November 29, 2009
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” Zechariah was a priest; Elizabeth came from a family of priests. They accepted the presence of God the way they accepted the presence of the ground under their feet. They talked to God daily. They read the scriptures. They were good church people.
Now, I know a lot of you may spend some time this holiday season with relatives that don’t see eye to eye with you on matters of theology and politics. And they might question the sincerity of your faith based upon your voting record.
But I know you. I see you—a lot of you—week after week here to worship God. (When you could be at home in bed.) I see you on weeknights for committee meetings. (When you could be at home eating supper.) I know many of you read the Bible because you preach sermons and you talk to me about the passages you have read that are encouraging or disturbing. I know you pray, because I pray with you and you tell me you are praying for me.
You may not come from a long line of preacher-types like Zechariah and Elizabeth and me, but you are good church people.
The thing about good church people is that we are used to church. Coming to worship becomes a habit. A good habit. One I would encourage. Still, when we do something on a regular basis, we can start to take it for granted. We can fall into the trap of going through the motions rather than living each experience fully and expectantly.
Advent is a time of expectation. It is a season of watching for the ways that God will be present with us. It is a period of waiting for God to transform us and our world.
Of course, no one told Zechariah that he was supposed to kick off the Advent story. All they told him is that he was on priestly duty that week. So he reported to the temple.
There were so many priests in Zechariah’s day that he only had to do his priestly work two weeks a year. So this work at the temple wasn’t exactly routine for him. And offering incense in the temple was a particular privilege that Zechariah could only hope to do once in his lifetime. So this is not exactly a typical Sunday morning worship service for Zechariah.
Still, you get the feeling that this good church person was not really expecting to actually encounter an angel of God in the temple. The Bible says that when the angel showed up, Zechariah was “startled and gripped with fear.” Gripped with fear. It had a hold of him. Maybe because he didn’t realize the angel was from God. Maybe because he knew the angel must be from God. He was afraid.
He was afraid. And after he heard the message from God, he doubted.
The pastor and writer Frederick Buechner had a good friend who died in his sleep. As Buechner says, good for his friend, but a bit hard for those who did not get a chance to tell him goodbye. A few months after the death, Beuchner and his wife were staying with this friend’s widow. And that night Buechner had a dream. A simple dream where his friend came to him and talked with him. Buechner told his friend how much he missed him and finally asked, “Are you really there?” His friend’s response was to pull a strand of blue wool from his jersey and throw it to Buechner, who caught it between his thumb and forefinger. Then he woke up.
When he shared that dream at breakfast, his wife mentioned seeing a strand of blue wool on the floor by the bed. Something she had wondered about because it had not been there the night before. Buechner ran upstairs and sure enough there was the blue wool.
He doesn’t say exactly how he felt, but I get a sort of creepy feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach just reading about it. Buechner does admit that he doubts. That the thread could have been there all along, unnoticed the night before.
Fear and doubt seem to be natural reactions to the direct intervention of God in one’s life.
Last Sunday we had a service of anointing as part of our worship service. Now, this anointing service is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like Zechariah’s offering of incense, but it is not a common one either. These times of anointing are somehow especially holy times for me. Of course I would say God is always present in our worship. But somehow God is especially present during times of anointing. It is a holy and set-apart time. A time when we should expect to encounter God in ways beyond the ordinary. (If you can ever consider an encounter with the divine ordinary.)
I trust that those of you who were here—and especially those who were anointed—experienced the presence and power of God. That during this past week those who were anointed have had an inner peace and strength.
And, I’ve been wondering how we would have reacted to a dramatic manifestation of God during our time of anointing—something along the lines of what Zechariah experienced in the temple.
What if an angel had flashed in to tell us that someone’s hope for a child would be fulfilled? That someone’s broken relationship would be restored? That someone in captivity would be released? Or what if, as Marta and I prayed over those who came forward for anointing, their physical ailments simply disappeared? Right here in front of us. How would us good church people have reacted?
I can’t speak for all of you, of course, but I have a feeling I would have been right there with Zechariah. Fear would have gripped me. I would have been scared. And then I would have doubted what I saw. Surely there is a logical explanation. The angel was done with mirrors or film projectors; the person who was healed wasn’t really sick or injured to begin with.
In my studies last week, I found that lots of preachers and Bible commentators are pretty hard on Zechariah for being afraid—and especially for doubting God. The best sermon title that I came across was, “How not to talk to an angel.” Apparently, you are not supposed to look at the angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and say, “How can I be sure of this?” That’s the wrong response.
