open book on a table

“A People Prepared for the Lord”

A sermon drawn from Luke 1:5-25

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably admit that one reason I wanted to share this story is that we already studied it in our Wednesday night Bible reading group this past week – it’s the International Standard Sunday School lesson for today – so I knew I would have spent some time reading and talking with people about it. But it did seem to me that, even though we usually never read this story in church, it’s a good text for the Second Sunday of Advent – because it is about John the Baptist, and the preparation for the birth of Jesus, and Gabriel does tell Zechariah that the purpose of the ministry of John the Baptist will be to make ready a people prepared for the Lord, and becoming those kind of people is what we’re meant to be doing during Advent, so all in all, this seemed like a particularly appropriate story to reflect on in church, during Advent, at least once.

And it is the very first story Luke, the gospel writer, tells in his gospel, right after his prologue in which he explains that he’s done his best to write down an “orderly account” of the events surrounding the birth and life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ of God.

And our English teachers have taught us that we need to pay special attention to the way authors open and close their stories, because that tells us a lot about what the authors are doing, what they want us to understand.

So let’s assume that Luke has a good reason for starting his gospel with this story, an attention-getting story that’s not only about John the Baptist, but about John the Baptist’s particular family history, and about the special circumstances involved in John’s birth announcement, that prepared him to go out and prepare his people to receive his kinsman Jesus as the Messiah … what’s this story telling us about what it means to be prepared to receive a word from God – or to share it?

Once we ask that question … we’ll probably notice that Luke has very purposely called our attention to the way Zechariah and Elizabeth are standing in a long tradition of relationship between God and God’s people. A long tradition, specifically, of God’s working with particular parents and their particular, precious children as part of the project of creating a people who know God and live in covenant with God …

Because if we look just a little more closely at the text, we’ll see first off that Zechariah and Elizabeth are exactly like the parents of Moses, the liberator and law-giver of Israel – also a prophet! Luke counts on us knowing that – that the story of Moses’ birth starts out almost exactly like Luke’s, with “Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman” (Exodus 2:2).

And then he tells us, on top of that, that Zechariah and Elizabeth are old, too old to be expecting a baby. And there, he counts on us remembering, from our own Sunday school days, that Abraham and Sarah were old, too, and they were the first patriarch and matriarch, the grandparents of the nation of Israel. The parents of Isaac, the father of Jacob, whose name God changes to Israel, who is the literal father of the “children of Israel” who are the people God eventually liberates from Egypt and leads through the wilderness and redeems from Babylonia and who are historically the people of God.

As a matter of fact, there’s even more than a passing similarity between Zechariah and Elizabeth, on one hand, and the parents of Samson on the other – in Judges 13 Samson’s parents meet an angel, who tells them their son will be dedicated to the Lord from conception and can’t eat grapes or drink wine, as this angel tells Zechariah, and Samson is prophesied to be someone who will “begin to deliver Israel …” from their enemies, in that case, the Philistines …

The point being, Luke has gone out of his way to tell us that Zechariah and Elizabeth are specially meaningful parents, who are part of a long tradition of how God has been dealing with the people of Israel for a long time – people who remind us that events like this are how God has been, throughout history, preparing a nation of priests and prophets, who know and understand the story God is telling, of who God is, of what salvation means, of what to expect from God, and who are in a position to step up and take their place in that story …

And so, because of that, we can already see, that even before he is born, this miraculous child, this child who needs to be named John, a name that means “God is gracious,” is being prepared to be someone like Moses, who led his people to freedom from bondage through the waters of the Sea (great background for someone who will be doing a lot of baptizing), and someone like Isaac, a child of promise and covenant and blessing and passing on blessing, and someone like Samson, who would just “begin to deliver” his people. And, according to the angel, also like Elijah, a prophet – that is, someone who receives the word of God, and then proclaims that word of God to others, in Elijah’s case a prophet prophesied by the prophet Malachi … so, history has been saving a space for this child.

