Saturday, December 8, 2012

Zechariah and Elizabeth

Luke 1:5-25, 57-67a, 67b-80

What would you say if an angel appeared and announced that you were going to have a baby? ….
What if the angel told you the name of the baby, and that the baby had a special purpose? …
For those of us young enough to give birth, this is no big deal although it might mess with our plans for our lives. For those of us too old to give birth it’s another story altogether. In the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah, it was a real shock.
Like Sarah and Abraham, and Hannah and Elkanah whose story we read just a few weeks ago, Elizabeth was not able to have children. In her culture, women were to be fruitful and multiply. Being childless was shameful. If a woman couldn’t have children, the must be some major sin which caused God to close her womb. It could not, of course, be the man’s sin.
Elizabeth and Zechariah were old enough to know they would never have children. They had reached an age when they had ceased praying for children, and were learning to be content to be childless and to enjoy the children of other parents.
They were both descendants of the priestly families, and lived righteous lives, pleasing to God, other than their childlessness. Finally, the timing was right for God’s plans to come to fruition.
There were many priests living in many parts of Judah. They were organized into teams, and served in the temple in rotation, spending a week in Jerusalem when their turn came. Mostly, they were responsible for managing the animal sacrifices, but they also had other duties. Burning incense in the morning and evening was one of them. The priest who would perform this ritual was chosen by lot – perhaps one black rock in a bag of white ones.
One day, it came to Zechariah to pray the liturgy and burn the incense inside the temple. He was alone, and had a vision of the Angel Gabriel. As with all angel visits, the first thing Gabriel says is, don’t be afraid. Gabriel tells him Elizabeth will become pregnant. They are to name the child John – Yochannan – which means God is kind (Yo for YHWH, and channan for kindness). John will be the prophet for one who is even greater than he. His job is to prepare the people for the coming of the savior.
Zechariah is a practical man. He hears the angel’s words and thinks about his wife Elizabeth, who is well beyond the time of having babies. He says, “I don’t see how that’s going to happen.” Obviously, even though he was in God’s house, he wasn’t expecting an encounter with the divine.
Truth be told, I don’t see much difference between the answer Zechariah gives and the answer Mary gives when she says, “How can this be?” But there must have been a big difference in the tone of voice, because Gabriel says, “Since you said you don’t believe me, you will not speak again until what I have said comes true – in other words, until the baby is born.”
Immediately, he is speechless. Zechariah went out of the temple, and the priests had to figure out from his hand motions that he had had an encounter with an angel.
We can have a lot of fun imaging the next several months. Zechariah went home and had to explain without words that Elizabeth was going to have a baby. Along the way, he must have found a way to tell her that the baby was going to be special, and that he was to be named John. We can imagine the joy Elizabeth felt at becoming pregnant. Six months later, when Mary was visiting, the Baby John inside Elizabeth knew the Baby Jesus inside Mary.
After the usual nine months, Elizabeth gives birth to the baby. Eight days later, he is circumcised, as was the custom. Friends and family are gathered around. The rabbi is preparing to perform the ritual and wants to know the name of the child. Everyone seems to assume the baby will be named Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says the boy is to be named John. “What?!” the people exclaim. Zechariah asks for a tablet and stylus and writes, “His name is John.” Suddenly, he knows he has his voice back, and breaks out into song celebrating this wonderful event in the life of the people. And, he sings of the role John will play as God’s servant and forerunner to the promised Messiah.  
… I often wonder how I would respond if an angel appeared to me and told me I was part of God’s plan, if someone told me that something really miraculous was going to happen in my life. Would I say, “You’ve got to be kidding!” or would I say, “Let’s do it!”? Surely, my response would depend on the task required of me. It might be hard, or very simple, as natural as having a baby.
In reality, it doesn’t need to be a dramatic event. Each day, every one of us is asked to live as a child of God. Jesus simply asks us to use the gifts God has given us to be part of God’s plan for redeeming the world, one hurting person at a time. Each one of us is asked to prepare the way for Jesus. Each one of us is asked to tell others about Jesus’ love for us. Each one of us is asked to bring a friend one step closer to a relationship with God, with our kind words, with an invitation, with a gentle hug.  
This season of Advent, when we work so hard getting ready for the parties and the gift-giving and the travel and the decorating, I invite you to work hard to prepare the way for Jesus, too. I hope you’ll do this at home, too, but I also want us to take a moment now.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes if you’d like. Imagine that you are someplace where you can encounter God. Here in the sanctuary, at home in your prayer chair, on the beach, on the golf course, on the boat, in your bed, or wherever.
Take a couple of slow, deep breaths. You are praying, listening, waiting for God to speak to you.  … An angel appears. …  What is the angel asking you to do? … How do you respond? …  Is it so hard to do that you can’t imagine doing it? Or does it bring you such joy that you can’t imagine not doing it? … Imagine doing whatever the angel told you to do. … Celebrate your accomplishment. … Take a couple of slow breaths and open your eyes. …
Whether an angel appeared to you in your imagination or not, I still hope you will intentionally take the time to consider what an angel might ask of you. And then go ahead and do it. Whatever you are asked to do, you will not be alone. God’s Holy Spirit will be with you, encouraging you, helping to make it possible.
Please pray with me. Life-giving God, we give you thanks for the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth and John, and for their willingness to do your will. Help us to be so willing to serve you. In Jesus’ name, amen