FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Dec. 23, 2018
Prayer of the Day
Let us pray. (Silence) Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to voices preparing your way. Grant us the wisdom to see your purpose and the openness to hear your will, that we too may prepare the way of your Anointed one who comes to establish your kingdom of peace and justice; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Title: Zechariah’s New Voice
I have my voice back! Alleluia! It was a long nine months of frustrating silence for me. But finally, it has come to an end. A glorious end.
Truth be told, it was all that feisty Gabriel’s fault. I speak of the silence part, of course. He came and appeared before me in the temple. Me, Zechariah. Right there in the temple. Sure, it’s to be expected more there than someplace else, some place more ordinary. But there? At that moment? I was nervous enough as it was carrying out that awesome responsibility of making the incense offering. Why did the lot fall on me? I know I should have been rejoicing to be chosen, honored to carry out this most sacred task. But sometimes I just want to be another face in the crowd, just lay low and be nothing special. Well, that was not the case this time, the lot fell on me. So, I was set to my duty. And there, in the silence of the Holy of Holies, Gabriel appears. With some pretty startling news, I might add. A baby? For us? This late in our lives? We, Elizabeth and I, were quite settled on the reality that children would not be a blessing we would enjoy. Gabriel’s news was demanding some enormous re-thinking, re-imagining, re-decorating even.
And, I simply asked for a sign. Understandable, don’t you think? We have always been asking God and God’s messengers for signs. A little confirmation. That’s all. Mary told me she asked her own questions of Gabriel when he came to her. Stalled on the impossibility of what Gabriel said was going to happen to her. It’s only human. News too good to believe. But she didn’t get struck silent. Gentler with young girls, I guess the angels are. Yes, yes, as it should be.
So began the longest nine months of my life. Not just because I couldn’t speak. But because there were so many thoughts going on in my head. And in my heart.
First and foremost, there was Elizabeth. Sure, she was happy to finally be carrying our child after so many years of disappointment. So many family gatherings of public smiles and private tears. Oh, how she doted on the nieces and nephews, on the cousins and on the neighbors. It broke my heart to see what a wonderful mother she would make, but then to never have the chance with her own child. So, yes, she was overjoyed at the prospect of motherhood. But she was no longer young. Could her body endure the bearing, the birthing, the nursing? What might we lose so that this prayer might be answered? I didn’t want to sacrifice her so that I could carry a child in my arms.
I hope it does not sound like I am setting us up on some pedestal reserved for our faithful ancestors, but I did find comfort and encouragement in the stories of Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah. God had cared for them. My fervent prayer was the God would show the same mercy and compassion on my dear wife.
And, thank you Gabriel, there was the added anxiety that I could not discuss any of this with Elizabeth. Silence. Frustrating silence.
Added anxiety. As if I needed to add to my anxiety. There were all the thoughts and fears of the upheaval that a child is guaranteed to bring. We’re old. We’re set in our ways. We have our methods of doing things, our regular routines. You know that mind-set: This is the way we have always done it. But a child is sure to toss all that up in the air so that it can land wherever. Everything. Everything will be re-considered, must be reconsidered. Every aspect of our life has to be reexamined. Adjustments will abound. At our age are we capable of all this and more? What will all this change mean? What had God gotten us into? God forgive me, but certainly more than a few times I thought to myself that maybe we were better off as we had been. Yes, a little sad. But settled. Secure.
Then Mary came to visit. Someone who knew firsthand what it meant to have an angel visit and to be unexpectedly expecting. One who knew what it meant to feel unworthy of a unique calling and the need to fully trust in God and the promises we were hearing. How good it was to come together in our shared experience and pray and sing, and laugh and cry, to speak of joy and fear. Well, the women spoke. I just sat there – in silence – nodding my head in agreement to what they were saying, writing a short note here and there to contribute. Thank you again, Gabriel.
And then the day finally came. The promised child was born. Elizabeth came through the ordeal of childbirth, thank God. All was fulfilled according to God’s promise. But then came that day to name him and the chaos that ensued as family members wanted to name him after me, name him Zechariah. Elizabeth tried to gather up the strength to say that his name would be John. But they all ignored her claiming it was delirium to blame. No one in the family was named John, they protested. They looked at me and the frustration at angel-induced silence hit a new level. I grabbed something to write with and I wrote that his name is John. And suddenly, as if that message was a key, my mouth was unlocked and I could speak again. Nine months of silence came to an end. I held a new life, in my old age I had a new son, and in that moment I had a new voice.
You’d think that maybe my first new words would be a curse at Gabriel who caused all this mess in the first place. Attack with words the one who had silenced me. But no. All the frustration of nine silent months, all the lost thoughts that could not be spoken during those days, all the missed opportunities to express comfort and compassion for my wife, it all just melted away as I looked into the face of the promised child who embodied fulfillment and hope. And with my new voice I sang out. Giving thanks to God for all that had been. Reminding anyone who would listen that God never abandons us, but is always speaking to us in many and various ways. And of course, challenging my son to live into the life that he was called to live. Encouraging him to speak out to the glory of God and for the sake of the world. Speak out, I was saying. For I know what it means to be silenced.
And so, people of St. John’s (I know, you bear the name of another John. Not my son.) But as you celebrate 160 years in this place, sometimes speaking boldly, sometimes being silenced for one reason or another. Like me, find a new voice with which to give God thanks and praise for all that has been. Cause those who look on you and who listen to ponder what God is doing in your midst. And like my son, who you call John the Baptizer, use that voice to speak of light to those who sit in darkness, speak of hope to those who are in despair, speak of mercy to those who bear the load of shame, speak welcome to those who wander alone, and speak truth to those who sit in power.
For just as I saw it all in the face of the promised child that I held in my arms, so you see this and more for you and for all creation in the face of the child that is coming, the face of Jesus who you hold in your hearts and proclaim in your lives. Find your new voice, reborn this Christmas time and renewed each day of your life. As you, also, grow strong in the Spirit.
The Rev. Mark Erson,