Belonging to God’s Promises

December 8, 2019

Bible Text: Isaiah 2: 1-4, Luke 1: 67-79 |

A foreign exchange student was having a hard time understanding and being a part of the Christmas season in the U.S. He wrote home to his parents:

They have this most amazing festival here … it’s all about a little boy with a drum and he’s been in a sleigh … in some straw, right next to some chestnuts roasting in an open fire. Yes, it is all a bit dangerous, but it’s OK because he is guarded by an enormous fat man in a red suit, named Round John Virgin, standing by a tree with a partridge in it. There is a lady kneeling nearby with a light over her head …. And a couple of sheep and a donkey and this really strange deer with a red electric nose, and a dog sleeping on top of a doghouse while a crotchety old man is hoisting this crippled boy on his shoulder who is handing onto a turkey neck and shouting, ‘God bless us everyone!’ Then they take all the packages and wrap them in paper, which they take right off again the little kids play with the paper and not the toys and the older kids exclaim, ‘Is that all there is?’ And the fathers sit in front of the t.v. while mothers collapse into a chair … and the festival concludes 30 days later with an observance called ‘Visa Card Day.’ It is then that everyone become quite serious and religious as millions of people open envelopes from the mail and shout at the top of their lungs – My Lord.

……….. It’s hard to feel apart of something that you don’t understand. And while this may be true in a funny way amidst all the confusing aspects of a secular December holiday season. Luke is writing the introduction of his Gospel in such a way that he wants his hearers not only to understand the Christmas story, but also to feel themselves a part of the story, to belong to God’s promises fulfilled in the birth of the Messiah.

We began this story last week, as we started listening to Luke’s long introduction to the Messiah by telling the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. In our passage for this morning we heard what is called the Song of Zechariah. The song comes from the expressed joy of a simple country priest. Zechariah is an old man. He is a good man. Zechariah is one of those people that we have known whose memory brings warm thoughts of gratitude. He is no superstar in this story. He is near retirement and his position is very modest. He is a down to earth priest without rank or status. His name, Zechariah, is a common name. The Scriptures tell us of thirty other Zechariahs before him. The name Zechariah in Hebrew means “God remembers.”

Let’s remember some of that story. Zechariah and Elizabeth live in the rural hill country outside of Jerusalem. And on one particular Sabbath, his priestly division was responsible for temple management and services. It must have been an exciting thing to be a part of – and we don’t know how often his division would have had this honor. But even more than this on this Sabbath as he and fellow priest had made the trip into Jerusalem to fulfill their sacred duties – Zechariah discovered that the lot for the offering of the temple incense had fallen to him to perform. Probably the only time that he had ever had the honor to burn the incense in the holy space of the great temple of Jerusalem.

Surely he had to be more than a little bit nervous about it. But maybe it also made him feel like a kid again. He would have on his best and finest priestly vestments and prepared to enter into the presence of the divine on behalf of his people. He would have long ago memorized the Aaronic benediction, the words he would pronounce to the people at the end of the service.

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord be kind and gracious to you.
Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace. (Numbers 6: 24-26)

It’s a small but noble task. But I wonder if he was thinking about the course of his life while making the trip up to Jerusalem to perform these priestly duties? Maybe he was thinking back with gratitude and love for his wife Elizabeth. Maybe he was remembering the pain and disappointment that they were never able to have any children. They had prayed for children. They had waited for just one child to love and raise. And for Elizabeth in that day and time, there was a heavy social stigma attached to being a wife with no children. It must have hurt her. Surely he remembered all these things.

Then in the temple of the Sabbath morning, Zechariah was ready to do this priestly duty and to offer the incense in the holy place of God. We heard this part of the story last week, but it is important to remember it in order to understand the meaning of Zechariah’s song. Luke’s Gospel puts it this way. “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on 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. You wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.’ Zechariah said to the angel ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’”

So Zechariah comes out of the temple, but he cannot even pronounce the blessing of Aaron upon the people. He is speechless. And for the next nine months all that he can do is to wait. …….

After nine months when Elizabeth delivers her son, Zechariah named the boy John, just as the angel had told him. And of course his voice was restored and he was able to speak.

And when he did, he sang this song from our passage this morning.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

For he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of David.

