We hear today from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the gospel that gives us the most beloved stories of Jesus’ birth – the angel’s visit to Mary announcing she will have a son, Mary’s beautiful song of praise in response to that startling news, the journey to Bethlehem and birth of the child, the visit by the shepherds to the newborn baby.
But Luke’s story does not begin with Jesus or Mary. Instead it begins with waiting.
The people of Israel at this time have been waiting for centuries for the fulfillment of the promise of a messiah. The prophets of old have foretold it; the faithful believe that someday God will keep God’s promise.
But even for the most faithful, the promise of deliverance sounds hollow by now. Israel is under the domination of Rome, and its vassal king, Herod. Hope seems futile, and even the faithful struggle to believe.
Among them are Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Both are descendants of priestly families. They are faithful and righteous, following all of God’s laws and commandments.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are exemplary Jews. But despite their blameless lives, they have no children, and as scripture puts it, “they both were getting on in years.” Any hope that they may have once had for a child is rapidly fading.
Anyone familiar with the stories of scripture knows to pay attention when a faithful, childless, old couple appears on the scene. Something miraculous may be about to happen.
Sure enough, Zechariah is on duty at the Temple, and he is chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. Offering incense in the sanctuary, the holiest place in all of Israel, was an enormous privilege, one that was normally granted to a Jewish man only once in a lifetime.
As Zechariah enters, prays, and prepares the incense, the whole assembly of people is gathered outside praying. It surely is a moment Zechariah will always remember, one that he would share with his children and grandchildren, if he had any.
What was already a special moment suddenly intensifies. An angel appears beside the altar. Zechariah is understandably terrified, overwhelmed with fear.
The angel reassures him.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayers have been heard,” the angel says. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.”
Zechariah is a man of great faith. He has prayed fervently for a son for years. He is standing at the holiest spot in Israel.
And he is absolutely shocked, and totally unprepared, when his prayers are answered.
I don’t think we are so different from Zechariah. We struggle to be faithful, we pray and go to worship, but I would guess most of us hardly expect to meet God, or God’s messenger, in the midst of our daily activities, or even in worship.
Most of us would react with shock to find our deepest prayers suddenly and dramatically answered.
In the words of Catholic writer Megan McKenna, “We see and we don’t see. We believe and we don’t believe. We pray and we don’t pray.”
So it seems understandable to me that Zechariah would respond with disbelief. “How will I know this is so?” he asks the angel in amazement. “I’m an old man, and my wife is not so young anymore, either.”
The angel is not amused.
“I am Gabriel,” he responds. Not just any old angel, but the chief angel, the one who stands in the presence of God.
Because Zechariah dares to question God’s messenger he is struck dumb, unable to speak until the events Gabriel foretells have occurred.
I have always thought Gabriel was a bit hard on Zechariah. After all, when an angel announces that 90-year-old Sarah will become pregnant, Sarah laughs out loud. And yet she does become pregnant, becoming the matriarch of the people of Israel with the birth of her son Isaac, whose name means laughter.
When Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her she, an unmarried teenage girl, will have a son, she answers, “How can this be?”
Neither Sarah nor Mary are punished for their responses.
But for the next nine months, Zechariah remains mute. It is not until the birth of his son, when he responds to those who try to name the child Zechariah by adamantly writing, “His name is John,” that his mouth is opened.
And then he sings with praise to God, the song which we sang as our psalm this morning. Zechariah proclaims to all what the angel has told him, that this child is not only the answer to his prayers, but also an answer to the prayers of Israel.
God has chosen an old, childless couple to usher in a new age. Once again God has chosen the poor and humble, those who seem insignificant in the eyes of the world, for the great work of redemption.
And so Zechariah sings about what God is now doing through his son, John. For Israel the promises are coming true. The time of waiting is over and done. Now it is happening.
Listen to Zechariah’s verb tenses. Not God will raise up for us a savior, but God has raised up for us a savior. God has kept the promises made to Abraham and all his descendants. God has remembered the covenant. Deliverance is here.
And then Zechariah announces the true identity of his child. This child is not just his son, this child is a prophet, the one who will prepare the way for the imminent arrival of the Messiah.
On this second Sunday of Advent, we, too, are in a time of waiting. We wait once again for the birth of the Messiah, each of us with our own private desires, our own private hopes and prayers.
What are you waiting for this Advent? What are your deepest prayers? Have you prayed for so long that the words are beginning to sound hollow? Have you begun to believe that hope is futile, begun to sink into despair?
Are you saying words with no real expectation that God is listening, that God cares or will act?
Maybe your prayers are for some personal yearning or desire; maybe they are prayers for the community or the world.
I would guess that all of us have at times thought that prayers seem futile.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth give us hope. They remind us that God works in surprising ways, and is faithful despite our low expectations.
Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, may we be surprised by God this season of Advent.