2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C
A few miles west of the old city of Jerusalem, across a hilly terrain graced with green trees and working vineyards, is the ancient village of Ein Karem.
Its name means “spring of the vineyard,” and you can, to this day, drink water from this spring. Traditional tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, drank from the spring at Ein Karem on her visit to her cousin Elizabeth’s home after Mary found she was with child.
Upon my visit to Ein Karem, a few years ago, I was not brave enough to sip the water that runs freely from the spring; but like the children there to cool down on that hot July day, I took off my shoes and waded in the pool beneath the spring. It is a long walk up the hill from the spring, to the Church of the Visitation that now stands on the site where tradition tells us Zechariah and Elizabeth lived and where they welcomed Mary to stay with them for a while.
Looking out over the valley, I stood there on the hilltop homesite, imagining what a wonderful few months it must have been for them. Think of it, Mary and Elizabeth, heads together, sharing their dreams of who their children will look like, how they will grow and play together. Of what they will do in this world.
And Zechariah could not say a word.
What two women wouldn’t love this uninterrupted time?
Zechariah was struck mute by the angel Gabriel for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy! God’s mercy is great indeed!
Luke’s gospel tells us the story of Zechariah before he tells any other story. From the very beginning of his writing, just after he introduces us to his purpose: to set down an “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.”
In the very second sentence of his whole gospel, Luke writes,
“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah.” Luke goes on to tell the readers that this man was an upright priest, living blamelessly, and married to a wonderful PK, they were faithful to God and in their work, they had no children, and the two were getting on in years.
Zechariah was at work in the sanctuary one morning, the people waiting and praying outside as he offered the day’s incense, when there appeared to him an angel—a messenger from God.
As angels do in the bible, the angel greeted him with the words, do not be afraid, but he’s afraid—they all are.
Then the angel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a child.
I am sure, without a doubt, that this news was the answer to so many of Zechariah’s prayers over the years. We must know Zechariah’s heart leapt at the news, but he had waited so long, he had prayed so hard, he wanted to believe this amazing pronouncement, but he feared his hopes might once again be dashed. He needed to be sure. So, he asks the angel, “how will I know this is so?”
As much as we like to picture angels as darling little, winged cherubs, Gabriel was not sweet-tempered. Gabriel took great umbrage at Zechariah’s question, as if to say, ‘Am I, the great angel Gabriel— sent from the presence of God– not enough assurance?’
And poor Zechariah was struck mute for nine months.
We know so well the next part of Luke’s story— that Gabriel visited Mary sixth months later and told her she too would have a child. Mary is also incredulous, asking “how can this be?” but Gabriel has mercy on her— telling her “for nothing will be impossible with God.” Finally, Gabriel tells Mary about her cousin Elizabeth which sends the excited Mary on a visit to Ein Karem.
The story of the birth of Jesus which we enter into slowly during Advent cannot come without the story of John the Baptist. For Luke knows, it is John who will prepare the way.
Only Matthew’s gospel makes us wait until the third chapter to learn about Jesus’ cousin John of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.
Mark’s gospel skips the birth stories altogether; he begins his gospel unequivocally with John the baptizer proclaiming a baptism of forgiveness, shouting, “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” John’s gospel does not make us wait either; after his astounding prologue, he says plainly, “There was a man sent by God whose name was John.”
Luke, as we heard today in our gospel, in his orderly account, works to set the scene. The word of God came not to the emperor Tiberius, or to Pontius Pilate, not to Philip or Lysanius or even the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. The word of God came to John, as he was wandering in the wilderness—John, the son of Zechariah.
Just as Zechariah knew it would be.
Not at first, of course. At first Zechariah didn’t dare believe he’d have a son, let alone imagine who John would become. But after his months of listening, since he could not talk, after lots of time spent observing those around him, and week after week spent in silent prayer, Zechariah’s voice suddenly returned.
On the eighth day after John was born, as was custom, Zechariah and Elizabeth took the baby John to be circumcised. Elizabeth told everyone that day, the baby is to be named John. Those around look at her; they question her. They tell her that no one in your family has that name. All eyes turn to Zechariah, who, still mute, asks for a tablet, on which he writes, His name is John.
Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened, folks were shocked!
Perhaps God thought Zechariah had been mute long enough.
Perhaps it was Zechariah’s doing. He’d finally given consent to God—saying, Gabriel, you were so right and we will name him John.
No matter the reason why, what came out of Zechariah’s mouth was a song of praise that we still sing— we said it together today– because the song of Zechariah is perfect for Advent.
Zechariah sings of the fidelity of God— of the divine promises spoken in scripture and fulfilled in Jesus.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Zechariah sings of the tender mercies of God.
The Lord promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
Zechariah, in his waiting and silence, came to understand that his son John would be the one Isaiah spoke of,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
I’ve read that Zechariah’s song “is quite possibly the most endearing, heartwarming prophecy over a child in the biblical text,” and what makes the prophecy “so compelling is that Zechariah is not primarily concerned about himself or about his miraculous son. Instead, Zechariah’s prophecy exalts God.” (1)
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Zechariah, no longer speechless, sings of the wonder that he is a part of this at all.
I wonder what makes us dumbstruck…
This week, I was struck speechless, not literally, not like Zechariah, but as I imagine you felt, I was left dumbfounded at learning our country suffered yet another school shooting. I could find no other words than ‘Lord Have mercy.’
The crazy part is that I don’t think any of us can truly say we are surprised. So sadly, this event, a strangely unique ill of American society, happens way too often.
In my silence, I can hear the cries of the fathers and mothers of those children who lost their lives. Of those children and teachers injured and traumatized.
What do we say to them?
We cry, why Lord? Why?
And of course, I hear God asking of us the same question. Why? Why?
Are you like Zechariah?
Will you believe in the promise of peace that I bring, or is it your fear that continues to uphold this inhumane reality where our children are surrounded with a culture so enamored with violence? Are you like Zechariah, so afraid to truly hope for a different future?
After his nine months of inner work, Zechariah sings out with the joy of a new father, with a newfound voice of hope. He sings with urgency, needing to tell all that he’d held inside for months.
He sings in order to point others to the coming Messiah who will guide our feet into the way of peace— true peace, in our hearts and in our mixed-up world— if we lay down our arrogance and disbelief, if we get our lives right with God.
There is no better time than Advent to embrace the lessons in story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who faithfully named their son John, the cousin of our Lord Jesus Christ. John, whose name means the Lord graciously gave, even in their disbelief.
Thanks be to God.
(1) David L. Bartlett; Barbara Brown Taylor (2009-07-28T23:58:59). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.