From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL

This Sunday Dec. 2: Advent 1

When we first starting planning Advent, I thought about a series on the Psalms – there are several particular Psalms assigned to Advent and I thought it might be good for us to explore them. In discussing it with my worship team, however, it seemed to them exceedingly strange not to have the gospel readings on Sundays. After further discussion, we came up with the idea of looking at the songs in Luke 1 – Zecharaiah’s and Mary’s – and pair those readings up with an appropriate Psalm.

So this Sunday’s reading is Luke 1:5-23 which will be paired with Psalm 42:

5  In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

You’ll see several parallels and contrasts between this passage, and that of Gabriel’s visit to Mary (verses 26-38) – one is old, one young; both are afraid; both ask a question of Gabriel; one sings and the other struck dumb. You can spend profitable time meditating on these passages, but for Sunday I’m going to focus on Zechariah’s silence.

Interesting first because this series of three sermons will be focussing on songs, music. But here it begins in silence. The major insight for me has been seeing that Zechariah’s silencing is not punishment – think of Jerry Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: “No song for you!” Instead it’s the answer to Zechariah’s question.

Zechariah’s question is “How shall I know this?” It’s similar but different from Mary’s question, “How will this be?” They’re both “how” questions, but Z seems to want to know more than just the mechanics of how it will happen. I think he wants some verification, a sign, a clincher. Seen that way, Gabriel’s response to Z’s question makes more sense. If I may paraphrase: You wanna know how you’ll know this? I’m freaking Gabriel! I’m an angel that makes you wet your pants when I show up! I spend my time standing in the presence of God Almighty and here I am giving you this promise and you ask how you’ll KNOW this?? Here’s how – if my angelic mightiness isn’t enough for you, then you’ll be quiet, silent, and you’ll watch God work.

It’s a rebuke but a graceful rebuke. Because Gabriel didn’t say “Can I speak with your supervisor? If you can’t believe this I’m just gonna find another priest with stronger faith than you”; he didn’t tell Z to forget it. The promise has been given, and it will be kept. And Z, despite his weak faith, will still come to know it for himself. But the way he’ll come to that knowledge is not thru big signs or concise argumentation, but thru silence.

There are lots of ways to go with this, sermonically speaking. But I’m going to link it to Psalm 42 as a psalm of longing; seeing silence as helpful in clarifying our longings and our truest longing, which is for God not stuff. It will be easy, too, to think of Z’s silence as something we feel – a void, an inarticulateness, an inability to control the things around us.

For me the biggest challenge for Sunday is timing. It’s a big service (Advent candles, communion, choral anthem, responsive Psalm reading, etc.) and I’m under the gun to keep at least the 8:00 service to 60 minutes. In my guts I think that’s silly. But I’m taking it as a challenge to write a 10-minute sermon (“sermonettes for Christianette’s!”) that will be theologically meaty and hearer accessible. Brief and to the point. I’ll need a little Z-grace for my mouth I think! 🙂

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