Luke 1:5-25New Living Translation (NLT)The Birth of John the Baptist ForetoldWhen Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron.Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations.They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old. One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week.As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense.While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying. While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar.Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him.But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,[b] and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news!But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.” Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the sanctuary, wondering why he was taking so long.When he finally did come out, he couldn’t speak to them. Then they realized from his gestures and his silence that he must have seen a vision in the sanctuary. When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home.Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months.“How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.”
This is quite a story! And perfect for this second Sunday in Advent, especially in this season of preparation, not just for the birth of Christ, but for our own backyard birthing, or moving out beyond our backyard. This has been a wonderful season of physical, emotional, and spiritual growth at our church- and as we prepare to take our first steps outside the backyard fence in a while, we pause to review some of the basics of ministry, "out there."
Last week we discussed the seeming bleakness of the world, but though it seems dark, God is indeed already at work. (Amazing- God can work with out US!) However, we need to be very intentional in looking for signs of God at work, finding glimpses of hope and promise, and pointing others toward that light. We then practiced intentionality by thinking about and writing down a person, place, or situation where we see God working or plan to bring Gods hope. (Symbolically, through hanging these call leaves on a barren tree, 'transformed a neighborhood"). Look!
This week the story of Zechariah teaches us that the next thing we do when we step into the neighborhood is listen. Think about it. Zechariah is going about his business- he is doing ministry inside the temple, in the most sacred place in the temple. He is honored to do so and clearly in the zone... you know what I mean, here's right? When you're in the middle of great worship, and you're focusing on how great worship is, and how great you worship, and how great thou art- well, you get the picture. But in the middle of the ceremony he's startled out of his religious stupor by a voice- a messenger of God. His first act of listening has begun-
"Don't be afraid!" Says the angel. And she goes on to tell Zechariah all that will happen- Elizabeth his old wife, will have a child, and he should name him John, and he will help a lot of people turn back to God...
Now, like you or I would most likely do, Zechariah starts rattling a list of why what the angel just told him just, by all earthly accounts, can't happen- "What?" "How?" "Can't be." "Look at me!" "Look at her!!" "Can't do it! Impossible!"
And the angel gives Zechariah a gift, that, truth be told, I envy once in a while. She gave him the gift of silence. From now on, Zechariah would stop talking, stop building a case for why it can't happen, and listen instead to what God is saying.
What did Zechariah hear in the silence? And how can we learn through his experience?
1. The first thing Zechariah heard was the voice of the angel- reiterating God's plan. " you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.” So, 'this is going to happen, God doesn't break promises. What was it you wrote down that you decided to look for last week? Since then, I would guess that you have found half a dozen reasons why what you wrote down probably won't work- or at the very least, should you have begun to think it through asked, "what?" (what did I write that down for?) 'How?" (How can I possibly take this on- it's too big!) "Can't be" (I don't see any way that this can change) Look at me"(I'm not qualified, in some way shape or form) "Look at her"(Everyone knows its beyond hope) Can't do it! Impossible!" (Amen?)
Listen- there is no situation that is out of God's reach! There is nothing God can not do. Believe it or not, Zechariah, the plan will be fulfilled- so shut up for a minute- stop telling God why God's plan wont work.
2. The next thing Zechariah heard when the angel finally stopped talking was the sound of the crowd. Remember a "great multitude" were gathered outside the temple- and as Zechariah walked out to the temple yard, unable to add his own voice, the sounds of the people must have sounded overwhelming. It's quite new, isn't it, when we allow ourselves to just listen to the sounds around us without interjecting 'us,' or opinions, our judgements, our power and privilege...
3. But as Zechariah continued to listen, some voices became louder and more pronounce- what happened Zechariah? Why aren't you speaking? What did you see? What are you doing? And Zechariah was unable to answer- so they assumed he had seen a vision. My friends, when we stop talking long enough to hear the sounds of the crowd without interjecting us- opinion, judgment, power, privilege- trust me on this, people are going to wonder what the heck is going on. Because most of us, with very few exception, have something to say about everything and everyone! And sure, it's normal- but spouting off about this or that that we are "sure" about, stops us from hearing the other side, or sides- because there are always more than two sides... Many of us stopped listening to any voices that don't resemble our own decades ago- we've lost track of what the "other" is really about because we gather all our information from "our side." What if we stopped and just listened for a while...
4. The next sound Zechariah heard was the voice of his wife- old Elizabeth. Who's been married a long time? So then you get it... we've stopped listening to our spouses years ago. And for those without a long time partner, think about the voices you have taken into your everyday life, that are as familiar to you as your own voice... a voice that is seemingly always there- a parent, a friend, even an author, or coworker... Zechariah had been with Elizabeth such a long time he thought he had heard it all- knew her so well that there was nothing left to learn, they had grown old together- and sadly that means that we often stop looking for the growth in that other person. We get in the habit, even with the people closest to us, to thinking that we can predict their every move- but don't take into account that God is working in them! “How kind the Lord is!” Elizabeth exclaims. "God has taken away my disgrace in not being able to have children." What has God done in the lives of the people closest to us? Listen and find out.
5. I can only imagine what life must have been like for Zechariah over those months of listening. No doubt Elizabeth enjoyed it. But when we think about the people he interacted with on a daily basis, what must they have thought? Here is a priest- someone who always has something to say, now taking the time to just hear from others. Not forcing his agenda- but allowing others to speak to him about their needs, their desires, their dreams. What would it be like for us, when we move out of the backyard, if instead of trying to bring our brand of christianity to the neighborhood, we just listened to our neighbors about what the neighborhood needs? What do they want/need from the church? And how we can help the people in practical ways that will help bring them a better life?
This gift Zechariah was given is one we can all embrace. Next week we'll be talking about when, how and what to speak, but before we leave Zechariah, let me tell you what he did say when he finally did speak.
57 When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son.And when her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her. (And, as an aside, Zechariah still wasn't speaking when the baby was born- and he rejoiced... what would THAT look like? to celebrate something in silence?) . When the baby was eight days old, all the relatives and friend came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father.But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!” “What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.” So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him.He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.”Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God.
What happened? Zechariah, in writing the name John, affirmed all that the angel had said, affirmed God's plan, affirmed yes, God was big enough to bring about a brand new thing- Zechariah, through listening, worked past the, "What? How? "Can't be." "Look at me!" "Look at her!!" And his first spoken words were words of praise for a God who can do the impossible! Praise God who is patient to teach us despite ourselves. Praise the God who never breaks a promise! Praise the God of salvation and newness! Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”
And do you know what happened next, my beloved congregation of Christ? 65 Awe fell upon the whole neighborhood, and the news of what had happened spread throughout the land.Everyone who heard about it reflected... For the hand of the Lord was surely upon him in a special way.