2012-12-09 by abookflog
Preacher: Sue Haslehurst
9th December 2012
Readings: Luke 1:68-79, Malachi 4:5-6, Luke 1:16–17, Revelation 22:20-21
(referenced/quoted later in sermon)
Can you remember what you were doing nine months ago today, on 9th March this year?
In case this helps you a bit, it was a Friday. Does it all come flooding back?
Well, perhaps we need a bit more help to get back that far. So here’s a clue. The Sunday before was 4th March. Anyone remember that?
Well, as it happens, I do remember it quite clearly because it was Fairtrade Fortnight and Jane had very bravely and in a moment of inspiration invited us to submit questions that she would try to answer in her homily that day.
Can anyone – apart from me – remember what she said?
So, you may wonder, what’s so amazing about early March 2012? Why am I trying to take you back there?
Well, as I was preparing for this sermon, I got interested in Zechariah. As we’ve heard, he and his wife Elizabeth had been waiting for years, maybe even decades, waiting and longing for a child. After his encounter with an angel as he served in the temple sanctuary, he was unable to speak and he started another long wait, the wait for his speech to return. Shortly after that his wife Elizabeth conceived and it wasn’t till shortly after the birth of that child that Zechariah spoke again.
For the first time, I think, I began to wonder what it would be like to be silent, to be unable to speak for nine months.
So if you’ve kind of got a handle on how far back 9 months is from here, let’s pause to think about our last nine months. Think about the things you’ve lived through, good and bad, happy and sad, and begin to imagine what it might have been like to live through them without speaking. Without being able to talk about things when you were worried, when you were sad, when you excited or happy, when you didn’t know what to do or when you’d woken at 2 in the morning in a panic. Imagine never being able to chip in a witty one-liner as the conversation went past. Perhaps, for those who work, not being able to carry on with a job.
Imagine also feeling rather left out and on the edge. I noticed something else for the first time in this story. We’re told that Zechariah can’t speak, but when we find the family all gathered round waiting for his new baby to be named and they refuse to take Elizabeth’s word for it and turn to Zechariah, they act as if he has lost far more than the power of speech. Presumably they could have just spoken to him but no, they “motion” to him, as if he is at best deaf as well as dumb and at worst no longer capable of understanding without some patronising charades.
So imagine you’ve not only been without a voice for the past nine months but also without the respect and the role and many of the relationships that you used to enjoy. And just pause again to wonder what might be the first thing that you’d say to God or your family when you found you could speak again…
Anyone want to offer any suggestions (expletives deleted if necessary)?
Well, once I’d started thinking about all this, I began to see Zechariah in a new light. Till now I’d had a vague feeling that I was supposed to disapprove of Zechariah a bit, because he asks for confirmation that the angel’s promise of a child will be fulfilled. Actually I think his reaction to news that he and Elizabeth will have a child is quite human and understandable but he’s not at first sight one of those faith heroes who just respond “OK, God, whatever you say.” But now I find myself amazed at his reaction as he regains speech after his long silence. Let’s listen to him:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
So he responds with praise that God has remembered his promise to rescue his people from their enemies so that they can serve God without fear. God will bring light for those in darkness and lead people into the way of peace and John will take a message of salvation and forgiveness.
It’s all very warm, grateful, hopeful… Not perhaps where I might have been had I just been through what Zechariah has been through.
Though of course Zechariah has expected his long silence to come to an end some time. The angel told him he’ll be able to speak again when the promises were fulfilled. But he must be wondering when that will be. Will it be when the child is born? Or maybe not till he grows up and starts preparing the way of the Lord? After all, it’s already been a week since the birth and still not a trace of speech. So maybe Zechariah is just settling in for the long haul.
But in another way, he – along with his fellow Jews – have been in it for the long haul for years, for centuries even. I think the inclusion in today’s lectionary readings of a passage from Malachi underlines that.
