Text: Luke 1:68-79
I sat down to begin writing this sermon last Wednesday, the same day news began breaking about the San Bernardino shooting. I sat there, trying to think sermon-y thoughts, but my Facebook feed kept stealing my attention. I saw my friends posting prayers of sympathy and calls to action, and I realized that the one I really wanted and needed to pray, but was afraid to post, was: “God, please make me care again. Find my compassion, and bring it back to me.”
It’s not that I didn’t care about what happened in San Bernardino. But I felt powerless in the face of those deaths. I felt unable to enact meaningful change. And, maybe in self-defense, I couldn’t find the emotional reserves to fully mourn for the victims.
Because this is happening all the time. In 2015 there have been more mass shootings than there have been days of the year. Which means that if we let the full tragedy of gun violence break upon us every time there was a mass shooting, then there would literally never be a morning when we could get out of bed.
And this week, when I was afraid to speak that prayer into the public discourse around this most recent shooting, I found someone else in today’s scripture who couldn’t figure out the right thing to say, and ended up saying nothing. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who gave us the psalm we sang today.
Zechariah’s story doesn’t often get told, but it’s the twin to Mary’s.
Like Mary, Zechariah gets the angel Gabriel showing up and telling him not to be afraid.
Like Mary, Zechariah hears that he’s going to have a bouncing baby boy, and by the way, here’s a name for him.
Like Mary, Zechariah is surprised by all this.
But unlike Mary, his surprise comes out as doubt. “How can I be sure of this?” he asks Gabriel.
Now, when Zechariah asks this question, he’s in the central room of the Jerusalem Temple, the Holy of Holies, the room where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Priests got to enter it once in their lifetimes. If there was one place in the world where you’d expect an angel to show up, it’s this room.
So there’s Zechariah, in the holiest of places for the rarest of times, and an angel appears before him and tells him that his wife would conceive and bear a son, and his first reaction is, “How can I be sure of this?”
This is the wrong reaction.
And Gabriel calls him on it. “You want me to prove it?” he says to Zechariah. “Fine.”
So he takes away Zechariah’s voice. For ten months. He doesn’t get it back until he fulfills the angel’s prophecy and agrees to name his son John.
It’s never fully possible to know what was going on in the mind of a biblical character when you’re reading about them, but I have a couple of guesses about John.
Here’s a man, a priest, someone who was born into his faith and his role as a spiritual leader. The gospel writer describes him and his wife, Elizabeth, as “righteous before God, living blamelessly.”
But despite that, they had no children. Which, in a culture like theirs, was the very worst thing that could happen to you. Childlessness was usually interpreted as a sign that God was mad at you for something terrible that you or one of your family members did. So Zechariah and Elizabeth live under two opposing social assumptions: they are blameless before God, but are still being punished for something.
I imagine that when you go through life like that, wanting something, especially when that something is a child, very badly, and being denied it over and over again—I imagine that when you’ve gone through life feeling like you’re being punished for some sin you never committed—I imagine that that’s the kind of scenario that could lead to you finding yourself in the holiest place on earth, standing before a real live heavenly messenger who is telling you that that thing you wanted so very badly is almost yours, and you say, “Prove it.”
Zechariah wanted a child so badly, and had wanted one for so long, that when the good news was finally, finally there, ready to be rejoiced at, he didn’t have the heart to believe in it.
In a week where there’s been another shooting, I understand. I understand because this week, this week especially, I know what it feels like to long so desperately and so long for something—for peace, and for an end to this stupid, senseless, awful violence—I understand because I came into the sanctuary this Sunday and heard that Jesus Christ is drawing ever nearer, and that he will guide our feet onto the path of peace, and my heart is not ready to believe it.
I want to ask God, “How can I be sure of this?”
And I want God to give me a really, really good answer.
When the angel strikes Zechariah dumb, this does not seem like a really good answer. But in the midst of this week where I couldn’t think of anything to say in the face of the tragedy that happened at San Bernadino, I began to wonder whether the angel was actually giving Zechariah exactly what he’d asked for.
I think maybe this was God hearing Zechariah’s doubt and saying gently, “Shut up for a minute and let me show you something.”
And then, as a minute stretched into ten months of shutting up, Zechariah saw and heard instead.
He went home and watched his wife conceive and grow a little bigger every day.
He watched as his cousin Mary came to visit, and heard his wife tell how the child leapt in her womb at Mary’s greeting.
He heard Mary sing her song of praise.
He saw his son born. He heard the first wail of life. He held in his arms a promise fulfilled.
In silence, Zechariah was forced to listen, and to watch, as all the proof he had been looking for came into being. In silence, he pondered all these things in his heart.
Until at last, at last, he entered fully into the promise of the prophecy and named his son John. In that moment, his voice returned, and the song of joy that had been brewing in his heart for ten long months burst out: “Blessed are you, O Lord, God of Israel, for you have come to your people and set them free.”
Sometime during those ten months of silence, God took a man who found it too painful to hope, and transformed him into one who could do nothing but.
Zechariah’s story is the twin to Mary’s—but in lots of ways, it’s also the foil. When an angel shows up in Mary’s life and tells her she’s going to be a pregnant teenage unwed mother carrying God’s Son, she’s like, “Sign me up!” Zechariah, on the other hand, needs convincing. He needs proof that it’s safe to hope, because unlike Mary, he’s lived long enough to have his deepest hope disappointed over and over and over again.
For Zechariah, that hope grows over time. For Mary—well, while I don’t know whether her faith ever wavered, I am sure it was tested. She might have thought it was a great idea at the time to say “Yes” to the angel, but her small town had different ideas about what to do with an unwed pregnant teenager, especially one who was trying to convince them that it was God’s child, really. Which is maybe why she left—or was sent away—to stay with relatives during her pregnancy.
And those relatives she went to stay with? They were her cousins, Elizabeth and Zechariah.
So there’s Zechariah, who didn’t say “Yes” right away, and now couldn’t say anything…
…and Mary, who said “Yes” right away, and now nobody wanted to listen to her.
And there’s God, bringing them together, to be signs of grace to one another. When Elizabeth saw Mary for the first time, and the child leapt in her womb, it was a moment that all of them needed—it was the first time John the Baptist announced the Messiah coming, but also a promise that it would not be the last.
It’s that moment when Mary bursts into song—“My heart magnifies the Lord”—and after a few more months of silent pondering, Zechariah follows suit.
Some of us know exactly what to say when we hear the gospel good news. Some of us need time to ponder these things in our hearts. And God gives us to each other, some of us to ponder, some of us to sing, all of us at different times.
God makes room in the Advent waiting for you, whether you are a Mary or a Zechariah. Whether you are ready to sing now, or whether you don’t yet have the courage or the words or the heart, you are a gift to those gathered here, as they are a gift to you.
Together, we help each other see the fast-appearing blessings, the promise is proving true: Christ is coming. In the manger. In the clouds. In the streets of San Bernardino. In our hearts. In our midst. Christ is coming.