The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. 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 sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Two weeks ago, I flew up to central New York for a brief visit with my family. If you saw the pictures I posted on Facebook, you probably noticed that I took no pictures of the adults. That actually wasn’t on purpose. I mean, I love my parents, my brother and his wife, my in-laws. But when I’m up north, it’s all about the kids. I was able to spend time with six of our nieces and nephews, including meeting my great-nephew Beckham for the first time in person. It was awesome.
I think one of the best feelings in the world is having a little baby body nestled up to you, head resting on your shoulder. There is something about the birth of a child that reminds us of the potential and possibilities for the future. It is an affirmation that life is precious and beautiful. Children rekindle hope.
I have a favorite t-shirt — a Christmas gift from my parents a few years ago. It’s super soft and comfy, but the real reason I love it is the words printed on it: pistis, elpis, and agape. Three Greek words from 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. We talk a lot about faith in church, and about God’s love. Today we’re going to talk about elpis, hope.
Elpis is a fascinating word. It doesn’t have the kind of anemic flavor we often attach in English to the word hope, such as in “Gosh, I sure do hope my team wins the Super Bowl.”
(They’ve actually got a chance this year, though!)
No. Elpis means confident expectation of what is sure, of what is certain. It means living your life in positive, confident knowledge that God is faithful and in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.
This is the first Sunday of Advent — the four weeks leading up to Christmas. In churches across the world people are lighting the candle of hope on their Advent wreaths. And today’s scripture reading from the first chapter of Luke is all about hope.
Since I arrived back in Florida in July, I’ve spoken to dozens of people in our congregation and community who are worried. Afraid. Anxious. People who are facing health crises. People who are grieving. People who are unemployed or underemployed. People who are homeless. People who feel lost and confused and unsure of their faith. People who are terrified of the violence they see around our world, and the division in our country.
We could all do with a little more hope in our lives.
(Can I get an amen?)
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. (Luke 1:5-7)
It may seem a bit strange to begin our Advent season by not talking about the main characters of Christmas: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. But we’re starting today where Luke begins: with a couple facing some serious uncertainty in their lives, people who are in a seemingly hopeless situation.
We’re told that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous and blameless. In Greek, dikaios and amemptos, meaning people who closely observe God’s laws, who have lived a life that is above reproach. These are good, devoted people. They have lived faithfully, just the way they should.
And, yet, they have a deep grief at the core of their relationship. They weren’t able to have children. In the time they lived, being childless wasn’t understood as a result of physical or environmental factors. It was considered a divine punishment. They both knew that the people around them would have wondered what it is they had done to deserve to be so afflicted. And, indeed, Zechariah and Elizabeth themselves probably wondered this at times.
But regardless of their personal pain, as a descendant of Aaron, Zechariah was required to serve as a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem twice a year for one week.
Verses 8 through 10: Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
There were many ways for a priest to serve in the Temple, but the burning of incense to the Lord was a special, once-in-a-lifetime honor. It was randomly assigned to those serving that day. Over the years of his service, Zechariah had been carefully trained. He knew how to walk in to the sanctuary, where to stand, what actions to take, how to use the incense, what words to say and when to say them.
It was a well-known ritual, sacred, yet also routine, unchanging. He knew exactly what to expect. And so, leaving all those praying outside behind him, he walked in. Alone.
Verses 11 and 12: Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
Zechariah had entered the sanctuary of his God, and yet he was completely shocked and terrified to encounter the divine! Everything he had been taught about the solemnity and ceremony of this moment is turned on its head. Because an angel is waiting there, right next to the altar where he would have placed the incense.
Then we hear the powerful first lines of dialogue in the Gospel of Luke. The angel tells Zechariah:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth…”
Can you imagine the thoughts racing through Zechariah’s head? For years and years and years he and Elizabeth had prayed for a child. Now, in this sacred space that should have been empty, he encounters an angel who gives him this joyous news!
But the angel’s not done. The amazing proclamation continues:
“He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Being promised a child at this late stage in the game would have been enough. More than enough! But now Zechariah learns that this miraculous child is to be a beacon of hope for the people of Israel, a prophet who will turn the people’s hearts back to God.
