This is the first sermon in the DNBA Advent series.
Do you ever miss the point? Maybe it’s the punchline of a joke, the purpose of a story, the content of the conversation that the other person really wants you to understand. Whatever it is, do you find yourself scratching your head, and going “wait, what just happened there?” (I’ll admit that it happens to me more often than I like.)
Too often, we’re not really celebrating Jesus’ birth as the coming Messiah who would change the world, and our future. We’re celebrating that our spouse is healthy, or that our child has returned home, or that we’ve survived another year of the grind. We haven’t gotten to a point where we can recognize what it is that God is giving us.
Maybe we’ve lived our whole lives as consumers, as “takers,” rather than givers or stewards. Maybe we’re too much like Uncle Scrooge pre-Carol, or we’re like the Grinch, and think all of the hubbub is foolish and a great time waste. Maybe we believe that Christmas and God’s purpose for us can’t really make a difference, that transformations are just stories. Maybe we’ve been worn down by the way that life works or that our family has worked, and we think Christmas is just about what we get (a BB gun) or the break from Christmas work like Christmas vacation.
Either way, Christmas can seem like an adventure in missing the point. But we’re not alone. Sometimes, we are afraid that change is unexpected or might actually affect us and we miss the point.
In our scripture today, the aged priest Zechariah is taking his turn in the temple. Now, we should note a few things about Zechariah and the world he lived in. First, the Jews are predominantly able to settle their own accounts politically and religiously, but they are currently under the rule of the Romans, who have appointed Herod the Great to rule Judea. These are an oppressed people.
Second, Zechariah and his wife are descendants of Aaron, the first priest that God chose to intercede between his people and God. They are the purest line of God’s holy relationship with his people. They have a double-portion of the priestly role – they both should have expected that God would speak through them to God’s people.
Third, while Zechariah and his wife are by all accounts just, righteous, God-fearing people, they are now old and grey and they have no descendants. Not only do they not have children, but they don’t have anyone to pass the priestly responsibilities to. It’s a personal, familial problem, but it also shows that the priestly line is in danger of dying out. They have reached the point in their family, in their synagogue (or church), where the way they’ve always done it has run its course. They need something to happen – but as we’re about to see, Zechariah neither expects God to move nor does he have any frame of reference where it could matter.
So, Zechariah finds himself in the temple one day, taking his turn as the burner of incense in the holy place. Zechariah, we understand, was in this big, cavernous room, with the ark of the covenant and some incense, and no one else, because the people had to stay outside the temple while the priest prayed for them. This is typical – this is how it would have worked all of the time. It has become commonplace because the conversation was never world shattering. This is not a special situation, but the mundane: the priest addresses God, the people wait to hear from the priest.
But today, the mundane will be anything but ordinary. On this day, God himself will show up and give something to Zechariah.
The first thing the angel of the Lord gives to Zechariah is a good scare. Now, I don’t think it was intentionally scary like a haunted hayride or like kids waiting for each other in the dark. But imagine for a moment what it would be like for you, going about your daily work, humming to yourself, focused on the task at hand or completely wrapped up in your own thoughts, and BAM! There’s the angel of the Lord standing to the right of you.
Pretty startling, right?
Every year, my family got a Christmas tree from the same little Christmas tree farm. We’d bundle up the day before Thanksgiving (because my parents wanted it precut so that the dead needles would fall off… we’d decorate it the day after Thanksgiving), and drive to the farm. One year, after selecting and cutting the tree, my dad and I loaded it onto the roof of our minivan. My dad turned to get in to drive home but he saw the farmer loading wood into a chipper and shouted out, “Thanks! See you next year!”
Pretty common, right? Pretty mundane interaction…
The farmer half-turned, half-fell, so startled was he by my dad’s greeting. It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen (maybe you had to be there) but it reminds me that just because it’s ordinary, doesn’t mean it can’t be startling….
So Zechariah is surrounded by the incense, moving through his normal operations as the priest, and suddenly, an angel stands before him. If that happened regularly, do you think Zechariah would’ve been startled? If he was expecting that God would show up, do you think he would have been “gripped by fear?” The Message said he was “paralyzed” by the fear.
Now, remember, he’s in the temple to communicate with God on behalf of the people. It’s his job, his responsibility, to be present so that whatever message that God would give his people, whatever forgiveness might be bestowed, that Zechariah is the one God will give it to.
And Zechariah isn’t ready. Zechariah is so unprepared for this development that I imagine he found himself thinking, “why did this have to happen on my shift?” Zechariah is so caught up in his own fear that he can’t immediately recognize that if the angel is there than that means God wants to give his people something! But this is a message that God is giving that actually begins with Zechariah first.
