This is the first sermon in the Advent series with ideas taken from the book, When God Comes Down, by James A. Harnish. Citations are noted in the text. Each week, we will be exploring different people in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. This week begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth. Stay tuned next week for Joseph and Mary.
If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble before your presence.
As I sat watching the TV news reports of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Wilson who shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown, and the social media blow up, outrage, and violence that has followed, this text from Isaiah echoed in my mind. A few weeks ago when we got the news that Peter Kassig, the young man from Indiana, was beheaded by ISIS, this text from Isaiah echoed in my mind. There are many times throughout our lives that we might cry out to God, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” We wish that God would just make himself known among us and set things right with something that looks like real power and change to shake things up. If you’re like me, you might even get angry about all of the violence and injustices in the world and beg for God to do something about it.
But the season of Advent challenges us to remember that “this is not the way that God comes, and it’s not the way God makes things right. God comes down in a baby born in a nondescript cow stall in a nowhere place called Bethlehem among powerless people at the bottom of the social, political, and economic ladder” (Harnish, 8). God silently slips through the back door. Advent is about waiting, watching, and listening for the ways in which God comes silently among us, no matter how we might long for a different way. We will miss God’s coming if we aren’t looking in the right place for the right thing.
So today we begin our waiting, watching and listening as we begin this holy season of Advent. During the next few weeks, we will prepare our hearts by learning from the people who were part of the birth stories of Jesus. We will watch and wait as we see how God comes to them and how God comes to us. This week we begin with Zechariah and Elizabeth, a couple who “expected the unexpected,” and miraculously gave birth to John, who paves the way for Jesus. Their story is found in Luke 1:5-80. We are told a few things about Zechariah and Elizabeth: Zechariah is a priest, they are both very old, they were righteous before God, and they had no children. Luke tells us that Elizabeth had no children because she was unable to become pregnant. In biblical times, for a woman not to be able to have children was one of the worst labels to have. For women, being able to bear children meant their worth in society. A woman being unable to conceive in scripture usually goes along with a feeling of hopelessness and feeling that God is absent. People may have known Elizabeth to be righteous, but there may have been talk of her being cursed or ostracized as well since she could not bear children.
Today, of course, we know this is not the case. I am in that season of my life when many of my friends and colleagues are trying have children if that’s what they want. And it seems that I actually have more friends who are struggling with infertility than those who are not. I see the pain and longing in my friends’ faces and hearts. I feel helpless, knowing that the only thing I can do is watch and wait with them. At times I want to recite these words again from Isaiah, saying to God, “Why don’t you just come down here and do something about this?” But all I can do is walk with them on this disappointing journey of waiting and hoping.
Zechariah and Elizabeth invite us into their world of feeling this emptiness and hopelessness and longing. Their circumstances were not under their control, nor could they do anything to change it. But their story is also one where God comes down to them into the midst of their emptiness. Their story is one where God comes down and gives life where there was none.
Their story begins with Zechariah serving in the Temple. He was probably entering the Holy of Holies to offer incense or sacrifice to God, a holy and divine privilege. The angel Gabriel then appears with a life-changing message: “Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John…he will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” John- a name that means, “the Lord is gracious.” Zechariah was then unable to speak until John was born, but when that time came, Zechariah burst out into song:
Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us…He has brought salvation…He has shown mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant.
…a song that is all about God doing miraculous deeds- something that Zechariah and Elizabeth could have never done for themselves. God has indeed torn open the heavens and come down in this story and reminds us that as we enter into the time of waiting…this time of Advent, we begin with the awareness that we cannot save ourselves. We begin by realizing that nothing in our own power can give us the life, hope, peace, and joy that God intends for each of us. We also realize that “we can no more cause God to come down to be among us than we can make the sun rise in the morning…but we can train our eyes to see the light when it comes.” Zechariah continues his song with these words:
Because of God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in the darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.
We begin our Advent journey by waiting for the sunrise with Zechariah and Elizabeth- by expecting the unexpected, and training our eyes to see the light when it comes. This might mean that even in the midst of brokenness, injustice, and despair, we find glimpses of hope- even if we have to look really hard. We may find ourselves shouting loudly or praying silently the words of Isaiah, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” “God, if only you would come into our world and set things right.” But instead, we watch and wait. We engage in times of silence, worship, study, service, and prayer. We keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to where God may be sliding in through the back door. If we don’t pay attention, we might just miss him. We are Advent people, waiting for the sunrise.
The good news is that we know that the sunrise will come and that God’s promises will be fulfilled. In Elizabeth and Zechariah’s case, the child, John, was born. The Lord, indeed, was gracious. John, who preached a message of repentance and salvation, who brought people back from the wilderness wanderings to the Lord God, who prepared the way for all to meet Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us of the importance of hope in the midst of despair. Theirs is a story of God working through human lives to do extraordinary things. It is a story of perseverance and strength.
In this I am reminded of a story I heard when I was in South Africa about Rev. Peter Storey. Rev. Storey is a white Methodist pastor who was one of the key church leaders who joined the fight to end the oppressive apartheid government. When he was minister of the Central Methodist church in downtown Johannesburg, he fought to integrate his congregation. One Sunday, his very large choir walked out on him in the middle of the sermon as a protest against what he was trying to do. But Peter kept on with his prophetic message that things must change and justice and equality must prevail.
On June 16, 1976, the township of Soweto engaged in a protest led by high school students to voice their concern about the Dutch-Afrikaans language being forced upon all black schools as the only language of instruction, therefore lessening the ability for blacks to receive appropriate education. It is estimated that between 10,000-20,000 students walked in protest that day. No one knows exactly how the events unfolded, but at some point, the police began to fire into the crowds, directly at the children. One of the first children shot dead was 13 year old Hector Pieterson, who became a symbol of the Soweto uprising. This photo caused the world to wake up to what was happening in South Africa.
It is estimated that anywhere between 176-700 people were killed that day, and over 1,000 were wounded.
On the anniversary of the Soweto uprising, June 16, Peter Story had flowers made that people could tape on their back car windshields as a sign of peace and hope for the South African people. The hope was that the flowers could be seen in cars driving around Soweto on that day for all to see. But this plan was stopped when the Apartheid government barricaded the entrance into the Soweto township and no one would be able to see these little signs of hope. But this didn’t stop Peter Storey. He somehow managed to get a helicopter to fly over Soweto and drop the flowers down into the township. Even in the midst of oppression, injustice, and heartache, these signs of hope in the flowers made their way into a situation of brokenness and despair. Justice and hope had the final word that day.
In the same way, we know that Christmas will come. There is no way to stop it. The sunrise will come. The symbols of hope in the midst of despair will be revealed. But our job for now is to watch and wait- to prepare our ears to hear, our eyes to see, and our hearts to experience the ways in which God comes down to us, just as God came to Zechariah and Elizabeth to bring life and hope. How will you spend your time? How will you wait for the sunrise? This week, I challenge you to practice one spiritual discipline such as prayer, silence, or Scripture reading that will help you open your eyes, your ears, your heart, and your mind to God’s presence. May you find joy, peace, and signs of hope in your watching and waiting. Amen.