And… then… more incredible news: Zechariah is the first one to hear that the promised, long-awaited, constantly-prayed-for Savior was coming into the world! And Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son would be the one to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah!
Now, I’m not sure when in the midst of the angel’s pronouncement that Zechariah begins to have some doubts — one big, huge doubt in particular. Zechariah can’t help himself. He can’t just say thanks and hallelujah!
Instead, he asks the angel for a sign: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is an old woman.”
Well, the angel gives him a sign all right. Zechariah loses the ability to speak.
Take notice, guys!
Much to the delight of women everywhere,
the angel makes sure Zechariah’s words
“my wife is an old woman”
are the last he utters
for nine whole months.
So, Zechariah mutely finishes his duties at the Temple, then returns the 5 miles to his home with Elizabeth. She conceives, and goes on bedrest for several months.
The angel’s promise has come true: they will have a child! And in their private joy at this unlooked-for, surprise gift from God, comes the knowledge that this child will be a blessing to all their people, as well.
There are several things to note in this beautiful story, things that are important as we embark on this Journey to Bethlehem together, during a challenging time in our world.
First is that faithfulness and right living do not guarantee health and prosperity in our lives. And, conversely, when things go badly, when life seems chaotic and you feel lost, that does not mean that God is punishing you.
Instead, the circumstances in our lives are the means through which God reaches out to us in so many ways. There is nothing in your life — absolutely nothing — that God cannot use to bring healing to you and to others around you.
Second, this story is a reminder that God hears our prayers, and that we can count on God’s faithfulness when we are going through difficult times personally. God loves you, and will never, never, never desert you.
And, third, God hears our communal prayers, prayers we pray for our community and world. And we can count on God’s faithfulness when we are facing division in our world, in our country, in our community, in our church, in our families.
The birth of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son John heralds the beginning of something new for the people. Regaining his voice after naming his newborn child, in verses 76 through 79 Zechariah offers this blessing, which, over the years, has come to be known as Zechariah’s song:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
The birth of a child — any child — is an incredible, miraculous event. In it, we see the possibilities for the future. There is something about the birth of a child that rekindles dreams in us, that is an affirmation that life is precious and beautiful.
The gift of John, a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth was a gift to the world. That tiny infant would grow to be the prophet who would announce the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of the world, whose birth we celebrate in just 27 days.
The season of Advent is a pregnant time. It is a time of development, like an embryo growing inside a mother’s body. It is a time of fullness and waiting. It is a time of reflection and anticipation and expectation. It is a time of great hope.
The closing words again of Zechariah’s song, this time from The Message translation:
“Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.”
There is a song that became popular during the Civil Rights Movement called We Shall Overcome, and I’ve been singing its words this past week. Not as a protest song, necessarily, but as a song of hope for the future of this world. It is a song of deep elpis, a confident expectation of God’s work in our lives!
The three verses that have been echoing through my brain are these:
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
we shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
we shall overcome someday.
We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
we shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
we shall live in peace someday.
The Lord will see us through, the Lord will see us through,
the Lord will see us through someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
the Lord will see us through someday.
The day that Zechariah went into the Temple to offer incense to God, he went in not expecting anything remarkable to happen. He certainly wasn’t expecting to meet an angel who would tell him that his world was about to change.
Do we really expect God to act in our world?
Do we expect to meet God in worship?
Do we expect God to move within our lives and transform us?
Do we expect God to heal and save this world?
I pray that during this season of Advent, we would be reminded of God’s promises, and rejoice that God will “show us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.”
Because I believe that God is doing something in our world. God is using the circumstances in which we find ourselves to bring people closer to him. God is working in our midst. Every day, every moment, within us, God is awakening possibilities of healing and hope.
So whatever it is that you are going through right now, whatever worries you are bearing, whatever uncertainty you are facing, know that the God who loves you is at work in the midst of it all.
No matter our age — from the youngest children, just starting to understand God, to the eldest, long-faithful members — no matter how old we are: this day, this season, has been given to us by God.
Today is a day for us to remember the promises of God, the surprising grace-filled gifts from God. It is a day for us to recommit to allowing God to guide us — one foot at a time — on the path of peace, on the path of wholeness, of truth, of love.
That is the message on this week of hope.
May God bless you, this day and always!