Before we move forward through the incense and consider the words of the angel, let’s stop and ask ourselves: how often does God show up in our lives, ready to give us something, and we’re not ready? How often do we miss the markers, the road signs, the grace-filled moments because we’ve failed to see God in the every day? What if, as we pray that God would be revealed in our world, God is actually already revealed in our world and we just can’t see it because we assume it’s going to be a normal “get the church clothes on, put the offering in the plate, sing a couple of songs” kind of day? What if we came to church, went to our Bible study, picked up the Bible at home and expected that God intended to give us something every time? Would that change anything?
What if we expected that God would move in and through us to change the world?
Remember, Zechariah is paralyzed by this truth. The angel has to free him up, like the angel will free Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, from fear.
“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard.”
Wow. God shows up in the middle of Zechariah’s day, and says, “I hear ya, buddy.” He shows up and tells him that all of the mundane moments leading up to that moment mattered, that even in all of the times that Zechariah and everyone else thought God was out to lunch and didn’t care, that God was paying attention and had a response. The angel first tells him not to be afraid and then he tells Zechariah that all of the prayers, all the crying out, all of the incense burned that has seemed mundane, and poured down into a dark well with no bottom, that the God of the universe received all of it, gathered it in, that God cares.
And then God gives Zechariah the kind of news that is mind-blowing. “Yes, in your old age, with your wife who can’t conceive, you’re going to have a baby.”
Obviously, a baby in a long-awaited situation would be well-received, right? But the angel takes it a step further: Zechariah’s son will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring his people back to God. The godlessness, the rule-following but heart-breaking, Zechariah’s son is part of God’s solution.
And naturally, Zechariah has gotten over his fear and asks the same question that you or I would be asking, “Um, so, like, ok, how is that going to work?” (Notice, he says he’s old and his wife has a lot of mileage on her. Smart man, not calling his wife old, too.)
You can almost see the angel Gabriel straighten up. I see the wings going from folded to fully extended, fire-glowing, eyes-blazing glory: “I AM GABRIEL AND I STAND IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD. I have given you good news and because you didn’t believe, you will not be able to talk until your son is born. Because God’s word is always good in God’s time.”
And then BAM! the angel disappears. Or he teleports. Or he sneaks out the back door. (We never hear how angels leave.)
And Zechariah is left to unpack, unwind, devour, digest the news that the angel of God has given him. But when he leaves the temple, he can’t say a word about it. He literally can’t share the good news just yet. Zechariah’s fear of change, fear of what could be, had rendered him speechless when he had the opportunity to embrace the angel’s good news, so God gave Zechariah an “opportunity” to sort of percolate or marinate in his news.
Zechariah and the Jewish people had been missing the point. They had put the rules and the mundane, the incense and the sacrifice, ahead of being in a relationship with God. So God set a series of events in motion that result in Jesus- but that’s for Christmas Eve, and this is Advent.
We’ll see over the next few weeks, a few more people who missed out on Christmas. The innkeeper who couldn’t see that love and compassion should’ve trumped “no room in the inn” for a pregnant woman; King Herod who was so threatened by the Wise Mens’ arrival that he wanted Jesus the baby dead. (Again, that’s just cold.)
But Zechariah almost missed it. Zechariah doubted and God used him anyway. Zechariah knew the biology of childbirth; he knew he’d been burning incense once a month for years and nothing special ever happened. And God showed up in the midst of it. God showed up and said, “It doesn’t have to be pointless anymore. It doesn’t have to feel like no one’s listening. It doesn’t have to feel like your job or your marriage or your life don’t matter.”
God showed up in Zechariah’s life and gave him a gift that was personal, that was needed, that showed that God knew Zechariah.
I asked some folks what their favorite gift was that they’d ever given to someone else.
1. I gave my mom a set of hand made Protestant prayer beads just last weekend… Her favorite colors, with the breast cancer ribbon on them. Every 7th spacer was a heart. I guess because I made them for her specifically. I picked the beads, the cross, and the breast cancer ribbon. She called me crying, thanking me.
2. Every year we have a tradition of having father-daughter dinner and shopping for my mom’s Christmas presents. One year dad had decided he wanted to get mom a Methodist cross necklace and we found one. That same year mom wanted to get dad a Methodist cross lapel pin and we found one. So, Christmas morning we were opening gifts and the hand surprised each other not so much with the gift but they were thinking the same thing. It didn’t end there though because my sister and I each had a Methodist cross necklace in our stockings too!
3. The best gift was being told I would never have children… And God blessed me with my son (who is a senior in high school now)….
4. I called my parents on Christmas Day one year and asked them if they could pick me up at the airport. They live in a different state and didn’t know I was coming.
5. My most memorable Christmas gift was in the 1980’s. Ronnie decided to add a bit of excitement to the morning. He gave me a hint as to where to look for my gift but each time I found the hint, there was another hint. We were all running around the house and laughing so hard and then, there was my gift In the Christmas Tree. A new ring. That is My best Christmas memory, except in 1966 when he finally gave me My engagement ring. that he had had since September!
