There are at least 3 parts to beginning of the Advent story. But the ones I’m thinking of may not be the 3 we hear most often.
Typically we hear about an angel visiting Joseph in a dream, and Gabriel surprising Mary with shocking news, and John the Baptist being born ahead of Jesus to his Aunt Eliz. These are the big stories that get press, artwork, and children’s crafts designed around them.
Instead of just looking at the ‘big 3’, I want to lift up
(1)the angel's visit to Zechariah, John's father. Then
(2) recall Mary's encounter with the Divine Messenger. And preface them both with the
(3) expectation found in THEIR scriptures, particularly the writings of the prophets.
For decades, centuries even, Israel’s scriptures spoke with hope of a time when justice would be the rule. When all the good they had experienced at times in their history would be exceeded by the good that God would bring about.
AND all the evil, discrimination, oppression and Injustice they experience, would be made right in God’s eyes…AND by God’s own hand.
This is what the people’s faith told them to hope in.
The religious leaders, the priests, help the people to ‘keep the faith’. it’s priests who maintain the rituals,
make the sacrifices at temple, and
teach the people the ways that God commands.
Israelites know the ancient promises and find hope in them.
They believe they are back in Jerusalem because God has blessed them with salvation that ‘saved’ them from the Babylonians and Assyrians.
God sent prophets to warn of exile and prophets to share God’s promise of salvation from exile.
Along with Spiritual Leadership, It was the High Priest’s duty to go into the Holy of Holies, wearing special garments and taking sacrifices into the special place in the temple, and burning incense.
High Priests have the greatest authority in the daily world of interpreting and living God’s commands. Zechariah is a High Priest. his select group has been chosen to serve at temple 2 weeks per year. And the high honor of actually going into the inter sanctuary has fallen to him. This is a once-in-a-lifetime honor.
Listen to The rest of Zechariah's Story
In the days when Herod was King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, he belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. He and his wife, Elizabeth were both descendants of Aaron. [Only Aaron’s descendants within the tribe of Levi were selected for the highest duties in the temple. Since there were so many descendants by this time, they took turns with this most high and holy privilege.]
Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the sight ofGod, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
Once, when Zechariah’s section was on duty and he was serving as ‘priest before God’, he was chosen by lot to be the one to enter the sanctuary of the Lord [the Holy of Holies] and burn the incense.
Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and gripped with fear. But 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.
(start thinking about what you would do and say next, as we continue with the angel’s announcement)
“He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will turn 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 parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
(What would you do next?)
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel replied, “[well] I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to tell you this good news. . . . But now, 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.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them. and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away my disgrace among the people.”
(story from NIV and NRSV, adapted for telling)
Take away: “He did not believe the words of promise spoken to him.”
Brief comparison with Mary (Brief summary Mary Annunciation)
The other announcement story comes to a very young person, Mary. In Elizabeth’s 6 month of pregnancy, Gabriel gets another assignment. THIS story you know.
(ask them to tell it?)
Mary: In Elizabeth’s 6th month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
But she was much perplexed by his words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. “For nothing is impossible with God.”
[do you immediately think about your own response?]
Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.
Two people, one an old, experienced, HIGH priest of the Jewish people, the other a very young, inexperienced girl, not yet married, still separated in her father’s household.
Two very different reactions.
Which one has hope?
“She believed the words of promise spoken to her.”
They both received a promise. They both undoubtedly knew the promises that scripture relayed. They have heard the prophets tell of God’s promise to restore justice, to save people from injustice, to make the world ‘right- righteous’ again.
But it is commonly known that there have been NO PROPHETS since Malachi, so these new announcements are signs that the messianic age is dawning. Mary’s announcement tells of a son who will BE the CHOSEN one, the one to save his people. It’s the promise they have all waited for.
When someone makes you a promise do you hope it will come true or take their word as fact?
Are divine promises different?
It is easy to lose hope in the face of disasters, or when we look a the disaster of disease and famine. Or when we see the vast injustice in the world, the kind of injustice and inequity we heard described in Isaiah.
It isn’t easy to hang onto hope the way Mary does and to speak of the righteousness action of God as FACT long before it happens.
These are 2 very similar stories.
Yet we have 2 VERY different responses.
Question: who do we more closely resemble?
I wonder how much their ages and experience (or lack of) play a part in their ability to believe in the promise.
I wonder how much hope they held, in the ancient words of the scripture.
I wonder how we actually would respond if it were us surprised by Gabriel.
My wondering came to a head yesterday at the end of our decorating. Let me tell you one last story.
When everyone left, I was getting ready to lock up when I decided that the narthex needed just a little of the pine we had in these windows. I walked out to get my clippers and ran into someone who had come to help decorate - late. I explained we were done, but since I was planning to clip more, and am a bit too short to do so, I was glad for a little help.
WE brought in the pine and chatted and he began to share a story. Now this is someone who many of you wouldn’t recognize, he is here so infrequently. Mostly he’s away on Sunday. But something had just happened that brought him here hoping to find someone to talk to.
He had just had his own ‘announcement’ of sorts. He told me it was an angel. That was his understanding of the message he received. He was going to be a father and was incredibly surprised, for reasons I don’t need to go into.
His messenger told him that this would be a special boy. One who would make a real difference in the world.
I couldn’t help but think about the words we use at baby dedications that come from the Jewish naming ceremony. The reminder that the prophet Elijah once told God’s people that every child has the potential to be a messiah because within every child is a spark that can repair the world.
He finished telling the story saying he was afraid to tell people. He thought they wouldn’t believe him, but he came to me, thinking his pastor and his church family would believe.
My question to you is, What should I say to him?
You’ve heard two stories of response, and now we are faced with our own church family story. What should we say?
You probably have heard Emily Dickinson’s poem about Hope. The first verse is,
“Hope” is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
I believe that how we HOLD our ‘HOPE’ determines whether we believe that promises will come true. . .
I wonder how you ‘hold your hope?’
Do you keep hope at a distance?
barely close enough to see, but not close enough to disappoint you if the promise doesn’t come true in your lifetime?
Or does HOPE PERCH in your SOUL?
so close that you can feel the flutters when you hear stories like these?
So close that your HOPES RISE, and you begin to hear angel’s sing ..sing that tune without words. . .
hope… that NEVER STOPS AT ALL.
How do you hold YOUR hope?
R. Alan Culpepper NIB Vo. IX (Nashville:Abingdon,1995)46
also Raquel Lettsome http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=436