December 18, 2016 | Luke 1: 57-80 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
Any parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt or close friend who has ever thought about a child they might welcome into their family, whether through birth or adoption or the blending of two households, always wants more for those children than just their good health.
My niece is expecting her first child early in the new year and although we might say we just want the baby to be healthy, the truth is we want so much more for him.
We want him to love music like we all love music. We want him to appreciate the outdoors so we can spend time with him at the family cottage. We want him to get a good education like his mother and father did and have at least the same amount of success as we have had. We want him to follow in the footsteps of his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. We’d love it if he were actually named after someone in the family. Most of all, we want him to be happy and feel like he is part of us. In fact, we’ve wanted all these things for him and more long before he was conceived.
Surely when Zechariah and Elizabeth who we meet once again in this morning’s scripture reading, dreamed of the child they would raise they too had ideas about who and what that child would be like. When they discovered late in life that they would actually have a child, one can only imagine the hopes they had. Surely a child given to them by God for the roll of preparing the way for the Messiah would be as his parents had been, loyal and faithful keepers of the ancient ways, steeped in tradition, perhaps a future recipient of the honours his father and grandfather before him had received. After all their lineage among the Jewish elite ran deep.
Zechariah was a priest of the order of Abijah and Elizabeth a direct descendent of Aaron, brother of Moses. Surely their hopes for this child were high and their expectations clear, just like the hopes and expectations of everyone else around them.
I wonder when it first began to dawn on them that they were going to have to shift their expectations. I wonder when they realized that it would not be just their hopes this child would live by, their desires to carry on the family name and the conventions with which they were raised, all the family traditions. I wonder when they realized this child was meant for fulfilling God’s dreams and they would have to find a way to let go of their narrow vision for his life and love him into being the child that God intended him to be.
The first hint this child would be different came that day in the temple when Zechariah now an elderly priest won the once in a lifetime chance to enter and offer incense in the holiest of holies, the place considered closest to God. As he entered the sanctuary and lit the incense, holding it out if he were holding it under right God’s very nose, suddenly an angel appeared out of nowhere to tell him his prayers have been answered, his wife was about to conceive a child, a child who will be filled with the holy spirit and who would prepare the way for the Lord.
The angel said this child would be given the name John, not Zechariah like his father and his father’s father before him, John, meaning gift of God. The angel also said he would never drink wine or strong drink indicating that not only was this child not going to be named after his father, he was not going to be part of the priesthood of Abijah like his father either, he would be instead a Nazarite. He would be a prophet not a priest.
Those of us who have read even further ahead in this story, know that Zechariah’s son John was not just going to be a different kind of kid, he was going to be a bit of a wild card. Fast forward a few verses of scripture after john is born and he’s wearing a coat made out of camel hair, drinking honey, chomping on locusts and standing down on Granville street yelling “repent, the end is near!”
Trust me, no upstanding member of the Jewish elite with the kind of lineage from which Zechariah and Elizabeth came ever intended this for their child.
No wonder Zechariah was fearful and confused. When the angel tells him Elizabeth is going to have a child it’s as if his dreams were being both fulfilled and shattered at the very same time. Maybe that’s why he stumbled and expressed his doubt in response to the angel’s news for which he was rendered silent until the baby was born.
Not a word passed from Zechariah’s lips for a full nine months until the moment when in this morning’s reading he is asked to settle a dispute among those gathered at the child’s ceremony of circumcision. What is the name of this child? His friends and family ask. Your wife wants to name him John but no one in our family has ever been named john.
This is the moment when my niece phones to tell me they’ve named my nephew blanket not after Michael Jackson’s son blanket but after Linus’ blanket because he was born close to Christmas and I say “no nephew of mine is going to be called Blanket!”
Zechariah’s friends and family gathered round with bated breath hand him the writing tablet and anxiously wait as he slowly writes the words “his name is John.”
That’s the moment when Zechariah’s tongue is loosened and he begins to sing the most beautiful of songs declaring God is good and hope is on the way, not that anyone heard him because they were probably still fretting about what the baby was going to be called.
And yet, this is the very thing everyone had wanted in a child, but just not in the package they expected to receive it. This child was going to be of a family much, much greater than the families of Elizabeth and Zechariah, this child was a child of God.
Instead of being of the priestly order of Abijah like dear old dad, john would turn away from the old religious order, to prepare the way for something new, instead of living in the midst of the world, he would be removed from the world, living in the wilderness, wearing distinctive clothes and eating distinctive food.
He would be an outsider by all accounts, an outsider who would be so unattached to the way things had always been and the way things were supposed to be that he would open the doorway for a brand new moment in time.
Can you imagine having so much love and trust in what God is doing through your child that you would give them the freedom to actually become who they were meant to be, to open doorways you didn’t even know were there to open because your own vision of the world was far too short sighted to see it?
Somehow, perhaps in the discipline of the silence, Zechariah had found a way to love and accept his unusual unborn child, just the way he was and more importantly to trust that this was God’s way of loving the world into a new way of being – and he best not get in the way.
How often do we think if we let go of the old ways of doing things nothing will ever be the same, as if the way things are is the way things should always be, failing to see that the way things are, isn’t exactly what has been intended for us and for our world.
One of the interesting things about what the angel says to Zechariah about his future son john is that john, who we know as John the Baptist, will turn the hearts of parents towards their children. The first heart John turns is the heart of his father who has to let go of the way he wants his child to be, in order to love his child the way god loves him.
And that makes me wonder about an aspect of the song that Zechariah sings when his voice is given back to him that is missing from all the other songs that are sung throughout the birth narratives as they are found in Luke’s gospel. Only Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus contain three beautiful songs that appear at various intervals, the Magnificat otherwise known as the song of Mary, the song of Zechariah and the song of Simeon which comes after Jesus’ birth.
In Zechariah’s song he speaks not only of the way god, through John and Jesus is bringing political peace to the world, rescuing Israel from the hands of her enemies, he speaks also of the way god brings spiritual peace. He sings of god’s tender mercy and the forgiveness of sins, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.
It’s as if Zechariah is saying that the only way to experience peace on the political level, is to experience it first on the personal level or at least that the two of them go hand in hand. For Zechariah, personal peace leads the way to political peace.
One of the things that causes both stress and joy at this time of year is the expectation we have that everyone gets along with one another. No one wants a fight at the Christmas dinner table. No one wants someone to steal their parking space at the mall which is why we yell “merry Christmas to you too” when they do.
We know that Christmas is supposed to be about peace and we also know we still have a long, long way to get there. Old ways of being are going to have to fall away if we are ever going to arrive at the new day god intends.
So perhaps this year instead of needing everything and everyone to be the way we expect it to be, we might take a page from Zechariah’s story and try instead to find a way to love one another, just the way we are. Maybe we can find a way to be gracious and forgiving with ourselves, the way that God is gracious and forgiving with us. Maybe our hearts can and will be turned to future generations instead of only turning to the way things have always been.
Maybe this year we will expect more of ourselves and more of others and more of God in the best kind of way.
Because long before you and I were ever born, a dream was held in the heart of the Great Heart, a dream that we would know that we are loved, a dream that we would like John and Jesus before us, would walk in the way of peace.
It’s a dream we too often forget from day to day, it’s a dream we cannot seem to find our way to at least on a world wide scale because over and over again we return to our old familiar patterns.
So it is that every year at this time we are reminded once again of all that is possible in the heart of God and in the lives of those who prepare the way and turn to receive the gifts so generously given.