There have been times when my life where I have felt completely overwhelmed; too many things going on, stuff falling apart and certainly not going the way I planned.
And honestly, I just feel hopeless and I just want to throw in the towel and give up.
Do you know what I’m talking about?
But sometimes it is in those dark places; in the least expected, most desperate places of our lives, that God plants hope and brings forth new life.
The four weeks leading up to Christmas is called Advent; which is a Latin word meaning to wait and let's be honest, that's not an easy thing for some of us to do – especially in those dark moments in life.
But on this third Sunday of Advent, I invite you to be still and know that we worship the God of hope and that on Christmas day, God sent his son to dwell among us; he healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the mourning, and wept for his friends.
He came to usher in the kingdom of God; a kingdom where there will be no more pain and no more tears and no more hopelessness and so today, we wait in hopeful anticipation.
This morning’s text introduces us to a couple who understood exactly what it meant to live in a dark and empty place filled with doubt, despair and a sense of hopelessness.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are an older couple who live in the hill country of Judah and although they had always wanted children, they were unable to conceive. And like many couples who have struggled to get pregnant . . . they had hoped, they had dreamed, they had prayed that they would be graced with children, but it was not to be.
Not having a child was grounds for divorce in that day, but these two deeply loved God and they loved each other. So, instead of following the dictates of culture, they followed their hearts and remained bound together in spirit as well as in body.
And they make silent, mutual agreements that this is a subject that just isn’t talked about any longer. Having children would never be a reality, so why continue to inflict the hurt by dwelling on it?
Zechariah is a priest by vocation. In fact, they both came from a long line of priests.
As a priest, one of his duties was to travel to Jerusalem once a year to serve with other priests in the Temple. Once there, they would prepare the sacrifices, light candles, burn incense, sweep the floors, prepare the slides for worship, and maybe even send out email blasts and post events on Facebook.
You know, all the other stuff they don’t tell you about in Seminary.
During this time of service, the priests on duty would cast lots to decide who would perform the highest and holiest act of all . . . enter the inner sanctuary; the place where God dwelled.
This event was so sacred and holy that there was concern that the chosen priest might be so overcome with emotion from being in the presence of God that he might faint or even die.
So, in order to be able to retrieve an unconscious priest and to prevent anyone else from going into the Holy of Holies and making it unclean, a rope was tied around the priest’s ankle so that in the event that he should pass out or die, the others could simply pull him out!
His primary task while in the Holy of Holies was to light incense. It was believed that the smoke from the incense carried the prayers of the people to God, perfuming them as they rose into God’s presence.
Then, the priest would return to the sanctuary to bless the people, representing God to them as he had just represented them, the people, to God.
It was a privilege that no priest could do twice in his lifetime and some never got to do it all.
On this particular year, Zechariah was chosen. It was the greatest honor of his life.
He entered the Holy of Holies while the multitudes waited outside praying. He lit the incense and when he did, something remarkable happened.
An angel appeared and began his announcement with what angels always say . . . “Do not be afraid!”
“Something important, something new, something wonderful is about to happen. Your wife, Elizabeth will conceive. You will be a father, and your son will be named John which in Hebrew means, God is gracious. And he will be the one to prepare God’s people to receive God’s grace. “
Scripture tells us that Zechariah despite the comforting words of the angel, dude was freaking out!
But what did he expect? He was standing in God’s living room. Maybe, like some of us, he was going through the religious motions but he wasn’t expecting God to actually show up.
Nonetheless, the presence of this divine being is more than Zechariah can process at one time.
He’s startled, stunned, surprised, and amazed, so Zechariah asks a question that echoes the words of Abraham: “How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
And for his questioning of the angel’s message, Zechariah is struck dumb. He cannot speak. For nine months, an entire gestation period, Zechariah cannot utter a word.
This is every preacher’s worst nightmare.
And here, Zechariah has been given his biggest opportunity ever, the largest congregation that he would ever stand before, and he has seemingly forgotten his sermon.
Zechariah does the best he can. He gestures. He motions. It is like Bible charades as he attempts to communicate about the miraculous encounter he has had with the angel of the Lord.
Now some have said that he is made speechless because he committed the sin of disbelief, but I wonder if this is really what is happening.
Wouldn’t it seem more accurate to say that it was a habit of hopelessness?
After all, he had prayed, and he had waited a long time for something that had systematically been denied him. He had gotten used to not being heard or responded to.
How was he supposed to know that this time, everything would be different?
It’s at this point of the story, I realize that we stand with Zechariah in that holy place because we too approach God with our habits of hopelessness.
We offer habitual prayers thinking that maybe this time God might make an entrance into our lives, but instead, we remain seemingly ignored, empty, barren, rarely giving birth to a future that is different from the present.
And at this time of year especially, we realize that barrenness is our failure to imagine and hope, or even expect the healing intrusion of God into our world . . . into our lives.
I think this is what terrified Zechariah . . . standing before him was evidence of God’s active interest and commitment to intervene: “A child will be born to you, Zechariah, to announce that God is coming! God will come with love and healing and hope into our lives. God will come with light for the darkness in which we find ourselves.”
In hearing what seems too good to be true, we may find ourselves asking the same question as Zechariah: “How will we know that this is so?”
But I want you to hear this . . . doubt is an important part of faith because doubt wants resolution. By faith, you wrestle with God through your doubt . . . you struggle with your frustration and confusion to get to a place where you can say, “I don’t understand but I trust you.”
And sometimes, we get to that place of understanding by claiming the angel’s gift of silence. By shutting our mouths before the terrible mystery of God and just be still and know.
That day in the Holy of Holies, face to face with the angel Gabriel, Zechariah was so surprised; he couldn’t fathom what was being told to him.
Yet, there was God acting to redeem, to renew and to reconcile.
And Zechariah, so caught in hopelessness that the angel struck him dumb, falls into silence and waiting. He too is given a nine month gestation period in which faith could give birth to promise as the seeds of hope were sown and nurtured in his hushed soul.
So, rather than punishment for disbelief, just maybe his silence was God’s gift. Maybe what some say is God’s punishment is actually God’s grace.
Losing your voice for nine months would give ample time to think about what you really want to say.
Once his voice returns, what does he do? He praises God. He worships. It’s the appropriate response to God’s grace. It’s why we gather here, in this place, to worship the God of grace.
And in his worship, Zechariah recites twelve verses of beautiful poetry as a blessing on his son,
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
It is the promise that the angel gave to Zechariah and gives to us too. In the darkness of our barrenness, and in our sense of hopelessness, we’ve not been forgotten. God is working.
It is the promise we are given with the birth of the Christ child and in the receiving of these elements. We have not been left to be consumed by the darkness.
God is here. God is acting, so this morning we invite you to Be still and know!