Message for Advent 1 on Luke 1:5-20 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas (I am not preaching the Lectionary for Advent, but I am sticking with Luke!)
You realize when you read this story of Zechariah in the Temple with the Angel Gabriel that there’s nothing new under the sun. We thought the mute button was invented with advent of the TV remote. I think the Angel Gabriel deserves the patent for that one. I am not sure the punishment fits the crime, however. Nine months of not being able to talk simply because Zechariah asked for a little proof of this impending miracle? Even though he was a priest, it was not like Angels from the footstool of God were appearing in the Temple every other week. Zechariah was an old man having spent years at the Temple with no other-worldly spiritual action. This angel manifestation was so shocking and terrifying, he nearly lost his lunch. Clearly, Zechariah had not heard about any theophanies by his contemporaries or his mentors or he would not have been so terrified. Sure, he knew the story of Abraham and Sarah having Isaac in their old age, but that was centuries earlier—was God still paying that much attention?
Zechariah asked the one question all of us would ask, “How will I know?” I have danced to this question many times--Whitney Houston sang “How Will I Know” and it became the #1 Pop song in February of 1986. You did not know that she was quoting Zechariah, did you? But, whether it’s proof of love or a sign that God’s promise is real, we all want the evidence—of course Zechariah asked, “How will I know?”—we all want to know—and waiting for a baby bump in three months is not good enough. But that was all he got—and worse. Absolute silence. A nine-month mute button. And you thought your mother came up with, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Apparently, the Angel Gabriel is like—if you cannot believe my message about God’s future, you cannot say anything at all. Which is an interesting evangelism tactic when it comes to getting the word out that the forerunner to the Messiah is coming. Which means the Messiah is also on his way. Biggest news of the Millienia! You would think Gabriel would want Zechariah telling everyone about his angel visitation. That they are having a baby in their old age like Abraham and Sarah. That the Holy Spirit will be upon this child, and that people will turn from disobedience. And the publicity strategy is…. silence? It seems Gabriel would rather have no press, than bad press.
Because if Zechariah is full of doubts and “where’s the proof,” and “maybe’s and probably nots,” and “I don’t see how it’s possible,” and “it happened but I’m not sure,” and “what about this consideration,” and “he didn’t talk about these factors,” and “we’ve never done it that way before,” “I don’t like the looks of this,” and all of these insecurities, well, then yes, perhaps silence is better than negativity.
Zechariah had nine months of being mute to ponder his encounter with the Angel Gabriel and really think about what he wanted to say, why it was hard to believe at first, the impact on his relationship with God, and how this was going to change his behavior going forward. And you thought your dad invented being grounded and “go to your room to think about it.”
Which begs the question, “Why is believing in God’s promised future for us so challenging?” Doubt and negativity can come so easily. There are more, but I can think of three basic reasons why it’s easy to fall in with Zechariah.
• It’s a way of protecting ourselves from disappointment
• It allows us to remain the same –we do not have to grow and change if God is not doing anything new
• We do not like feeling out of control and trusting God means accepting not being in charge
But nine, silent, thoughtful months later, when Zechariah’s son was born, there was not a single cell of doubt in his body, there was not a shred of fear, there was not a second’s hesitation about believing God’s future and trusting God’s control over his life and all of Israel. The moment Zechariah wrote on a tablet that his baby was to be named John, (and would become the future John the Baptist) his tongue was released he began a song of prophecy and praise glorifying God for his faithfulness to their ancestors, and reciting the promise given to him from the Angel Gabriel:
God 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,
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah was full of belief in what God could do, was doing, and will do in the future to fulfill God’s promises. God has a future in store for all of us—in our personal lives, yes, absolutely—God has a purpose for each one of us. And God has a purpose and a future for St. Luke’s—it’s a future that’s beyond my lifetime and your lifetime. In order for that promised future to come true, it matters what we say and what we do today.
Zechariah knew in his bones and in his vocal cords, that belief in God’s promised future mattered. Believing with hope in God’s promised future –in your future and St. Luke’s future, matters. There can be no doubts, no ifs, ands, or buts about the future God calls us to. Zechariah shares a beautiful mission as part of that future:
• To give knowledge of salvation
• to offer forgiveness of sins.
• to share the tender mercy of our God,
• to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
• to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and peace—these are not states of being, but the actions of people who believe with hope in God’s promised future. These values define and describe the way we live our life together in community with each other and in mission with people around us. The details may shift as we grow, but forgiveness, compassion, mercy and peace include feeding hungry neighbors, it includes connecting with at risk high school youth down the street, it includes growing a Spanish-speaking outreach ministry, it includes connecting with our neighbors—almost every demographic from young to old of whom is experiencing loneliness.
People in our community need our belief in God’s promised future to help them get through this pandemic. We are in the business of hope, in believing in the power of life over death, the power of love over loss, the power of community over isolation, the power of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy over all that separates us from one another, and in the power of God’s vision to make us new.
When I moved to Texas, I never planned to be the pastor of a congregation like this again—I was going be an interim pastor, a hospital chaplain, do spiritual direction or some combination of the above (I called it "free range ministry!"). You can see how well that worked out. God always has something better in mind for us than we can ask or imagine. Last week I told you that I have a hard time working with coaches—guess how many I have had since starting here? I am on 4th—about one per year. God has been messing with me since I touched Texas dirt. Why? Because God has a promised future for us, and like Zechariah, I cannot be the same old person, doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts, and move into the future God is leading us into. God wants us leaning and growing into the future God has in store for us.
Now if you have big questions about faith and doubt, please come and talk with me—we can always talk about your faith questions of any nature. As a community, we want everyone leaning into the future believing in God’s promises with hope and a willingness to grow. I had a friend in St. Louis who worked hard at her own business and one of the ways she kept up a positive, growth-minded attitude was that she kept a rubber band around her wrist and when she got into what she called, “stinkin’ thinkin’” she would snap that rubber band as a way to snap out of her insecurities, fears or negativity, and she would change her thoughts to believing in hope.
Guess what I have at the back? Rubber bands. So, if you catch yourself in “Pre-muted Zechariah moment of insecurity” and you fear God is not going to show up, and you are tempted to rain negativity down on the future God calls us to, you can snap out of it, and we will all pray that the Angel Gabriel has lost his remote mute button.
How will we know that God’s promises are good? Well, God showed up for Zechariah, God showed up for Mary & Joseph, God showed up for Jesus in his death with resurrection, God has shown up for St. Luke’s in the past, and I believe in hope that God will continue to show up for all of us now and in the future. Amen.