A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 9, 2012.
Second Sunday in Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79
It was the first time Zechariah had spoken in nine months and eight days. Nine l-o-n-g months and eight l-o-n-g days. It may not have been as long and tedious a time as what his wife Elizabeth had to endure – after all, she’s the one having the baby, and in her old age, no less – but still, it couldn’t have been easy for him either since he hadn’t been able to say a blessed thing in all that time.
When it came to the morning sickness – or any of the myriad other physiological/emotional issues women go through when pregnant, he was of absolutely no help, except perhaps to hold Elizabeth’s hand – or her head! – but he couldn’t soothe her with his words. He had none. But then again, it saved him from making the typical male mistake of saying something stupid like, “I know how you feel.” No… no we don’t.
Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with the story, but just in case allow me to review. Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah, which means he was descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses and original priest of Israel. Evidently, Zechariah had married a woman whose family also kept good genealogical records, because, we are told, his wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron as well. So, it was a natural thing, I suppose, for the two of them to be married. They come from the same priestly stock.
They were good people, we are told, “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” In other words, Zechariah and Elizabeth knew their Bible and they lived by it. That is what we are told.
Generally, knowing the Bible and living by it resulted in God’s blessings, at least according to the theology of that day and time. But this was not so for Zechariah and Elizabeth. You see, if you were to ask anyone back in that day what was God’s number one blessing, you would be told that it was to have children… preferably, male children. But Zechariah and Elizabeth had none, nary a boy nor a girl. Elizabeth, we are told, was barren. And, we are further informed, “both were getting on in years.”
Does that sound familiar? We’ve been down that road before, haven’t we?, what with Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah, and Hannah. Barrenness is not a new theme in scripture, and in every case it sets up an opportunity for God to do his thing.
Usually, the way the scriptural stories are told, in narratives like this we are given specific ages. When Isaac was born to Sarah, for example, we know she was ninety and Abraham was ninety-nine. Rebekah was forty when she gave birth to her twins, Esau and Jacob. But Luke, who is usually very detailed in his story-telling, just says that both Zechariah and Elizabeth “were getting on in years.” I guess he figured that conveyed the idea clearly enough.
We do know this… They were old enough that when the angel of the Lord came to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth would finally conceive a son, and that they were to name him John, and that many would rejoice and share in their joy and gladness at the boy’s birth because he would be great in the sight of the Lord, and that he should never drink wine or Jack Daniels (well, the Bible says “strong drink,” and I think Jack Daniels qualifies), and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit and would turn many of his people of Israel to the Lord their God, and would have the spirit and power of Elijah and would turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, and would prepare the way of the Lord, Zechariah scratched his head in bewilderment and said he doubted that any of this could possibly be true. He whips out his AARP card to show he knows what he’s talking about.
“How will I know that this is so?” he asks the angel. “For I am an old man, and my wife is no spring chicken either.”
And the angel frowns. The gospel doesn’t tell us that necessarily (that the angel frowns), but read between the lines. You can pretty well go to the bank on it… the angel frowns. You see, this is the angel Gabriel, the very same one who would later visit with Mary in her kitchen, and with Joseph in his carpenter’s shop while he’s taking an afternoon siesta, and would tell them they too would be having a son. Yep, the very same angel, and he couldn’t have been very happy about the idea of anyone, even the pious priest Zechariah, doubting his message, because it wasn’t really his message but had been given him directly from God. He was an angel of the Lord, after all, and this is what angels do… deliver messages from God. And angels aren’t used to being doubted, especially by the clergy. So when an angel frowns at you, you better duck. Something’s going to come your way, and it isn’t going to be a very happy experience.
So, Gabriel goes a little off-script and gives the priest Zechariah another message. Evidently, Gabriel has some leeway when it comes to such things, and he uses his God-given authority to good measure. “Tell you what I’m going to do, Zechariah. Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time (meaning nine months and eight days), you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
And bam, just like that, Zechariah loses his voice and doesn’t get to say a blessed thing for – how long? – nine months and eight days.
The inability to speak is a pretty bad disability for anyone, but especially a priest. I’ve had laryngitis a few times, and let me tell you, it doesn’t do for a preacher to lose his voice. The first time it happened I had a wedding coming up. Fortunately, we had a doctor in the church who knew how to deal with such things, so after an injection and orders not to say anything unless absolutely necessary (and not to whisper because whispering is harder on your voice than speaking, he told me), my voice returned enough so that I could at least get through the ceremony. I did hobble a bit during the wedding because that morning I dropped a heavy bottle of shampoo on my foot in the shower, but at least I could talk some. I tell you, it just wasn’t my week!
But at least it wasn’t nine months and eight days.
I would imagine, during that long period of time, as the baby continues to grow in Elizabeth’s womb and Zechariah finds himself on a verbal fast, he is given plenty of time to reflect upon what the angel said to him. And slowly, as he watches the baby grow larger and larger, he contemplates what all this means and how he, as a messenger of God himself, should respond.