From all of which we might gather that part of what it means to be a people prepared for the Lord is to be a people who can understand all this, who have this orienting story that helps people make sense of things by seeing everything in context, and helps people recognize that the mysterious activity of God is at work in seemingly ordinary events …

We would think Zechariah, a priest, someone whose job is to come before God on behalf of his people, would be really good at seeing that kind of thing.

But sadly, what we also see in the particular case of Zechariah is someone not prepared to accept a gracious, good word from God, and not prepared to become a prophet himself.

Even though he has all the credentials! All the qualifications. Even though he is a really good person, righteous and blameless – because we trust Luke’s report on this – and chosen for this work – in spite of all that, Zechariah just doesn’t quite trust this word from God through the angel Gabriel, just can’t quite accept all this good news, and believe it.

So he won’t be able to fulfill his own role as prophet, until after his son is born, when he will finally be free to articulate what has become the famous “song of Zechariah” – which we may have heard in church a couple of weeks ago. But here in the beginning, he is just not fully prepared to believe this announcement, before it happens.

Why is that, do we imagine? …

Could it be that Zechariah is afraid his mind is playing tricks on him? Because we ourselves, if we were suddenly confronted by a vision that purported to be an angel, would probably look hard for the “rational explanation.” If that is Zechariah’s problem, we would probably share it. 

Or could it be that he has learned to mistrust any story that sounds too good to be true. Just like a lot of us, maybe he has learned that “Anything that sounds too good to be true, is.” Which, to be honest, is necessary advice in our world, when it would be a bad idea to trust that email from the lawyer of that “distant relative” we’ve never heard of, in some far-away country, who supposedly wants to give us a million dollars, and just needs our checking account information …

We would probably be skeptical, too, because we know from experience that we NEED to be skeptical, to stay reasonably safe from harm in a world full of bad actors. So, once again, if that’s Zechariah’s problem, it’s also ours.

Or maybe Zechariah just couldn’t believe he would be the recipient of good news like this? That even though he was a priest, and a righteous person, and had been chosen by lot to do that special work in the temple, and had all that going for him, he still thought of himself as not that importat, or not good enough to deserve this kind of news?

Unfortunately, I’m afraid many of us will empathize with Zechariah on this score, too. Because if this is Zechariah’s problem, those of us who have grown up with some deficiency may share that feeling with him. And so will those of us who have some personality trait that may not even be all that terrible but that we were taught or thought was a deficiency, which still feels pretty unpleasant. And all of us who have lived for a long time in someone else’s shadow, that relative or colleague or mentor or role model whose achievements we could never live up to … or even, those of us who struggle with self-imposed standards of perfection that no one alive could live up to, and God alone knows why we’ve taken on that terrible burden, that no one would lay on their worst enemy? Lots of us will recognize ourselves in those descriptions, and will empathize with Zechariah’s thinking – that kind of news can’t be for me; and could understand why Zechariah would want just a little more evidence that the angel really has the right address, that he hasn’t made some mistake …

Maybe Zechariah just doesn’t want to make a fool of himself? We’ve probably all had that embarrassing experience where we thought someone was waving or motioning to us, and our hearts lifted a little, because it seemed like something nice was about to happen, only to find out that oh, no, they were waving at someone else – no, that surprise package wasn’t for us – no, and we think, yeah, how could we have thought that? If that is Zechariah’s problem, we might understand his hesitation …

But for whatever reason, Zechariah is not quite ready …

Not fully prepared just to say – Wow! Hallelujah!! Praise God! Praise God for this!! And just step into his role as prophet and recipient and messenger of God’s grace, and say, You all, people of God, rejoice with me, my soul is magnifying the Lord and my spirit is rejoicing in God my savior …

He’s not prepared for that.

And because he’s not ready, … “in return” for his not trusting this good news, Gabriel does not trust him with this announcement. So Zechariah will need to wait the event out in silence.

