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Advent 2021: Zechariah and Elizabeth


I was listening to a podcast a couple days ago and the speaker was reflecting on the instant access and instant gratification world we live in and how we’ve gone to incredible extremes in eliminating the need to wait for just about anything. He gave the example of Netflix, there’s the obvious point that there’s no longer is there the need to drive to the video store, find your movie and wait in line, now you’ve got instant access to thousands of shows and movies at the click of a button. But yet, Netflix has gone even further than that. For example, have you ever noticed when watching a show on Netflix that when you get to the opening credits there’s a little button on the bottom right hand of your screen that says “Skip Intro.” You don’t even have to wait and sit through the opening credits anymore, you can skip those too. Closing credits, same thing. In fact, the next episode is instantly cued up for you. And somehow, Netflix, convinces you that’s it’s time well spent to watch another 30 minutes because they’ve just done you the favor of saving you a whopping 30 seconds.

You and I don’t like to wait, and when given the choice, we avoid it at all costs. And yet in midst of all that, today we begin Advent, which is of all things, a season of waiting. The word “Advent” simply means “coming” or “arrival,” it’s a season of waiting and preparation, where just as God’s people waited for their Messiah to come so many years ago, we too not only remember and retell the Christmas story from long ago, we also remember that this Advent season is a time of waiting for us too, remembering that God who once lived and dwelt among us will one day come again to make all things new.

And so this morning, we begin a sermon series and in more ways than one. Where not only will we be beginning a new Advent sermon series, we’ll simultaneously be kicking off a new long term sermon series, as we’ll be studying the gospel of Luke, starting here in Advent 2021, running all the way until Easter 2023. Yes, you heard that right. For the next 17 months from Advent 2021 to Easter 2023. And even if I have gone a little mad, there is indeed a method to my madness, because in doing so, we’ll begin where Luke’s gospel begins, that is, Advent and Christmas, as we remember Jesus’s birth, and then we’ll end where Luke’s gospel ends, that is, Easter, as we remember Jesus’s death and resurrection. And in doing so, hopefully both Christmas and Easter, both Jesus’s birth and death and resurrection will become more meaningful and precious to us. After all, imagine opening up a book and reading only the first and last chapters. That’s a tough way to read a book and yet that’s what we sometimes do with Christmas and Easter, as we parachute ourselves into the beginning and end. Lord willing, this will be greatly rewarding for us all as we immerse ourselves in all that Jesus said and did in between. And if by chance the series starts to drag or the engine starts to sputter, please know the fault will not be Luke’s and it certainly won’t be Jesus’s, rather, it will be completely and 100% mine.

Part of the appeal of studying Luke both short term and long term is due to the fact that Luke has, by far, the most to say about Jesus’s birth and the Christmas story at large. In fact, Luke begins his gospel with a story about two people that are often omitted in our retellings of Christmas story. Before there was no room at the inn, before the shepherds watched their flocks by night, before Mary and before Joseph, we’re told of an elderly couple by the name of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a couple that waited for something for so long that they probably stopped waiting entirely, and then once their prayer was answered, were asked to wait just a little bit longer.

And they had been waiting in more ways than one. Along with all the other Israelites at that time, Zechariah and Elizabeth, or Zach and Liz, as I’d like to think their friends called them, had been waiting for God to return. God had long ago promised his people that he would one day return and dwell with his people, but yet the last time they had heard God speak was some 400 years before through the prophet Malachi. Even more, Zechariah and Elizabeth and their fellow Israelites lived under, as our scripture today reminds us, during the time of King Herod, a ruthless and illegitimate king and in addition, lived under the oppressive Roman empire. And at this point, after 400 years of silence, they had been waiting so long that at some point they probably looked at each other and agreed that it probably wasn’t worth waiting for at all.

And yet, in midst of that waiting, Zechariah and Elizabeth had waited and hoped for something on much more personal level. They had waited for years and years to have a child, yet they never did. And their barrenness not only brought them great suffering, but also tremendous shame, for back then, and sadly maybe in some ways still today, a couples’ inability to have children was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, a sign that they had somewhere, somehow done something wrong to deserve their suffering. This, to be clear, is not true - in fact Luke makes it crystal clear that this elderly couple were righteous, reminding us that suffering falls upon both unfaithful and faithful people alike. Nevertheless, within their community they would have experienced tremendous shame. In fact, Elizabeth later says as much after she learns that she is pregnant, saying, “[The Lord] has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

And so for Zechariah and Elizabeth, as the years when by, as their hair started to turn increasingly gray, as they watched their friends have kids and throw baby showers and little kid birthday parties and yet remained childless themselves, I’m sure at some point they probably looked at each other and agreed that their longing to be parents seemed so out of reach that it probably wasn’t worth waiting for at all.

