Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80 "#morehope"

         Today is a special day here in our church because today we begin our preparations for Christmas.  Of course, we are not concerned about getting the wreaths up and the cookies baked and the gifts wrapped.  Here in church, we will focus on readying ourselves – our hearts and minds - for the birth of Jesus. 
         We call this season of preparation “Advent”.  Technically, the first Sunday in Advent is next week, encompassing the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day.  However, this year, in an unusual twist of the calendar, the fourth Sunday in Advent falls on Christmas Eve.  We will not have a morning worship service that day but instead will put our collective effort into, and our attendance at, our traditional Christmas Eve pageant at 5:00 P.M. 
         And yet, our Advent worship series entitled “Angels Among Us” deserves the full allotment of four Sundays to be particularly meaningful for you.  Consequently, for those of you who keep track of the liturgical calendar, we are beginning the season of Advent one week early. Hopefully though, by the time Christmas Eve rolls around, you will find that it has been time well spent when you experience once again the birth of our Savior through song and pageantry as the ancient story is once more told.
         In preparation for Christmas Eve then, we will be exploring the role of angels in the Nativity story for the next four Sundays.  You see, these messengers from God figure prominently, not just on the night of Jesus’ birth when they announced his coming to the shepherds on the hillside outside of Bethlehem.  They also show up in the Gospel tales that lead up to the event in the stable.  And we will find that not only did these angels have something important to say to folks long ago, but that they also have something equally important to say to us as well. 
         When you really think about the angels that appear in the stories leading up to Jesus’ birth, I think it is interesting to note that they would have been very comfortable with social media, very comfortable in our world of tweets and hashtags. Remember how their messages were often short and to the point? Maybe not always 146 characters, but brief nonetheless.  For example, in our social media world, their favorite line would have been #DoNotBeAfraid. 
         As we look at the stories of these winged messengers who first came to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist), then to Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds, and as we recall their reactions to the angels, we will contemplate what messages we might offer to our world, a world characterized by a pervasive culture of fear.  Surely we are 21st messengers of Good News – though perhaps not of the winged variety.  How can we – you and I - bring #morehope, #morepeace, #morejoy, and #morelove to the world?
         Now, most of the time in church, you are instructed to turn off your cell phones.  But, for these next four weeks, I invite you – in fact, i encourage you - to turn them on.  I invite you to tweet, use snapchat or instagram, post to your facebook page, or send an email broadcast to your address book.  I invite you in any way you can to proclaim the oh-so-relevant Advent message of the angels - #DoNotBeAfraid. 
         Maybe you will take a photo of our Advent lanterns or put something you hear into 146 characters and tweet it out.  Maybe you will post a status report on facebook indicating that you are here – in church – spreading God’s Advent message of #DoNotBeAfraid and this week’s particular message of #morehope.  Maybe you will simply send out the quote on the front of the bulletin.
         You see, the world needs to know what we proclaim here as Christians. The world needs to know that we will not conform to the norms of our culture.  The world needs to know that we will be different.  The world needs to know that we will not live in fear.  The world needs to know that we will continue to exist with a deep and abiding hope in the  promises God has made to us. 
         That is what the world needs to know - and now let’s look at the story of one angel who long ago proclaimed those messages as well….
         This first angel we encounter broke 400 years of silence between God and the Jewish people.  The date, of course, is uncertain.  Perhaps it was around 3 BCE.  The place was at the high altar in a temple somewhere in the Judean hills probably not far from Jerusalem. 
         It was a dark era for the Jewish people.  Not only had there been no prophetic word from their God in four centuries, but in addition, their spiritual leaders had become entangled in increasingly meaningless traditions and rituals, and their king (Herod) was both corrupt and tyrannical. 
         And it was on one of those dark and silent days that Zechariah arrived for his priestly duty.  There were so many priests that he only had to take his turn for a couple of weeks out of the year.  Of course, no one had told him that this time around he was going to kick off the Advent story.  They just told him to report to the temple, which he did.  He was in charge of burning the incense, a particular privilege awarded by drawing lots, a responsibility that Zechariah might have hoped to do maybe once in his lifetime. 
         So, there he was alone in the most holy part of the temple, the congregation on the other side of a screen praying as the incense burned.  Then, out of nowhere, just to the right of the altar, we are told, the angel Gabriel appeared.  It was pretty clear right from the start that Zechariah was not expecting an angel, and he reacted in a way that Gabriel would soon become accustomed to.  Zechariah was quite alarmed, and so the first words out of the angel’s mouth were “#DoNotBeAfraid.”
         The angel then went on to say that Zechariah’s prayers would be answered, that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son.  Continuing his pronouncement, the angel went to unusual lengths to assure Zechariah that this was good news, that he and Elizabeth would be happy taking the unused bassinet out of storage and setting up the nursery after all these years when they had long since given up any real hope for a family, that his son (for it would be a son) would grow up to be a great man with a somewhat eccentric diet, and that, most importantly, this child’s name was to be John.
         Quite taken aback by the angel’s monologue, Zechariah responded with an artfully worded question:  “How will I know that this is so?”
           Now Gabriel might have answered cynically, saying something like, “Well, when your wife’s figure balloons and she wants pickles and ice cream at midnight, when you first hear her pitiful cursing and moaning followed many hours later by the unmistakable cry of a newborn baby – then you will know that what I have said God has brought to pass.”