Biblical commentators will extol the virtues of Elizabeth and Mary who accepted the word of God; and they will criticize Zechariah for doubting.
I do appreciate the lifting up of women in the Biblical story. Still, let’s be honest. Elizabeth is five months pregnant when she proclaims her praise for what God has done. At five months pregnant, even the most skeptical should be beyond doubting. Mary is an unwed teenager. Considering the social mores of the time, she has probably never questioned a male authority figure in her life, so why in the world would she start with the angel Gabriel?
I don’t think it is fair to compare Zechariah to these women. And I wonder if the way we generally read this story doesn’t sell Zechariah a bit short.
After Gabriel’s lengthy proclamation to Zechariah, the father-to-be responds, ”How will I know this is so?” The assumption is usually that Zechariah is questioning the fact that Elizabeth will become pregnant at such an advanced aged. But really what kind of a stupid question would that be? “How will I know this is so?” You know if your wife becomes pregnant and bears you a son. It’s obvious.
Maybe Zechariah is not asking such a stupid question. Maybe Zechariah is questioning another part of Gabriel’s proclamation. Maybe he is questioning the parts about the great works John will do. Maybe when he says, “I am an old man” it is not to say that he doubts that Elizabeth will be pregnant, but to say that he will not live to see the great deeds of his son. How will he know that his son will turn people to the Lord? How will he know that his son will prepare the way for the Messiah in the spirit and power of the great prophet Elijah? It is reasonable to assume that Zechariah will be dead by the time his son reaches puberty. How will he know the great works to come?
Many pastors who preach on this story end up by telling their listeners that they must not be afraid like Zechariah. They must not be doubters like Zechariah.
But I’m not going to tell you that. For one thing, who can control whether they are scared or not? However much pulpit-pounding I might do. However eloquently I might speak. If a huge, bright, winged creature floats down into your kitchen this afternoon, you will be afraid.
And who can simply will themselves out of doubt? If you doubt, you doubt. I don’t think I can preach it out of you.
So I’m not going to tell you that you should not be afraid. That you should not doubt.
I am going to tell you that even good church folk like Zechariah and like you are entitled to your fear and your doubt should the world-turning presence of God show up in close proximity to you.
Fear and doubt. It is a natural reaction. Because, God or no God, things like that just don’t happen. Angels don’t show up at church. Post-menopausal women do not get pregnant. Those who have died do not come back and give us things. Illness doesn’t disappear with the touch of a hand.
Fear followed by doubt is an understandable reaction to a direct encounter with the living God. It is a reaction that has to do with the fact that when God directly encounters the world, things get turned upside down. Things happen that, in our human experience, simply do not happen.
Let’s face it. If the world turns upside down, the most logical conclusion is that you are standing on your head. It’s going to take a while for you to accept that indeed you are right-side up and the world itself has shifted.
The Advent story is all about God turning things upside down. It is the story that leads to the birth of Jesus, God incarnate. Talk about upside down. The Divine becomes human.
And in his life and ministry, Jesus turned many things upside down—personal relationships, power structures, our notions of holy and profane, even the reality of life and death. Jesus turned everything on its head.
Zechariah’s story is the beginning of this Jesus story. The beginning of the upheaval.
Sure Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a baby. But now? Talk about your world flipping over.
People will tell you that Zechariah’s muteness was punishment for his doubt. I’m not so sure. If Zechariah’s question, “How can I be sure of this?” is indeed about the distant rather than the immediate future, we can view his muteness as a grace.
Rather than punishment for doubt, perhaps the nine or ten months that Zechariah cannot speak is a gift from God; a sign that the prophecy about his son will indeed become true.
We could view these months of silence as a forced season of contemplation; a time when he, the priest, cannot speak the blessing and so must only receive it; a time when he cannot speak the words of God and so must only listen to them.
All preachers—all good church people—should have such a punishment.
I don’t think this story tells us that we should not be afraid or doubt. I think this story tells us that God will surround our fear and our doubt with grace. With, perhaps, a time of silent waiting. Like these weeks of Advent leading up to the holy day of Christmas.
And I believe that if we enter into the silence—even if it is the silence of our own fear and doubt–we will be blessed by it.
By the time John is born, Zechariah obviously believes the part about Elizabeth becoming pregnant, because it has happened. But he also believes the rest of what the angel has told him. Zechariah experiences in the birth of this baby his own world turning upside down. And he sees in this child the entire world being turned upside down.
When his son is born, Zechariah is again able to speak. His question of fear and doubt has been transformed into a hymn: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because God has come and has redeemed the people.”
Thanks be to God.