By all accounts, it seemed as if God had gone absent. It seemed as if he was giving both the Israelites and Zechariah and Elizabeth the silent treatment.

And it’s with that backstory in mind that we zoom in and find Zechariah working at the temple. As a priest, serving on duty, and he’s burning incense. And all of a sudden, the angel Gabriel shares the good news with him, saying,

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.

Zechariah is told that he and Elizabeth will give birth to this baby boy, who we know and are later introduced to as John the Baptist, a prophet like figure who will play a critical role in preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah, it’s been 400 years after all since God last spoke, and so John will help get the people ready for this new thing God is doing. We’ll learn more about John in chapter 3 (did I mention we’re going to be studying Luke for a while? ☺ )

And Zechariah’s response to all of this, is in some ways understandable. He says to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

Just like with Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth having a child would be nothing short of a miracle, though miraculous for different reasons. Mary of course, because of the virgin birth, and for Zechariah and Elizabeth because they were, well, in a word, old. And I love Zechariah’s diplomatic answer, where you must imagine he’s thinking, what’s a gentle way of saying that my wife is really old? … let’s go with “well along in years.”

But yet all kidding aside, Zechariah’s answer reveals a deep lack of faith in the angel’s words. And because Zechariah did not believe Gabriel’s words, Zechariah is told that he will be silent and unable to speak until his promised baby boy is born.

Which a little harsh, right. Who of us wouldn’t doubt the angel’s words in this scenario?

Well, I think part of the answer is this: As a priest, Zechariah should have known better, because as a priest, as righteous and obedient Israelite, he has seen this story before, in oddly enough, two figures from Genesis that we ever so briefly mentioned last week.

I’m talking about Abraham and Sarah, another elderly couple who were childless, and yet God promised Abraham that his descendants would be greater than the stars you could count in the sky. And at the youthful and vibrant ages of 100 and 90, Abraham and Sarah had their baby boy Isaac. It was the first example of a long list of people who in the bible who are childless only then to see God miraculously open their womb.

You see, Zechariah had seen this movie before. And if only in that moment, Zechariah had remembered what his name meant all along, meaning, “the Lord had remembered.” Though it seemed as if God had gone silent, as if God had given he and Elizabeth the silent treatment, God had indeed remembered his people, God had indeed remembered his promises, doing the miraculous once again.

Friends, have you ever waited for something for so long that realistically it didn’t make sense to wait any longer? Waited for something for so long that at some point for your own emotional and mental wellbeing you decided that it best to stop waiting and continuously get your hopes up?

We of course, do this in small ways. A friend yours forgets that the two of you were going to meet for coffee and so you wait and wait until about the 20min mark until it doesn’t make sense to wait any longer. Or you try out a new book or movie wondering if it’ll be any good and then when it’s not you bail at the 30min mark in order to cut your losses.

But of course, we do this in bigger ways too: I know many of us have family members or friends who either don’t know the Lord or who don’t share the faith or belong to the church like we do or might hope for them to. Throughout the years, we’ve prayed and hoped and waited, until maybe at some point we think to ourselves, “What’s the point? That ship has sailed.” Or maybe you’ve wondered if it’s time to stop waiting and praying for the friend struggling with addiction, the relationship that can’t seem to be reconciled, the illness that won’t seem to go away, being singleness with no prospect of marriage, or being married and unable to have children. Maybe we think to ourselves that after waiting for so long it’s not worth waiting for anymore. And yet, if God can breathe life into Elizabeth’s old and barren womb, surely he can bring new life into your situation as well. And even if He doesn’t, or at least not on our timeline, maybe He’s trying to fix our eyes on something else, or show us a new and better way He is at work in our lives and the ones we love. Either way, we can be sure of this, He has not gone silent.

And in a strange bit of irony, the one who Zechariah thought had gone silent, had now made Zechariah go silent himself. The one who as a priest made his living through speaking, could temporarily speak no more. And this act of discipline and punishment against Zechariah, also seems to function as a gift in some ways, or as C.S. Lewis may have described, “a grace disguised.” Maybe we could call it a “temporary talking timeout” – something that we may at times wish we could have enforced with various family members over this past holiday weekend.

