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Sunday, December 2, 2012


Luke 1:5-25.

            The story begins in the ordinary routine of religious life in Israel.  Following God’s instructions in Exodus 30, twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, a Jewish priest went into the Temple in Jerusalem and offered incense to the Lord. The Levitical priesthood consisted on 24 different “divisions,” and each division was responsible for two times of service a year.  Within the particular division an individual priest was chosen by lot to actually offer the incense.  It might be something a priest only got to do once in his entire life.  So it is a big deal to an elderly priest named Zechariah when he is chosen.
            The incense was burned on the golden incense altar in the Temple.  The priest presumably carried burning coals which he placed on the altar, and then placed upon them the fine powder of frankincense mixed with three different spices.  And the priest had to use enough of it so the smoke it produced obscured his vision of everything else in the Temple, which is quite a bit. 
            When Zechariah goes into the Temple there is a congregation of worshipers outside, praying.  With great ceremony, possibly repeating prayers and Psalms himself, he goes up the steps, past the two great pillars, and into the nave, to the incense altar, which is about the size of our baptismal font.  He places the burning coals on the top of it and then starts shoveling the powdered incense on the coals, which creates immediate, great, billowing clouds of smoke.  And as he is doing this, suddenly he sees through the smoke someone or something standing there to his right, apparently having just come out from the Holy of Holies behind the veil, where the Lord lived!  This startles him, and then sends his mind into shock mode out of fright.
            The being starts to talk to him.  It says, “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.”  And then tells more about this son and what his destiny will be.
            Zechariah doesn’t know what to make of this and isn’t sure he should trust this apparition, which, after all, may just be his mind playing tricks on him due to oxygen deprivation or perhaps something in the incense they didn’t tell him about.
            Angels were not in the habit of just showing up in front of people back then, anymore than they are now.  We would certainly be looking around trying to find a rational explanation for this phenomenon.  Zechariah is just overwhelmed.

            So he responds with caution and suspicion.  “How will I know this is so?” he says.  He wants verification and proof before he makes a fool of himself, and disappoints his wife, with a wild story about their prayers finally being answered. 
            You pray for something for years, decades even.  You pray for something for so long that it has become rote, just the regular words you pray daily, that you rattle off in your consciousness barely conscious of them.  And then, when it occurs to you that your prayers are being answered… you don’t believe it at first.  You’re afraid to trust good news to be good.
            I mean the idea of steadfast prayer and perpetual disappointment had become part of your personal identity.  Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed fervently for a child for perhaps 30 years, probably twice every day.  Even now, when they were really too old and pregnancy was biologically impossible, they still prayed because they knew the stories of Sarah and Hannah, they knew that God could, on very rare occasions, even give children to old people.  Far be it from them to decide that they should stop praying, even though they had been disappointed for so long.  God could still do it, technically.  It had happened before.  Very rarely.  But still….
            Even though they said the words, they probably had stopped believing that this might actually happen to them.  So when Zechariah responds, “Seriously?” the angel loses patience with him.
            Angels probably don’t experience time the way we do.  If we make the same prayer over 20,000 times with no results, it is human nature to tone down the hope and reduce the optimism, and go about your life tacitly assuming this isn’t going to happen.  But for an angel I suspect that the first prayer has as much presence as the 20,000th prayer.  So when Zechariah at first doesn’t allow himself to trust in this promise, Gabriel cuts him off.
            “Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”  Gabriel does not want Zechariah’s misgivings to be verbalized and thereby influence the situation in the wrong way.  Taking away his voice will give him less opportunity to mess this up, plus it will verify that something happened to him and that he isn’t just inventing this story.
            Meanwhile, people outside the Temple are beginning to wonder what has happened to Zechariah.  Offering incense only takes a few minutes, and yet he’s still in there.  Finally, when he does stagger out the door in a puff of smoke, it becomes clear that he had some kind of vision in the Temple.  And he is unable to speak.  He keeps frantically trying to communicate with his hands.
            When his term of service was over, Zechariah goes home and attempts, without speaking, to explain all this to his wife, Elizabeth.  Apparently his able to communicate the gist of what happened, because Elizabeth does conceive.  And she stays in bed for several months, just as a precaution.

