Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Luke 1:5-17 The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 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.’
Zechariah has gotten what should be good news. Zechariah is also terrified. It doesn’t even matter that the angel told him not to be afraid. He is still concerned about this whole situation. In this way, Zechariah is one of the most relatable figures we read about in the lead up to Jesus’ birth. Because he was afraid of this wild visitor from God and also couldn’t quite believe that what he was praying for would come true.
Zechariah is a priest. You’d think he’d be primed to recognize God doing a new thing in what is a pretty familiar pattern in the Bible. Can we remember anyone else who got told they would be parents years after they thought they would be able to conceive? Abraham and Sarah! That’s right. In her commentary on this text, Aubrey West notes that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have much in common with their ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah. They are faithful. They want children. And, they have reached their elder years without them. According to the scholar Elizabeth Johnson, during the era in which they would have lived, childlessness was often blamed on a woman’s barrenness, as though only her body could be the problem. Some might even take their childlessness to be a sign that God was angry with them. And, yet, even as they certainly grieved their infertility, they also seemed to find comfort in their faith, following the commandments, with God's help, to the best of their abilities.
The Incarnation shows us a vision of God rooted in relationship: the relationship between God and humanity but also relationships among people. Wil Gafney, in her commentary on this text, says that “Luke demonstrates that the Advent of Jesus is a community affair.” And, we know that God is happy to work through folks that the community doesn’t expect. The community might have expected Zechariah and Elizabeth to be faithful. They would have never expected them to have a child. Shoot, Zechariah and Elizabeth likely didn’t expect to have a child. But, the Incarnation will need a community... will need people to let everyone know they were on the way. Who better than this faithful couple to begin making a path in the wilderness that Jesus will one day trod?
Zechariah was already having a meaningful day, even without the angel showing up. He had been chosen to give the offering of incense in the temple. According to Marion Soards’ notes on this text, lighting the incense was a great privilege that was granted only once in a lifetime. This would have been a high point in his calling as a priest. And, then the angel waltzed in or flew or appeared or however they show up. And, his life and Elizabeth’s life was forever changed.
Do not be afraid. That is easy for you to say, Gabriel. In the dark inner room of the temple, with incense smoke swirling around them, the angel Gabriel looked at Zechariah and said, "Do not be afraid... for your prayer has been heard." Do not be afraid for God will keep God's promises. God will provide for you what you have needed. You will have a son and that son will have a great calling. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his boy would be a prophet, following in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah, provided the world with what they needed: a prophet to make way for the Messiah.
That’s where our reading stops for the day, but it is worth considering what else happens to Zechariah, father of John called the Baptist. Because I imagine others might recognize some of their own story within his response to the news that the angel brings. Rather than just say, “I got it from here Gabe! We’re ready for this baby,” Zechariah asks a reasonable question, similar to that of Sarah and Abraham: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” Gabriel will not appreciate this question. Rolf Jacobsen, in a commentary he wrote about parts of this story, describes what happens next as “Gabriel... point[ing] the angel clicker at Zechariah and hitting the mute button.” And, Zechariah will not be able to speak again until he really sees and really believes that God has done what God promised.
It must be noted that Elizabeth takes the good news and runs with it. Though she went into seclusion upon realizing she was pregnant, it doesn’t appear that it was to hide or because she was unsure what was happening. It seems like to was to care for herself and revel in the pregnancy that she thought wouldn’t come. In her solitude, she spoke words of thanksgiving, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” All the while, Zechariah is silent, unable to say aloud whatever was on his heart and mind as he waited to see if his son would be born.
In case this is a new story for you, I’ll offer a few spoilers. Elizabeth’s pregnancy will go well. A healthy boy will be born and she will come out of labor healthy. But even after seeing the baby born safely, Zechariah still will not speak. His fatherly fear will still be too strong, even with his son in his arms. For 8 more days, he will be silent. But, he will perform his fatherly responsibilities, even in his fear and silence. They will take the boy to temple to be circumcised, as was their custom. The officiants will attempt to name the child after his father. Elizabeth says to name the boy John, as they were told. They ask Zechariah for confirmation, and in that moment, Zechariah will live out a faith he hadn’t been able to find nine months earlier. He’ll write on a tablet: “His name is John.” And, at that very moment, his mouth opened and his tongue was freed and he would sing a song praising God.
Zechariah likely knew that a prophet is a difficult calling but he also finally remembered that God empowers humanity to do difficult things all the time. In being faithful through his fear, he could finally believe that God could even do a difficult thing through his family. What a powerful reminder that even as we are afraid, the divine can and will still move within us, connecting us to one another, making way for that which is Holy to move in this world in unexpected ways. Zechariah and Elizabeth made the way for their son. John will make the way for Christ. Thank God Zechariah’s fear couldn’t stop Emmanuel from being with us. May we remember that we can be faithful through our fear, too, even if we aren’t able to sing a song to God just yet. May we be able, just like Zechariah, to find our voice when the world needs it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
Elizabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/zechariahs-song-2/commentary-on-luke-15-13-14-25-57-80
Wil Gafney, "Advent 2" A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Marion Lloyd Soards' introduction to Luke in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.