December 22, 2019
So we’ve got three days to Christmas. Where are you at mentally? Are you more Buddy the Elf or more Grinch? More Tiny Tim or Ebeneezer Scrooge? More “Go Tell It On the Mountain” or “Going through the motions?”
This time of year tends to bring out the best and the worst in each of us. There’s more parties, more shopping, more church, more stress…more of everything, which means more opportunities for holiness, and horribleness.
We see in Zechariah someone going through the motions of a religious observation.
- Luke 1:8-10: Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
One priest would enter the Holy of Holies to offer incense before the Lord. They drew lots for this great honor, the way priests had for years, for centuries. If Zechariah were to be chosen, he would go into the Holy of Holies, to offer their prayer in that most sacred place.
There’s some ancient sources that indicates that Zechariah was the High Priest and this passage describes the Day of Atonement, but scholars are mixed on this point, and the text of Luke could be open to either the possibility that this was the Day of Atonement, or the everyday offering of incense.
Whatever the reason, we know that Zechariah was, to some extent, going through the motions, because he’s going into the Temple to encounter God, but he’s surprised when God actually meets him there.
- Luke 1:11-12 NIV: Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
Are we actually expecting to encounter God this Christmas? Or are we just going through the motions of the holiday season, living the ritual one more time, because it’s what we always do? Are we open to receiving Christ in a new way this season—or would we be startled to encounter Him?
Gabriel meets Zechariah where he is, in the middle of the motions of his religious observance, and speaks words of comfort, reassurance, and hope.
- Luke 1:13-14: But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,
Comfort: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” Reassurance: “your prayer has been heard.” Hope: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.”
What words of comfort, reassurance, and hope do you have to offer another in this season?
Sometimes I let myself be distracted by the things in life that are less than perfect, the things that cause me worry and sadness. Like the fighting on Capital Hill, or even the nastiness that came out at the Democratic debates. We’ve got enough cross-party sniping, do we have to do it within the parties too?
Or the many temptations that I see facing young people today, and the exodus of young people from the church. I understand the critiques of the church, I do, and there’s a lot of validity there. But I guess I’m odd in my generation in that being a part of the church has been in a very real way salvation for me. I’ve found acceptance and love when I’ve needed it most, and I’ve been uplifted in joyful and difficult moments in my life. My faith has been my life preserver through so many things, and has brought me to a place where there is so much more happiness and joy and thankfulness in my life than I deserve or even know to ask for.
So I don’t understand why are churches are empty when the casinos and the internet chat rooms and the marijuana provisioning centers are full. I fear for my children in a world that seems increasingly driven by a relentless focus on the self and its immediate and physical interests and less invested in community, in the needs of the other, in the abstract concepts like faith, duty, love, justice, and sacrifice. And I know you feel the same. That’s why you’re here.
So what can I offer by way of comfort, reassurance, and hope?
The angel Gabriel told us not to fear, and I will offer you the same imperative today: fear is worse than wasted energy, fear actually does damage to your brain and your body. Turn your fear into your prayer, leave it at God’s altar, and fix your eyes on Jesus. One way to do this is to remember the things he’s brought you through in the past, and to recognize that this moment is no different.
Earlier this week I was talking with someone about death, and one of the hardest deaths I’ve experienced, which I’ve told you about, when I went to minister to the family a twelve-year-old girl who died of AIDS. I don’t talk about that story very often, because it’s very hard, and it upset the person I was talking to so much that she wept openly. The next day, I had asked Linda Finn to select our passage for Bible study with the guests at the Welcome Inn, and she selected Luke 8, the story of Jairus’s daughter, who Jesus raised from the dead. The text tells us she was twelve years old. Now I know this could have been a coincidence, but I believe the Spirit meant to give me comfort, reassurance, and hope. Yes, this world is full of very difficult and painful situations; yes, our society has abandoned so many truths to pursue so many idols; but take heart, brothers and sisters! God has been there with us before, and he is at work with us now—often in the quiet places, often in the background, but He’s there! He is alive, and He is not done with us yet. There’s a reason for all of it, we just don’t know it yet. So hold your “Do not be afraid; your prayer has been heard; you will rejoice and be glad.”
When Gabriel gives Zechariah his words of comfort, reassurance, and hope, Zechariah—well, he responds something like I imagine I would.
- Luke 1:18: Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Zechariah seeks an explanation, but Gabriel doesn’t give him one. Gabriel answers with an experience:
- Luke 1:19-20: The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Gabriel does give Zechariah some kind of explanation involving human biology, with a Power Point and a life-size model. Instead, Gabriel answers by telling Zechariah about the presence of God. What’s important here is not how this will occur; it is the fact that God is present and is giving us good news.
This is important for us in how we face challenging situations in our own lives. We seek explanations; God gives us experiences. We ask why; God answers with Who. What’s important is not necessarily the details of how something will occur, but the greater story that God is telling through the experiences of our lives.
Zechariah isn’t getting that, so Gabriel gives him a gift; the gift of silence. Thomas Merton called silence a gift:
- “Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer; where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.” –Thomas Merton, “Thoughts On Solitude”
Now among all the gifts you’re giving others this Christmas, you probably haven’t included silence. But silence can be a very great gift indeed. I’ve asked you to try giving others three seconds before you respond in conversation. Anyone try that? This technique allows you and the other person to hear and think about what they have said. It allows the Spirit to speak, in a certain sense. And it allows you to consider your response before it comes out of your mouth, which is nearly always helpful.
We are so, so short of silence in our culture today; so bereft of opportunities to just be, without agenda, without noise or expectation. Can you gift yourself or another this week by choosing something to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to silence? I invite you to choose one thing—baking half as many cookies, cheating on your traditional homemade Christmas dinner, skipping that last-minute gift because it doesn’t matter so much in the end—choose one thing to skip this year so you can spend an hour just sitting in the quiet with God, enjoying a silent night.
When Zechariah emerged from his time of silence, he wasn’t sad, he wasn’t angry. His first words were words of joy and praise:.
- Luke 1:76-79: 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.”
Such beautiful words! Imagine if Zechariah had missed them, if Gabriel had not given him the gift of silence.
Can you be Gabriel for someone this Christmas? Can you give the gift of God’s Word, of a moment of silence, of comfort and reassurance and hope? The things you give may soon be discarded, but the words you speak will last in the hearts of those whom you encounter. Give them the best gift you can give…a message of love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.