First Sunday of Advent
by Daniel Harrell
Every now and then there comes a moment when you get to do something you know you will never have the chance to do again. At the time you may not realize it—you think, oh, I’ll get another shot. But if you’re savvy enough to recognize the uniqueness of the moment, then you’re likely to savor the fullness of whatever transpires. Many summers ago now, I was in Nepal with my father and some of you from this congregation as part of a high school mission trip. We spent two weeks helping a Nepali church construct a school in the tropical Ganges river delta. On our last day there, the church leaders invited us to the Royal Chitwan National Park for a day of sightseeing and safari. Though it was monsoon season and the jungle grasses in the park stretched to over 12 feet in height, the elephants atop which we were to ride would grant us ample view of the variety of wildlife in the park. (I was going to ride an elephant!) And they told us we would get to see rhinoceroses. Rhinoceroses! —those armor-plated prehistoric beasts, their massive horns dangerously perched on their snouts, subject of National Geographic specials—you just weren’t going to run into them in the woods of New England.
I was so excited about seeing a rhinoceros that when one of the rangers off-handedly mentioned that some people hiked in the park and were able to get a view of the rhinos on foot, I jumped at the opportunity. How cool would that be? Would such an excursion would be possible? Could the rangers lead a hike? They thought I was crazy. These hikes only happened during the winter when the grasses were low. On this day you wouldn’t be able to see more than 20 yards or so ahead of you. And if you actually did come upon a rhino you’d likely be so close that you’d effectively eliminate the beast’s chronic nearsightedness which normally would keep you from getting charged and skewered. Not only that, but the jungle was infested with leeches and snakes—not to mention tigers—none of which could get at you on the back of an elephant. We’d be risking or lives!
Still, this was one of those singular moments I would never get a chance at again. Undaunted, I monetarily persuaded a couple of guides (and convinced a number of you, though not my dad) into a jungle excursion on foot. The guides paddled across the river that surrounded the park and hiked us into the tall grass. After an hour or so of hiking—and pulling off leeches that sucked onto on our ankles—we looked up and there he was. A mighty rhinoceros. Right in front of us! When he heard us, he let out a booming snort to let us know that he knew we were in his jungle. Most folks scattered and hid behind trees. Our guides climbed up the trees. But I was so terrified that I could not move. I just stood and stared. I thought to myself: this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In my own little way, I can empathize with Zechariah’s once-in-a-lifetime experience from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Zechariah was a small town priest whom Luke tells us observed all the Lord’s commandments and regulations, along with his wife, Elizabeth. However, despite years of trying and waiting, they had no children―which in their culture meant no social standing and no social security. There were no fertility clinics either, nothing to diminish their shame or unhinge the rumors traveling around the neighborhood that they were cursed. They tried not to be bitter—Luke describes the aged couple as blameless—but sorrow and disappointment surely ran thick. Had Zechariah not devoted his entire life to the Lord? Had he not done everything right? Why wouldn’t God answer this one prayer?
Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were now “well along in years.” Any bitterness had likely reduced to resignation. Their personal waiting was subsumed into the collective waiting they suffered with the rest of Israel. Captive to the oppressive Romans, Israel longed for a day of deliverance―a day when the Lord would rescue them from their bondage as he had done for their forebears in Egypt so many centuries hence. But these prayers had gone unanswered too. There’d been nary a peep out of heaven for the past 400 years―not a word since Malachi closed the Old Testament with the dramatic promise of a returning Elijah―one of the most heroic prophets of Israel. But that was a long time ago.
Still, just in case, it fell to priests like Zechariah to keep the lines of communication open. So every day in the Temple―that grounded point of intersection between heaven and earth―priests sent up praise, intercession and sacrifices to God. They sent up incense too, symbolic of Israel’s prayers. Inasmuch as Scripture commends that God’s people pray without ceasing, Scripture commanded that incense burn regularly and rightly. As with every aspect of Temple duty, there were proper procedures to be followed at the risk of your life. All the priests remembered the story from Leviticus about God smiting two uppity clerics who burned unauthorized fire to the Lord. You had to be careful. Only a thin veil separated the Alter of Incense from the Holy of Holies―the Temple’s inner sanctum representing God’s earthly throne room. Once false move and you could be doomed.
Nevertheless, despite the danger, a priest considered it a high honor to be the one chosen to offer prayers and burn the incense. In fact, he would have prepared his whole life for this. With more than 18,000 priests in Palestine, any single priest would only get one shot at it, if that. Zechariah had been waiting as long for a turn in the Temple as he had been waiting to become a father. The presiding priest was chosen by lot, and on this day, Zechariah drew the short straw. His once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had arrived.