         But the angel did not do that.  He simply struck Zechariah mute and told him that he would get his voice back when the miracle had occurred. So Zechariah had to use sign language that day to tell the congregation that he needed to head home and could not finish his priestly duties.  He used gestures when he got there too in order to ensure that Elizabeth was in the loop.
         And, over time, it all did come true, as the angel had said it would.  Elizabeth became pregnant, and the public disgrace associated with her barrenness disappeared in a heartbeat.  The baby was born, and, a week later, his proud parents took him to the Temple for the traditional naming ceremony and circumcision.  When the priest got to the part where he asked the child’s name, Elizabeth spoke up and said that the child would be called John. 
         There was a bit of an outcry from the family at that point because everyone expected a son to be named after his father – Zec Jr. in this case.  Being part of a patriarchal society where women really had no say, the priest looked to Zechariah to set things right and put his wife in her proper place. 
         Zechariah remembered all that the angel had told him that day nine months before and understood that this was a most serious moment. Consequently, he decided wisely to forego the hand gestures and asked for a writing pad instead.  He took the heavy black marker and block printed the letters J-O-H-N. 
         And suddenly Zechariah had his voice back again – albeit a bit scratchy from not using it in nearly a year – and he immediately praised God - for the miracle of speech, for the miracle of his wife giving birth after all these years of barrenness, and for the most wonderful miracle of all, a miracle grounded in such great high hope that God had just set in motion in the world. Perhaps in that moment, Zechariah understood.  The upheaval had begun.  The world was about to turn upside down.
         Well, certainly you and I have been waiting for a long time for that turning to even seem like it is beginning, much less nearing completion.   Like Zechariah, we too live in dark times. 
         In light of the promises of Advent, how do we live in a world that seems to be so scary?  How do we live in a world where mass shootings happen in the most sacred of places?  How do we live in a world where conflict appears around every corner and where the political, racial, and economic divide gets wider and deeper at every turn?  How do we live in a world whose weather grows more erratic and violent every season? 
         Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out that often in the Bible it is out of barrenness that God’s new work emerges.  Not just barrenness like Elizabeth experienced, but barrenness in the sense of a powerful metaphor for anyone who feels empty, fearful, and helpless before God – and I would submit that – certainly this year - that would include all of us.  But does Zechariah’s encounter with an angel provide any guidance to us at all?
         I think so.  I think Zechariah’s story is one that is deeply rooted in #morehope, As Presbyterian pastor Deborah Sunco wrote, “"By the time we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, they have stopped believing a baby will join their family.  The years have gone by, the gray hairs have sprouted, their bodies have wrinkled, and the child hasn’t come.  But I’m not sure they’ve stopped hoping for a baby. 
         Gabriel’s words tell us that they have prayed for a child, just like one might pray for  - what? - a month without a mass shooting or a Christmas when the world is not at war somewhere…Past experience might suggest it is worthless to pray for such things, but your heart cries out nonetheless, hoping past hope that this year something might be different.  The cry holds a flicker of faith in God’s power to revive, the hope that never truly, fully dies” 
         In this story we just read, Zechariah is told – after all these years - that his prayer has been heard.  If nothing else, perhaps we can see in this story that God’s spirit continues to be at work in those parts of our lives where we have given up hope, where we see only barrenness and emptiness. Perhaps we can see that, for God, these very situations invite intervention.
         I wish I had easy answers – a holy “to do” list – that would make the world a significantly better place this Advent.  However, I do not.  Sometimes I feel as lost as you do. 
         But I keep thinking of Zechariah.  I keep thinking of how he and Elizabeth never completely lost hope in a distant dream.  Maybe on one level they knew they were too old for a child and that the angel was too late.  Maybe that was what Zechariah was getting at when the angel struck him mute.  Maybe Zechariah just wanted to know why God had been silent for so long.
         As Anglican preacher Rosalind Brown noted, “Why did they have to face years of shame and disgrace? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are the questions that faced Zechariah and Elizabeth…These are our questions too and the (Gospel writer) doesn't answer them, so we (would) do better to notice what we are told: that (Zechariah and Elizabeth) had been faithful, that they discovered afresh that God does not always live by our rules, (but) God does hear our prayer.”
         So, in this season of Advent, in our dark times, the likes of which Zechariah and Elizabeth would be so well-acquainted, these Biblical characters – brought up short by an angel’s brief message – are examples of what it means to hope even when everyone and everything is telling you that your life or your world is beyond hope. 
         And that is not easy.  Advent hope is hard work.  Our dreams for this season and beyond are always so big – and those dreams always seem to fall short of reality.  It is enough to make us turn inward in our fear and disappointment.  
        But we must not do that.  Why?  Because the world is depending on us.  Because the world needs us to get the message out: first and foremost #DoNotBeAfraid  followed closely this week by #morehope. 
         So - do it!  Seriously, do it!  Tweet, email, post – or do it the old-fashioned way and have a conversation or send a note – or even simply give your bulletin to someone who was not here today. Just do it!
         Why?  Because the world needs to know that we will never give up on God’s promises and God’s dream.  Because the world needs to know that once long ago, when the meaning of names was so important, there was someone named Elizabeth (which means “God has promised”) and someone named Zechariah (which means “God has remembered”) who, just as the angel said, had a son named John. 
         Ponder the meaning of their names for a moment:  God has promised, and God has remembered.  Then proclaim the Good News: #morehope.  #DoNotBeAfraid.

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