Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday 7 December 2008 - Zechariah's Meditation

This is a partly-narrative sermon based on Luke 1:5-20 for Advent 1.   There is a great deal of influence here from Trevor Dennis' book The Christmas Stories.


God Will Come Out of Hiding

'We are on the brink of a new era and God will come out of hiding.' I'll never forget those words. A brother priest said them to me just before I was one of the five chosen to enter the Temple sanctuary.

We were talking about the Empire - the Roman Empire - and about our hopes for the future of the Jewish people.  Hopes that seemed rather far-fetched given the rule of Herod-the-Great and his son over the last 35 years or so.

Oh the two Herods were Jews alright. But they were in bed with the occupying Roman Empire, doing the will of Rome rather than of God. It was hard to see how God would have anything to do with the Jewish people when our leaders were colluding with the enemy. After all, as priests we knew that the prophets taught that we needed to be pure as a people before the Messiah would come to us.

Anyway, we were talking about these things, my brothers and I. Our section had been called to Temple duty. But you have to understand that there were so many priests that each section served the Temple for one week at a time twice a year. And most of us had a lot of waiting around to do. The chances of actually serving in the sanctuary were pretty low. There were so many of us in the section and we were chosen by lot so that God could make the decision himself.

I myself had never been chosen before. That was somewhat unusual, but not completely. There were others who had never been chosen. Some had been chosen two, or even three times.

Anyway, we were sitting there talking about the fate of the Jewish people and my brother priest had just uttered those words: 'We are on the brink of a new era and God will come out of hiding.' I confess that part of me thought 'As if!' and the other part of me thought 'Please, God!' And then we drew lots.

To my utter astonishment, amazement and complete disbelief, God chose me to serve in the sanctuary that day.

It all seems rather understated now, that statement: 'God will come out of hiding'. Neither one of us knew that God was going to come out of hiding that very day. And my wildest dreams could not have imagined what waited for me in the Sanctuary.

You know all about the events that happened next. You just heard the story.

Is it any wonder that I was struck dumb after seeing Gabriel and hearing everything that he said? I mean, I went into the Sanctuary expecting to offer incense to God. I didn't expect a messenger of God to come out from behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies and talk to me!

And I certainly didn't expect to be told that my wife and I would have a son in our old age who would be a prophet - 'great in the spirit of God'. Like Sarah in the Torah, I laughed in my heart and I doubted a great deal. I mean, wouldn't you? I'd not exactly had any time to get used to such a preposterous idea.

My great regret was that, when I left the sanctuary and came out into the Court of Israel, I was not able to bless the people with the other priests. This was a duty that I could not perform and a privilege that I had looked forward to all my life. As far as I knew, this would be my only opportunity to exercise my priestly office, and the opportunity was denied me.

A Son is Born

To tell you the truth, at the beginning of the whole thing, I expected to get my voice back in a couple of days. I thought it was just shock. Then, as the days and weeks drew on, I became more and more resigned to the fact that I might never speak again. I prayed that I might one day regain my speech, but I wondered if my dumbness was the payment exacted by God for lifting his curse of barrenness upon Elizabeth.

Despite the sadness of losing my voice, Elizabeth's pregnancy was a time of great rejoicing. We both come from the priestly clan and all through our lives we had been blameless in keeping all of God's commandments. For many years, we suffered from the belief that God was displeased with Elizabeth; why else would he not bless her with sons and daughters? And, of course, there had to be a son to carry on the priestly tradition of our family.

Sometimes it seemed to us that our condition mirrored that of the Jewish people: God was silent and his blessing was withheld. But now, Elizabeth was able to hold her head high: her righteousness was vindicated. God had blessed her and was working his purposes through her. And the proof was there for all to see.

Family and neighbours all rejoiced with us. Elizabeth and I were chosen by God to be the parents of the first prophet that Israel has seen for generations. Some say that he is the reincarnation of Elijah.

We named him John, just like the angel Gabriel told us to do. That went against tradition, of course. But it seemed to us that God is about to do a new thing. We are on the brink of a new era and it seems that God has finally come out of hiding.


Zechariah and Elizabeth were unique people.  Not only were they the parents of John the Baptist, but their story of childlessness and subsequent fruitfulness is one of a handful in the bible.  In Scripture, every time a child (a son!) is born of a barren woman, the child is a child of very special significance in the purposes of God.

The birth of John the Baptist ends a period of many centuries when God did not speak to his people.  John the Baptist will be the prophet of a new era, the prophet a new testament. Although he began a new prophetic age, there was nonetheless continuity with the former prophetic age.  

Zechariah and Elizabeth were undoubtedly unique but they embodied many human concerns about God:  Where is God in all of this? Where is God in my life? Where is God in history?
God did not act in their lives as they expected him to act, and possibly not as they thought he 'ought' to have acted.  However, they remained faithful and the were used by God in a most unexpected way.

God has promised to his faithful people that he will remain faithful to us.  And the security of that promise rests in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one we await during Advent.  We are living in a new era, and God has come out of hiding.

I pray that we may we be given the grace and fortitude to persist in our faith even when we cannot see God working as we might want him to do.  May we be given a change of perspective so that we can see God's activity in the world where we least expected it.  And may we have the wisdom and courage to follow in the direction of God's leading, even if it means changing our expectations. Amen

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