6. The very best gift I ever received was not a thing. Tom had been in the hospital for weeks, and we spent the day there. We had insisted that everyone go on with festivities without us, and we celebrated the birth of Christ quietly and alone. The next day, Tom had a treatment early, and I stayed home for a bit. I was sitting at my kitchen table. I admit I was in a sad, dark place. Self-pity, sadness, and hopelessness overwhelmed me. Unmotivated, I had not even dressed or showered. All of a sudden, there was caroling on my front porch. I said to myself, I cannot open the door, looking like this. I tried to ignore the songs. Then the door was unlocked from the outside. My entire family…..father, brothers, sister, in-laws, ALL my nieces, nephews, their friends came rushing in. They had caravaned from Roanoke, bringing Christmas with them. Food and presents and even a tree flooded our home. We exchanged gifts. (Mine still unwrapped in bags!). Then, we went to the hospital to surprise Tom. If only I had a picture of his face when he received this gift of love and sacrifice. That morning we hugged and laughed and cried and felt the love of family. It made us aware of the Hope the birth of Christ brought to the world, and I believe in my heart that that visit gave Tom the will to fight harder. It was God’s gift. We were blessed.
All of these gifts reflect the knowledge of the person they gave gifts to. All of them reflect a grace based on their understanding of what God gave them. All of them reflect hope.
See, the greatest gift the angel of God gave Zechariah that day, it was HOPE.
Hope that two old people who’d longed for a child would finally have one.
Hope that the prayers of people were heard by God.
Hope that God wasn’t done with the Temple, or the priests, or his people.
Hope that a Messiah was coming.
Do you need that hope today? Are you missing Christmas? Do you feel like your prayers go unheard because you don’t know what exactly to pray or because they’re not answered at a time you think they should be? Have you gotten caught up in trying to “be good” rather than accepting that God loves you and forgives you? Have you missed the forest for the Christmas trees? Do you need to make room in the mundane so that you can see God show up?
And here’s the question that follows: once you recognize what God gave you, what are you giving God this Christmas?
Now, I don’t believe we “work” to gain salvation- God’s gracious gift through Jesus Christ was just that, a gift. But there’s a response that should naturally follow. We don’t give back out of fear or of rule-abiding but out of a response in love to what God did for us.
Maybe you don’t know what to give. It’s a situation more and more people find themselves in every year. But I heard the phrase, “empty pockets or not, we’ve all got something to give,” and it’s stuck with me.
It matters more whether your heart is full than if your pockets are!
Check out this story about a woman who had her wallet stolen, and how she handled it, how she gave even while she was losing. See, this man stole Jessica Eaves’ wallet out of her shopping cart while she was buying groceries, but she tracked him down and she gave him two options.
Consider for a minute, which woman do you compare him to? Who do you have in mind: is it your wife? your daughter? your grandmother? What options do you think that Jessica Eaves gave the pickpocket?
Do you think he expected this: “Listen, mister, ‘I think you have something of mine. I’m gonna give you a choice. You can either give me my wallet and I’ll forgive you right now, and I’ll even take you to the front and pay for your groceries.'”
“Otherwise, I’m going to have to call the police.”
My friend, the Reverend Bill McClung, said this was the equivalent of the priest who frees Jean Valjean from prison, right after Valjean had stolen the church’s fine silver! The priest says, “Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
Here’s a real-life moment, where Mrs. Eaves could’ve let the man well-enough alone, much more safely, I might add, but instead, she boldly offers grace.
The man breaks down sobbing, follows her to the cash register where she pays for $27 in groceries, apologizing profusely. He tells her that he’s broke, that he has kids, that he got laid off, that he would never have done that if he wasn’t desperate.
And in that moment, Mrs. Eaves gave this man his dignity, a second chance, and GRACE.
Will you give grace to others as you have received it? None of us stands here on our own efforts alone, but by the grace of God and the help of others. Will you give grace in an unexpected, underserved, BAM! sort of way this week?
Will you give back? Will you pay it forward?
Will you give financially to help someone else have enough this Christmas? Or make enough food to feed a shut-in neighbor at Christmas?
Will you give of your time by serving through church or elsewhere?
Will you give by sacrificing your concern for safety and pride and ask others to join you in celebrating Jesus’s birth?
Will you give of your mind by studying the stories of Jesus’ birth at home or joining in a Bible study?
The good news to Zechariah was only the beginning. This was the first of “not fearing” and it freed Zechariah up to be part of the giving.
So as you hear these words, consider the giver and your own giving:
Hear the good news of Jesus Christ: God sent his Son to restore us to a right relationship, to give us grace and love. God sent Jesus even if no one would’ve accepted him. God sent the angel to Zechariah even though Zechariah wasn’t ready. God sent hope so that we could really live.
Do not be afraid. Amen.