of Zechariah. While it’s located in Luke, the poetic and prophetic words are steeped in themes from the Old Testament. In Luke’s gospel, Zechariah offers these words in response to the birth of his son. This baby, John, is identified as the prophetic forerunner who will prepare the people for the coming of the promised Messiah. Like any good prophetic word, it has many layers of meaning and weaves together the past, present, and future. I certainly can’t identify all of them, and that’s what I think makes it exciting to revisit these words again and again to discover something new in them.
God has “looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them” Zechariah declares, by raising up “a mighty savior in the House of David” just as the prophets had said (v68-69). This redemption is an act of deliverance from their enemies, which frees them “to serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness” (v75). Zechariah’s song reminds us of the covenant with Abraham and David and recalls God’s rescue of the people from Egypt. Zechariah addresses his baby son and says that he will be a prophet who prepares the Lord’s way. John will “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (v77). Zechariah’s words create a vision of God’s salvation that encompasses both deliverance from enemies and forgiveness of sins. And when in God’s mercy, the dawn from on high bursts into their world, they will be guided in the way of peace.
After I read the passage, I got curious to revisit the story behind it. What prompted Zechariah (and Luke) to make this declaration? So, let me retell it a little. Zechariah is a priest, and his wife, Elizabeth, is also a descendant of Aaron. Luke tells us that they are an exemplary couple who follow God’s law and are blameless in God’s sight. Despite their righteousness, they lack the blessing of a child. They have grown old in the years of longing and waiting.
Zechariah’s priestly division is called up for service in the temple. This usually happens twice a year. Zechariah is chosen to offer the incense in the temple. Since the decision is made by lot, it is seen as a sign of God’s favor. A priest might serve his whole lifetime without ever being chosen for this role, so it is quite an honor. The incense altar is located in the Holy Place. Near it is the curtained Holy of Holies, where God’s spirit dwells. Only the high priest can enter the Holy of Holies, and that is only once a year. So, making the offering at the incense altar is the closest anyone besides a high priest could ever come to the place of God’s presence.
When Zechariah is making the offering, he is startled by an angel who announces, “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.” (v13). But there’s more: this child will be great in the Lord’s sight, filled with the Holy Spirit even before birth, and as a prophet he will lead the people to repentance and prepare them for the Lord.
“Your prayer has been heard.” Was Zechariah still praying for a child or had he dropped this request as the passing years and the aging of his and Elizabeth’s bodies seemed to be the only answer they received? Maybe since he was in this especially holy place, he threw in one more prayer for a child. But I am more inclined to imagine that as he is offering the incense, he is praying on behalf of his people, on behalf of the worshippers whose prayers form the backdrop of the offering. In the angel’s announcement, the fulfillment of a couple’s personal longing and the collective longing of the entire nation are brought together.
So Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son! This news is an unexpected event, but it is not without precedent. The foundation of the nation is in God’s fulfilled promise of a son to an elderly Abraham and his elderly, barren wife, Sarah. The blood of that promise flows through Zechariah’s veins. But still, the incredibleness of it leads Zechariah to question the angel and ask, in effect, “Are you sure? This doesn’t seem possible to me.”
Well, I get the feeling that the angel is a little insulted. You can sense his indignation as he responds, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news” (v19). It’s a little like, “Hey, I’m God’s press secretary and you’re questioning the authority of my message?! I’m not so sure you should be entrusted with this news, so you will remain silent until it actually happens.”
The crowd of worshippers senses that something unusual is going on because things are taking longer than expected. Normally the group of priests who are serving in the temple make the offerings and then together they pronounce a blessing on the people. When Zechariah does finally face the worshippers, he is unable to speak the blessing and they realize he has seen a vision.
We don’t know what happens after that, if Zechariah writes up an account to answer the questions of everyone. But after finishing his service in the temple, he returns home and Elizabeth conceives. Whether Elizabeth knew the details of Zechariah’s vision or if she had an experience of her own is not revealed. But in response to her pregnancy, she is in awe. “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (v25).
I try to imagine their household in this time. Zechariah is mute. Elizabeth is in seclusion for 5 months. I can understand that. Imagine the stir if she announced she was pregnant. Who would believe that? And poor Zechariah is mute so he wouldn’t be able vouch for her on the authority of his vision. When Elizabeth is 6 months pregnant, they receive a visit from Elizabeth’s relative, the teenage Mary. Elizabeth joyfully receives her, and though she is the elder woman, Elizabeth pronounces Mary blessed and blesses the child she will bear, and calls her “The mother of my Lord” (v43). Elizabeth reveals that the baby in her womb leaped for joy at Mary’s greeting. Remember that at this point, Mary’s pregnancy would not be obvious, nor would she have related her visit from Gabriel and the announcement of the miraculous conception. Mary’s response in recorded by Luke in poetic words that echo those of Hannah in the Old Testament, declaring the holiness of God and expressing confidence in God’s favor toward the oppressed and forgotten.
Imagine it! The most incredible news of God’s fulfillment of his covenant, the coming of the Messiah —and the people who know about it are a mute old man, his wife who is experiencing an unusual geriatric pregnancy, and a unwed pregnant teenage girl. Oh, and don’t forget, the-yet-to-be-born John who is already responding to the Holy Spirit in prenatal leaps. I imagine this household as a little sanctuary: a sheltered place for the gestation of God’s purpose until just the right moment comes for it to burst out.
Zechariah’s muteness during his wife’s pregnancy is a season of preparation and repentance. In those months of silence, Zechariah listens, perhaps in a way he has never listened before. He has received the Word of God from sources he might never have imagined: an angel, his wife, a teenage girl, and even his unborn son. Might this Advent be a season of silence in which to listen? Where might we hear the Word of God speaking?
Just as Zechariah and his wife are reorienting their lives around their new role as parents, so they are reorienting their will to the unfolding of God’s salvation. And this gives them the grace to receive Mary and her unborn child with joy. If not for the work of God in their lives, how would they have responded to the increasing evidence of her pregnancy? How would they have reacted to her explanation of this conception? What reorienting is needed to make space for receiving God’s salvation in our lives?
After John is born, the neighbors and relatives gather on the eighth day when he will be circumcised and officially named. The folks assume the child will be named Zechariah, but Elizabeth tells them firmly that the child is John. This is such an odd choice that they ask Zechariah. In obedience to the instructions of the angel, in evidence of the reorienting of his will, he writes, “His name is John.” And just as the angel promised, Zechariah’s powers of speech return immediately. Now he, too, declares the Word of God, in pronouncing a blessing that echoes through to us today.
I like to think of repentance as a reorienting, a changing of direction and focus. That’s what John’s ministry will be. Our second passage out of Luke identifies John as the one spoken of in Isaiah, who calls for people to prepare a straight path for the Lord. If you read a little further in Luke 3, John doesn’t just call the people to repent and be baptized, he urges them to show lives that bear the fruit of repentance, lives that evidence an orientation around God’s call. I am slowly coming to understanding repentance as an on-going process, one that I need to engage in daily, not just at certain times of the year—though I am grateful when the Church year reminds me of my need. And that’s where Zechariah’s Song takes a personal turn for us. As I was reading this week, I learned that these words are part of the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily cycle of monastic prayers. They are recited before dawn. How hopeful, to be reminded every morning that God has shown mercy, has rescued us from our enemies, and that we can serve him without fear. I imagine what it would be like to repent, to reorient each morning around the words, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”