Anyway, by the Lord’s design, the elderly couple who had been waiting forever to have kids, were now asked to wait just a little bit longer. Zechariah we’re told, finishes his service as priest and heads home where he cannot say a word, and Elizabeth spends the first five months of her pregnancy waiting in seclusion. It may seem a little strange, but yet, what is pregnancy but a season of waiting and preparation.

That’s what Advent is meant to be as well. It’s a season of quiet and stillness. An invitation to slow down. As the days get shorter and as the nights grow longer, Advent is a season of waiting and preparation. As we wait for and prepare our hearts and retell the story of Jesus’s first coming, when he was born on that Christmas morning long ago, and at the same time, as we wait for and prepare our hearts for his promised second coming, when he will come again and make all things new.

So with that in mind, I want to briefly give you all a few ways in which we both individually and together, grow in our faith in Christ this Advent season as we wait and prepare together.

Parents, I’ve got good news – there will be Sunday School for all for weeks of Advent. And all the parents said, “Amen!” And our kids will be studying the same Advent stories that we are. So that means you and your kids can have a shared conversation on the drive home or around the dinner table later tonight. And there are discussion questions that you can use that are printed in the sermon notes.

If you’re looking for a study to go through this next month, Advent Devotionals are downstairs in the Fellowship Hall. We don’t have a ton, but we have some, and I’ve also got a stack of Advent related books that I use each Christmas you can check out and maybe order a copy for yourself.

In addition, next Sunday after worship, we are going to do another Prayer Walk around town, December might seem like the wrong time and too cold to do something like this, but Advent is the perfect time for a prayer walk, as we look at our community, as we remember and acknowledge the ways and places where we see pain and brokenness and injustice, and pray to the Lord for his healing and peace, for his kingdom to come on earth, on Dillon as it is in heaven. Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren says it this way, that “To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.”

Finally, in your own day to day life, create moments and space for silence and reflection, for prayer and reading and solitude. The other day as Callie and I started putting Christmas decorations out, we decided to move our TV out of our living room and into a closet for the next month. We are literally and figuratively unplugging. To be clear, that’s not because I’m righteous like Zechariah, it’s because I struggle with self-control. Maybe do something like that, or maybe reclaim the little moments for silence and reflection. I know that when I’m, let’s say, at Safeway standing in line, my default move is to pull out my phone, like it’s not even a conscious decision anymore. If you’re like me, maybe this month, keep that phone tucked away, and pray instead, whether it be for those you know or the cashier you don’t.

So there you go - a few ways in which we both individually and together, grow in our faith in Christ this Advent season as we wait and prepare together.

And I’ll close with this …

I started listening to Christmas songs about a week or two ago as I began worship planning for Advent. And as I was listening to one Christmas album in particular a week or so ago, I came across a kind of Christmas song that I’d never heard of before. This one was different – it was honest, real, unapologetic and raw the opposite of warm and fuzzy that characterize much of the Christmas music out there today. The song is called “Alive on Christmas” by a band called Lovkn (I hope I’m saying that right) and I want to share some of its lyrics with you. It goes like this:

Stringing lights with your bottle of booze Fingers-crossed you won't blow a fuse Family fights and the weekly blues Is that all it is to you? Netflix and a TV dinner Mom says that you're looking thinner Walmart made your Christmas dream Is that all it needs to be?

Early nights 'cause you get off late Tired eyes at a quarter of eight Trying hard to avoid the flu Is that all it is to you?

Sundown at 4pm You're wishing it was June again Another drink and it's off to sleep Is that all it means to be?

Alive on Christmas Don't you know that it's more than just an American business A well-oiled, money machine? Don't you know what it really means to be Alive on Christmas?

And here’s how the song finishes:

More than a clay manger If that's all you think than you're in danger It's time to see life in the eyes of love It's time to find hope in God above

So friends, how about you, is that all means to be alive on Christmas? The good news is, it can be so much more. It is so much more. My hope and prayer for us all is that we give ourselves like never before to this old yet familiar story from long ago, and in doing so find a hope worth waiting for. A hope that is found in a person, the person of Jesus Christ.

It's time to see life in the eyes of love, it's time to find hope in God above.

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