What was it like as an old man to have waited your whole life for this moment? How did it feel to put on those elaborate vestments, to grab those sacred utensils and step inside that holy place to offer fire before God as others had done for centuries? Did your hand wobble as you scooped a bit of that dark dust and lit the fire? Did your knees shake as it started to burn? You alone in all Israel would present the prayers of Yahweh’s people. It was the most holy thing you would ever do. Did it take your mind off your own disappointments and sorrows for a moment? Or did it only push them closer to the forefront now that you had the Almighty’s undivided attention? The ears of heaven would never be more aimed in your direction. Would you dare pray your own prayers instead? Would you give your own requests a higher priority? Up to this point you had done everything right. Would you risk the wrath of God? Apparently so. For as you prayed, just off to your right, the very curtain of heaven rolled back and there stood the angel of the Lord. You had done it all right and now you were done.
Except that when the angel spoke, he said what angels always say when they show up in the Bible: “Fear not.” And then he said, “your prayer has been heard.” Instead of blowing Zechariah up, the angel blew him away. Zechariah was going to be a daddy! He was going to have a boy! His name would be John! He would drink no wine! He would be a Baptist! He will go as forerunner before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah! He would make a people prepared for the Lord! Wow, God not only answered Zechariah’s prayers this day; he answered Israel’s prayers too.
Was it all too good to be true? Or simply too much to take? Or had too many years of having your hopes disappointed made it too hard to believe? Regrettably, Zechariah was not yet speechless. His opened his mouth instead. In a classic example of being your own worst enemy, he said to the angel: “Are you sure about this? I’m an old man, you know, and my wife is no spring chicken.” Maybe Zechariah was worried about being too old to chase after a toddler. I’m with you there brother. But something else was going on here. For those familiar with your Old Testaments, Zechariah’s response should stir a distinct sense of déjà vu. This was exactly how the aged Abraham responded when God told him that he and his ninety-year-old wife Sarah would be first time parents. Zechariah should have remembered that. He should have remembered that God did his best work when the decks were stacked against him. But instead, Zechariah asks for a sign―he needed something more than the word of an angel. Given the premium that the Bible always places on faith, asking for a sign is rarely a good idea. Zechariah gets his sign alright. Unwilling to hear what the angel had to say, he’d be forced to listen. His sign would be having to sign in order to communicate. He would be speechless until the word of the angel came true.
Fast forward nine months to our text for today. Nine silent months for Zechariah. What must have gone through his mind? Nine months of quiet was a long time to think. In spiritual direction traditions, silence is an important spiritual discipline. Silence makes space for God to speak (and us to hear). Silence is hard to keep―especially for sound-dependant Americans so accustomed to being bombarded by noise that we plug our ears with ear buds from our iPods. Determined to keep silent one Advent, I scheduled a silent retreat at a local monastery. I figured that monks had had more practice at this. At first it was rough―and even a little scary. Maybe another reason silence is hard is because we’re afraid of what we might hear if we ever we did listen to God. But when finally I did settle into the quiet, there was a remarkable sense of the Spirit’s presence. Or maybe I should say a remarkable attentiveness on my part since the Spirit is always present. And of course whenever you attend to the Spirit, assurance and renewed faith result. What happened to Zechariah as he quietly attended to God? As he watched Elizabeth’s belly expand? As he heard of Elizabeth’s visit from her cousin Mary and about Mary’s even more improbable conception? As he heard of his son’s leaping inside when Mary approached?
Clearly his own assurance and faith came around. So much so that when relatives insisted he name his newborn son after himself, Zechariah insisted that the name be John, just like the angel said.
In Biblical times, a name was more than merely what you were called, your name was your calling. We may boast how a person has “made a name for himself,” but in ancient times, your name made you—especially when the name came from God. Abram, meaning “exalted father,” God named Abraham “father of many nations.” Simon meaning “one who hears” Jesus named Peter, the “rock” on which the church would be built. Saul, meaning “longed for” was humbled by Jesus into Paul “the least.” John meant “Yahweh has shown favor”―to Elizabeth and Zechariah and to all of Israel too. Their collective waiting was over. The promises of Malachi fulfilled. Deliverance was near.
Once Zechariah confirmed the name, God opened his mouth and loosed his tongue, just like the angel said. The first words out of Zechariah’s mouth were pent up praise―to the shock of all the neighbors who heard him. Our pew Bible says they were “filled with awe.” How did Zechariah get his voice back? How had he lost it in the first place? What happened in the Temple that day? And how had Elizabeth gotten pregnant anyway? What did this name John mean? “What will this child become?” Obviously God had a hand in this. What was the Lord up to?