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 found his part to play in the great story of God’s salvation. He waited for and named his son, John, trusting in the angel’s counsel. John would play a big part in preparing the way for the Messiah. And Elizabeth played an important part in giving birth to John and raising him. And of course Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, would play a very important part in this story and Mary’s husband Joseph. But there are a whole host of people who are a part of this great story. There are the prophets from long before – Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah among others. There were shepherds and angels. There are small parts in the story like Anna, her father Phanuel and Simeon. And of course there are those not named in the Scriptures but remembered by name by the God of this salvation story.

Being a part of God’s promises working out brings joy and new life to Zechariah and Elizabeth. But Zechariah sees a much bigger picture – the good news is not just for him, it’s for all of Israel, for his neighbors and the entire covenant people. He sings his song of joy because of what God is doing for everyone.

Zechariah reminds me of a friend and mentor in ministry to me. Stan entered the church triumphant many years ago but I remember hearing him preach his final sermon. Stan was retiring at 75 years old, after forty plus years of ministry. He had pastored Presbyterian churches in different parts of the country after graduating from Princeton Seminary shortly after World War II. I had heard Stan modestly tell stories about his life, about serving in the United States Army Airborne division, parachuting into Normandy, and eventually fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. So I knew that he had led quite a life – and maybe the temptation in a final sermon at retirement is to try to toot one’s own horn.

But the final story that he told was about the medieval stone masons, those builders who worked on the great European cathedrals, churches that took hundreds of years to finish. The stone masons spent their entire lifetimes crafting small parts of those great churches. Maybe they built a window archway or simply worked on a portion of a wall. But Stan imagined that they must have seen their small part as a contribution to the greater kingdom of God. The most blessed of them were certainly those who trusted that their small efforts were given for the glory of God. Of course in their lifetimes, they had not completed all the work to be done. That fulfillment was ultimately in the hands of God.

I could see that in Stan that there was a deep satisfaction to be found, not just in doing one’s own work faithfully, but in being a part of a much greater work. In knowing and remembering all those who had been a part before you and who had come and gone and now rest with God. He had been a part of kingdom work, a kingdom to which he belonged in this life and the next. In knowing that this great work will continue on and that younger, energetic hands and hearts will come after as well. A Christian faith that is both deep and wide has this capacity for truly being a part of the greater whole. As Christians we are called into the community of faith, the body of Christ, and we find meaning and gratitude not only in our own personal faith stories – as important as they are. But we find great strength in being a part and contributing to the well-being of the whole church and the kingdom of God to which she witnesses.

The connection and community that we see in a story like Zechariah and Elizabeth and Stan is especially compelling in our day and time when there is so much disconnection, and longing in our fast-paced world to find a place of belonging. There has been much written recently about the challenge of isolation and disconnection in contemporary culture. Let me mention one of these, Johann Hari’s book, titled, Lost Connections. He writes, “Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact,” Hari writes. “You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most,” …. which is connection. ………………..

Gods Holy Spirit works through the connection of people to people throughout the Scriptures. It is a remarkable thing to behold – there are so many different, amazing parts to play – all intricately connected through God’s planning and timing. Sometimes the ways that the Spirit brings all these parts together just seems downright unlikely. Wouldn’t you think that if the Messiah was on the way that the easiest way to get the word out would be to get the King on board? I mean King Herod would have been able to announce it to the whole kingdom of Israel. But that’s not what God does. Nor does God just snap his fingers and make it so making us the passive objects of his steadfast love. Rather God spreads the word along the grassroots through the lives of people he invites, inspires and nudges to be a part of the Good News story. Shepherds, magi, country priests, wives without children, a simple couple starting their lives together. They say yes to being a part of what God is doing. Each one in a small way contributes what gifts, what songs, whatever ways they have to add to this greater story of the kingdom of God that is bigger than any single one of the individuals but which includes them and gives them a part to play.

That is the challenge for us this Advent, really an invitation to us from God. Will we say yes to the angel’s invitation to be part of the story of what God is doing? Will we say yes like Zechariah, ……. like he eventually did, after nine months of stewing about it? Will we say yes like Mary did? God invites us to be a part of it all.

This invitation isn’t just about what we are doing at church, although it is about church as well. It’s about the totality of our lives and not only seeing how God is present, but saying yes and entering in. The Good News is that we already are a part – God has made us a part and given us a place to belong through Jesus Christ. Yet this Advent season we do well to remember how disconnected our modern world can be. We can be people of connection, especially this time of year and especially with those we know that are yearning to feel the touch and belonging of all God’s children.

May God grant us the grace to say yes, and to join in, and be a part of the Spirit’s ongoing work of restoring and reconnecting all to the steadfast love we see in Christ, the long-awaited one.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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