Elizabeth does some thinking of her own, obviously. She secludes herself the first five months of her pregnancy, so you can imagine the surprise in the community when this old woman finally ventures outside their home, especially on the part of those who had said such nasty things about her, those who had quickly and easily given their theological opinion that God must have had something against her, despite her being the preacher’s wife, what with closing her womb and all that.
When the day comes, the eighth day after their son’s birth, when it is time for them to consecrate their newborn son, everybody has gathered in the temple sanctuary. The officiating priest holds the baby in his arms, turns to the new, proud, if not elderly, parents and says to them, “You will be naming him Zechariah, I assume, after his father.” “No,” Elizabeth says quickly, “he is to be called John, in keeping with our experience of having a son at such an old age. After all, the name John means ‘God’s gift’.”
Elizabeth usually let Zechariah take the lead in matters like this, but since he couldn’t she did. “He is to be called John,” she insisted. It was as common a name in those days as it is now, but the standard practice was to name a male son after his papa. So the priest says to her, “But none of your relatives has this name.”
“His name,” Elizabeth says through gritted and determined teeth, “shall be John.” What she didn’t say was that she was not the one who had named her baby. The angel had told them what to name their son, and she wasn’t about to go against one of God’s messengers.
So the priest turns to Zechariah. Whose side are you on, he wants to know? Surely Elizabeth doesn’t know what she is doing. Having a baby at such an old age can do strange things to a woman, you know. So Zechariah calls for a writing tablet, since he cannot speak. When it is given to him, he writes on it, “His name is John.” And everybody is amazed that they have chosen a name from outside the family. It just wasn’t done in those days and in those places, regardless of what the name means.
But that is just the beginning of their amazement. As soon as the old priest writes the name of his son, John, his mouth is opened, his tongue is freed, and he begins to speak. No, he doesn’t chastise the officiant for doubting Elizabeth, he begins to offer his praises to God. Our gospel reading for this morning is what he had to say. Zechariah had had nine months and eight days to think of what he wanted to say in response to the birth of his son, and those words live to this very day to point the way of the One who would lead his people, and you and me, out of their darkness and into the light of salvation.
It may appear to us, on the surface of it, that Zechariah’s inability to speak was punishment for his doubting what the angel told him. But his testimony of faith, after the ensuing nine months and eight days, reveals to us that it was not punishment but a blessing. Think of all the pent-up thoughts that roiled and rolled around in Zechariah’s mind and heart, thoughts that were just ready to be spewed out once his son is born and then consecrated.
So this is what I would like to ask you on this second Sunday in Advent when we anticipate the birth of our Savior… what if, between now and Christmas Day, you and I, like Zechariah, were left without the ability to speak? It’s not exactly nine months and eight days, but it’s long enough, don’t you think? On that day, when our tongues are released, as it happened to the old priest, what would we have to say? How would our anticipation of this birth take shape and form?
Let’s go back to something Zechariah, the new, sleep-deprived yet old man of a father, had to say. Remember that he and his people live in a land that is occupied by the enemy. It is a brutal and fearful way of life… every single day. They consider themselves the children of God, yet God hadn’t really been seen or heard from in a very long time. Then, all of a sudden, there is a flurry of divine activity and it is centered, as far as he knows, right smack-dab on him and his wife. So, when he is finally given back his voice, what does he have to say? Speaking of the God who had been seemingly so absent to his people for so very long, Zechariah says…
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we,
being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear…
“Without fear.” You might not have thought to put it in so many words, but how many times do you approach Christmas with fear? Fear that there might not be enough money to provide for your family at such a meaningful time? Fear that you might be alone? Maybe even fear that the season will pass and you will have missed what it had to say to you. Isn’t there a real sense in which our fears, especially at this season of the year, are our enemy?
Well, consider that Christmas Day began in fear. When the angels appeared to the shepherds, imagine how they reacted. I am told that from a physiological standpoint, when a person becomes fearful the eyes widen, the pupils dilate, the breath quickens, the adrenaline flows, the body shakes. Think about it, that’s how Christmas started!
But a baby has a way of bringing peace – not necessarily rest or a good night’s sleep, mind you – but peace… to any home, to any person, to any church family. Christmas Day dawns in fear, but with the realization of God’s coming into our world, in the words of Zechariah, we are “rescued from the hands of our enemies,” and fear is dispelled.
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth encourages us to bring our fears to the feet of the One who is born into our midst this season, and leave them there. It is then that we will be rescued from the hands of our enemies and will be free to serve the Lord.
May that be true for each of us as we anticipate the birth of our Savior.
Lord, come to us in such a way that even when we lose our ability to speak, we are still able to give you thanks for your immeasurable gift of grace. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.