Zechariah knew. After nine months of quiet gestation, his own fear and doubt grew into renewed faith and assurance. He had waited his whole life for this moment. He had prayed a fearful prayer for himself—only to have it answered for the entire world. What was it like to see that little boy and realize exactly why he was born? Did your hands tremble as you held him in your arms knowing that God’s hand held him too? You alone in all Israel had become the father to the forerunner of the Messiah. Your son would be the returning Elijah, preparing the way for the Lord.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah let loose a canticle of praise that’s come to be called the Benedictus. Verse 68: “Blessed (Benedictus) be the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people.” One of the things that’s always important to note about Biblical prophecy is how so much of it uses the past tense. So certain are God’s promises for the future that they can be spoken of as having happened already. Because God is the one who will do it, it’s already as good as done. “God has raised up a horn of salvation from the house of his servant David.” Horn was a common metaphor for power because of the great strength of horned animals in the Near East―rhinos! This horn of salvation came from the storied house of King David, the lineage from whom God promised an eternal king and kingdom. Israel eagerly anticipated a reconstituted King David who would deliver them from the oppression of Rome.
Zechariah prophesied just that: This horn of David would bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of those who hate us”―a direct allusion to their current Roman occupation. But their salvation went deeper than political deliverance. Roman occupation was brutal and difficult to be sure, but the greater enemy was the self-occupation that undermined their faith from within. They were their own worst enemies.
It had been by virtue of faith that God promised Abraham a blessing of descendents through Abraham’s own miracle child. That blessing of descendents would comprise a nation God named Israel, meaning to struggle with God and overcome. Life as God’s people was never intended to be easy, but it would be victorious. Blessed by God, Israel was to be a blessing to the entire earth―but in their ensuing struggles they persistently lost faith and failed to live up to their name. Taking God’s grace for granted, they ended up over and over again in captivity to the people they were supposed to captivate and bless with grace.
Unable and unwilling to bless the world, God, who so loved the world, determined to do it himself. He took on human flesh―Israel’s human flesh―and entered the world as the personification of grace and faithfulness, fulfilling Israel’s calling. Their thanks was to make him the scapegoat for their sin and faithlessness―but not only their sin but our sin too. For Israel’s story is also our story. The presumed Son of David went down to defeat, the lamb of God became the black sheep. But such is the victory of God. Jesus would take away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world on himself.
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;” verse 76, “for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.” What would this look like? Luke’s account of John’s miraculous conception and birth ended with the newborn John the Baptist growing strong in spirit. Yet his growing strong in spirit didn’t occur under the wing of his priestly father in the Temple courts. It occurred in the desert away from the respectable trappings of official religion. For those familiar with your Old Testaments, mention of the desert should stir a distinct sense of déjà vu. The desert was where Israel’s faith had most spectacularly failed. Life as God’s people was never intended to be easy, but it would be victorious because God is the one who makes it victorious. As we hear sung every Advent from Isaiah: “The voice cries in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Salvation would not come down the conventional religious pike, but down a desert road. As the accursed desert would be the way of the Lord, so the accursed cross would be the means of salvation. Such is the victory of God. You have to lose to win. As Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” To lose you life is to let go of the names you make for yourself. You have to recognize yourself as a sinner in need of salvation; as a person under oppressive self-occupation and requiring deliverance. That was John’s job. To help people get honest and see themselves as God saw them. His methods were simple. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” he said. Dressed like Elijah, he then baptized people in the Jordan River as a symbol of their repentance. For those familiar with your Old Testaments, mention of the Jordan River should stir another distinct sense of déjà vu. Like Moses led God’s people through the Red Sea on dry ground, so Joshua led the people out of the desert and through the Jordan River on dry ground, their last leg before entering the Promised Land. Only this time, John wasn’t leading anybody through the river, but down into it.
John’s baptism was not Christian baptism. Jesus had yet to appear on the scene. The closest parallel in ancient Judaism was something known as “proselyte baptism” whereby a Gentile, idol-worshipping pagan converting to Judaism first had to have the idol-worshipping paganism sacramentally washed off. John was in effect treating the chosen people as choice pagans. John called them back to the desert to face their failure, and into the water to see their doom. You have to lose your life to find it.
Zechariah prophesied that John “would prepare the way for the Lord by giving his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” Life as God’s people was never intended to be easy. But then, “because of the tender mercy of our God, the rising sun, the dayspring, will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” It’s yet another distinct sense of déjà vu. As we read from Isaiah every Advent: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. … For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” And because God is the one who will do it, it’s already as good as done.