But as another reader of this text this week suggested, maybe that’s exactly what he needs.

Maybe Zechariah needs the time of silence, and what will most likely also amount to solitude, to enable him to turn his attention back to God, to re-tune his ears to God’s wavelength, to make his heart ready for God’s grace, instead of stuck with what he already knows about how the world works, and where he fits into all of that.

Because life in a world like ours does not fully prepare us to receive the good news of God’s grace. It can leave us hesitant to believe, when the call comes, that God really does have a word for us, work for us, plans for us, wonderful ones, for joy and for blessing, sometimes, for joy and blessing even in the midst of deep sorrow and loss.

Elizabeth, we notice, takes her time, too. Maybe time accepting that this is really happening. Maybe trying to learn what it means for her that this is really happening, and what it will need to mean in the future. She, too, does not immediately step into her role as a prophet, someone who has a word from God to share with the world, or even, with one other person. Not like Mary, whose first words to another person are ecstatically prophetic, and full of wild joy.

And even so, Zechariah and Elizabeth do become the parents of John the Baptist, someone whose task, world-historical and profoundly symbolic and practical task, was to be that “voice crying in the wilderness” to prepare a people to receive the Lord Jesus, the Christ, in precisely the way Zechariah and Elizabeth finally did receive John – “God is gracious”: as God’s good news, good news meant for us, good news that is not a mistake, good news that does not depend on our being perfect or good enough, just the opposite, good news that lifts us up to be the people who are prepared to listen to and for God’s word, who are expecting a word from God, and then are prepared to follow that word wherever it leads, knowing that because it comes from God, it must be good, no matter what it looks like in this light – that is, the light of this incomplete, broken and fragmented world.

We, too, want to be people prepared for the Lord – ready to welcome God’s grace as a gift, not as an entitlement, but as a blessed and overjoying blessing, as the miracle and wonder it actually is, in all its wild precious reality …

So maybe, we can learn from Zechariah how not to greet the angel who brings us a word from God; and from Zechariah and Elizabeth and John, how to greet even the Messiah Jesus, who does things very differently from how people expected, who teaches people how to die to this world, before expanding our hopes for new life beyond our wildest imaginations.

Let’s be those people – those people prepared to trust the good news from God, and to believe it, including the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we are even now reminding ourselves to receive when it arrives in all its incarnational mystery, as something we have to accept before we can fully understand it.

So that even before we can understand it, we can tell people: Christ is coming! Coming in peace, coming in love, coming in joy, coming in hope, from God, who does, despite everything we think we know here, love us. In our world in which miracles are, honestly, few and far between, we can nevertheless be prepared to say: this miracle, this Christ miracle, is real, present, and meaningful; it changes lives; it brings new life; it is for us, and really, it is for all of God’s children; and hopefully Advent will prepare us to do our part, to turn our hearts, and the hearts of those around us, towards the grace and peace of our gracious God.

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Meeting of Zechariah and Elizabeth”, Francesco Guarino, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to ““A People Prepared for the Lord””

  1. Thanks for this. It is a well timed, well said reflection that helps prepare me for my annual silent retreat this coming weekend.
    I am curiously made aware that Zechariah does not question that an angel has visited. He seems to understand the significance of who his visitor is (does that make sense?). Yet he doesn’t believe the message. How often does that happen to all of us? We receive some sort of sign or revelation, recognizing it as such, yet we don’t believe the message or revelation itself. Hmmm …. I guess I’ll have a quiet weekend to consider that. “Attention is the beginning of devotion’ (Mary Oliver).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, interesting observation! REALLY interesting … even in “ordinary life,” where we know someone is an expert on something and knows what they’re talking about, but don’t accept what they tell us … hmmm. A lot to think about there! Anyway, glad to know this feels helpful – blessings on your retreat!

      Liked by 1 person

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