            The child foretold by the angel is not an ordinary child, and the angel does not pretend otherwise.  This is another thing that must have disoriented Zechariah in the Temple.  He and Elizabeth would have been overjoyed with just a normal baby, who would live a normal life.  Maybe a boy born into a priestly family would get a chance to offer incense in the Temple too, like his dad.
            But no.  God has a special role for this child.  That’s the problem with hoping and praying for miracles.  When they happen, they don’t happen for your benefit.  God’s will expressed in history is not to give you the things on your list.  God’s whole creation has a pattern, a trajectory, an agenda.  Everyone is called to participate in what God is doing in the world.  This is even more so when we get those glimpses of God working through mysterious and unusual circumstances. 
            In this case, the angel says that the child “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.”
            The boy will be what is called a “Nazirite,” which was a person specially dedicated to the Lord, who expresses their devotion to God by not partaking in any products of the vineyard: no wine, no vinegar, no grapes or grape juice.  Usually, this was a vow an individual took on their own for a limited time; but this baby will be born with this discipline imposed on him for his whole life.
            So this will be a holy child in the sense of set apart and different.  And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit of God after the pattern of the great prophet Elijah.  The angel is quoting, significantly, from the last words of the whole Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
            This is what God wants from this child: to be the new Elijah, bringing the people back to faith in the Lord, restoring their worship, and reestablishing God’s justice, in preparation for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah.

            We will see all of this happening with John, when he begins his ministry.  His calling is to prepare people to receive God.  He will “turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the Wisdom of the righteous.” 
            I hear this first as a call to humility.  Parents are supposed to turn their hearts to their children, which is to say, those with power and authority need to pay attention to those without.  Those at the top have to sympathize with those at the bottom.  Jesus also repeatedly lifts up the attitude of children as examples of how to best function in the Kingdom of God.  Their simplicity, their honesty, their directness, their vulnerability, and their emotional availability are perhaps qualities that adults would benefit from cultivating.  John’s ministry will be to undermine the social stratification which puts one class above another.  If parents’ hearts are turned to their children, then the hearts of rulers should also be turned to the ruled, and the rich to the poor.
            The second part of the charge that the angel gives the as- yet-unconceived John, is turning “the disobedient to the Wisdom of the righteous,” which is another erasing of social distinctions.  Rather than pursuing their own goals and objectives, the people will have to listen first to God.  In his own career, Elijah reestablishes the people’s loyalty to the values and practices of the Lord, which had nearly died out under the onslaught of Baal worship.  He has to practically rebuild the community of the Lord’s disciples in the face of powerful oppression by the King and his wealthy supporters.
            The righteous are those who follow God’s expressed intention that the people live in peace, equality, and freedom.  Those who disobey God’s law operate according to systems that perpetuate just the opposite: violence, inequality, and servitude.  It is when the latter group has some kind of transformation and starts thinking and acting according to the good of the whole community and not just themselves, that the people show they are prepared for the Lord.
            That’s John’s job.  We’ll see it starting to happen when we get to chapter 3 and we hear about John’s ministry of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

            And it is our job too, as we swing into another season of Advent.  How do we “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”?  John is supposed to turn the people of Israel back to God.  John is supposed to reflect and remind us of Elijah, who reiterated the Torah’s message of equality, peace, and freedom.  That is a message that always needs to be restated, reaffirmed, renewed, and repeated, because we are chronically prone to forget it.
            It is interesting to me that God goes through all this in order to bring into the world someone who would prepare people for the coming of the Messiah.  Just sending Jesus to us cold wouldn’t have worked.  People apparently have to have their minds opened, and they have to change their behavior before the coming of the Messiah will make any sense to them.  There had to be a preexisting community to receive him.
            Maybe we’re not even able to see the Messiah unless we start changing ourselves ahead of time.  Unless we have some idea of what to look for, we’re not going to perceive God’s entry into our world.  Unless we’re already gathering around the Scriptures in communities of anticipation, we’re not going to get it. 
            That’s why God sends someone as a forerunner.  The Messiah requires someone to give him an introduction, a reference.  Maybe we can only receive the Messiah, Jesus, if we first have a grip on what John is about.  Why else would Luke write more verses about how John is born, than about how Jesus is born? Maybe we cannot effectively introduce people to Jesus Christ, even today, unless we take seriously what it means to echo the ministry of Elijah, as John did with his message of repentance.
            That means that what Advent is really about, is turning.  Turning is what Gabriel says will be John’s job.  His work will be about turning people back to God, as well as turning the hearts of the strong to the weak, the rich to the poor, the leaders to the led, and to level the inequalities among us.  It is turning the hearts of the disobedient, who disregard God’s Word and obey instead their own will, reason, feeling, desire, needs, or whatever, to the true Wisdom of discipleship.
            So as this story gets going, let’s not lose our voices when we hear what has to be proclaimed.  Rather, let’s realize how we can get across the message of Elijah and John to our generation, by turning our hearts to the way God’s Word of hope is even now breaking into our world.

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