I’m no expert on when the Hebrew canon was fixed, and according to Wikipedia it’s less clear than I had thought. Wikipedia helpfully informs me that “Today, there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set” though it also says it was thought to be between 200 BCE & 200 CE. But Malachi is probably the last prophet chronologically whose writings did get into the Jewish canon. In the canonical order of the prophets in the Jewish bible, Malachi comes last. And, although I may be unduly influenced by the order of the Christian canon which has Malachi as the very last book of the Old Testament, I’m going to make an assumption here. I’m going to assume that in some way at least Zechariah felt that Malachi was the last “proper” prophet before a 400-year silence. And the book of Malachi doesn’t wrap things up neatly but leaves the reader hanging, waiting for God’s intervention final intervention. The book finishes as follows:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
So I’m imagining that, as a faithful Jew, Zechariah will have lived his whole life in that gap, in that long wait for God to do something, waiting for God to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.
And even if it hasn’t been part of his worldview before, it surely becomes that after his encounter with the angel who says to Zechariah about the son John who will be born to him:
Luke 1:16 – 17
He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
So after 400 years of waiting, Zechariah takes into his own long wait a reminder of the Jewish expectation that God is at last going to step back into history, transform God’s people to prepare them for the Lord and bring in “the great and terrible day of the Lord” – and the promise that his own son is a key part of that plan.
And Zechariah comes to believe the angel. Against all the odds. Not only is his own wife too old to have a child, after many years, maybe even decades, of waiting but the Jewish people have been waiting for 400 years with not much sign of anything happening, unless you count the flare of hope around the Maccabean revolt but by now that’s a distant memory. And, as Michael helpfully pointed out in our homegroup last week, not only was there not much sign of God coming to the rescue but, on the contrary, there was also plenty of evidence that those who turned to not to God but to the Romans for rescue and support were doing very nicely. Depending on God and God’s faithfulness and expecting God to show up and sort things out looked like a seriously bad bet.
But as Zechariah prayed and pondered as the months progressed, he formed a confidence that God was about to act. Given how quickly he bursts into words of praise when he is first able to talk again, I think he had reached a point of trusting that God would indeed give him back his speech and a willingness to wait for that to happen in God’s time. But his words suggest that he had come to trust God for the bigger picture too, to remember God’s promises to the Jewish people and to expect God to keep them. I wonder if he even began to spot some of the patterns and promises in scripture that Jesus would one day explain to two disciples on the road to Emmaus?
And Zechariah’s example is a challenge to me.
The book of Malachi leaves us hanging at the end of the Old Testament, waiting for 400 years for God to act decisively.
And the book of Revelation leaves us hanging at the end of the New Testament, waiting for God to wrap things up decisively:
The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
And that’s where we still are, two thousand years on.
And what are we waiting for? And what is the point of waiting?
Well, I confess that I often domesticate the waiting of Advent. I was starting to write this sermon as I started jury service, and the first day and a half of waiting felt very long, and I wondered often what it was like for the young woman who was “our” defendant as she waited from Friday afternoon till Wednesday morning for our verdict. I’ve been thinking of [members of the congregation waiting for decisions from others]. And I’m sure Zechariah did his fair share of wondering about what would become of his speech. But he used that time of personal waiting for the return of speech to learn to wait for God, to get to grips with the call to wait for God’s bigger purposes to be fulfilled.
Waiting, for Zechariah, becomes something powerful. In his life it turns out to me more than just about showing faithfulness by hoping in God in spite of everything. It’s also about growing in faithfulness.
Our first reading, from Malachi 3, anticipates the day of the Lord’s coming as an awe-inspiring and maybe even terrible experience of being refined. But in Zechariah it looks to me as though the refining starts as Zechariah waits for his own rescue and then, in waiting for his own rescue, comes to trust in something much bigger and harder to believe in, that God will rescue the entire people from the hands of their enemies. So I’m wondering whether we can all take up that challenge to seize our own personal waiting as an opportunity to turn our own everyday waiting into something more, something that puts us in touch with God’s longing to rescue the whole of creation. I think I see something of this in African American spirituals, in which a people desperately in need of God’s rescue somehow forged their longing for a better life into a longing and confidence that this was God’s vision too and that God would one day bring this vision to fulfillment.
So, and I speak very much to myself here as Peter and I anticipate changes and I anticipate questions and uncertainty, I wonder if we too can take our everyday sadness, anxiety, uncertainty and waiting as an opportunity to get in touch with God’s longing and God’s purposes. Perhaps our own everyday waiting can be a reminder of and window into our waiting & longing for Jesus to put everything right.