This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, November 24, 2013.
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear so that together, we might be inspired to speak and live your Word in the world starting today. Amen.
Zechariah, a priest in the order of Abijah, was going about his daily routine when he got word that his name was drawn from the hat to serve in the temple. Picked by lottery (Luke 1:9), he was drafted to perform the priestly duties at the temple in Jerusalem. He packed his bags, left his wife and home, and went to perform his priestly duties.
While performing his duties, he was required to go into the Lord’s sanctuary—a place where only priests were allowed to go—burn incense, and offer prayers before the altar of the LORD, while the people of God prayed outside. It was supposed to last an hour. So, when Zechariah failed to show after 60 minutes, the congregation got restless: I know it’s hard to relate, but it is like when some preachers (*cough* not this one) talk too long during the sermon. The people were getting antsy, looking at their watches and squirming in their pews. This was supposed to be an hour gig and Zechariah was running past the hour. They had things to do, people to see, and they had to beat the folks from St. Mary’s to Café Max. I know it is hard to relate.
The congregation was sorely disappointed when Zechariah emerged speechless—unable to talk, unable to defend himself to those who were late for dinner—all he could do was use sign language to tell about what had just happened. By some miracle, or Divine intervention, Zechariah was able to convey to them that he’d seen a vision (Luke 1:22).
The angel Gabriel had appeared to him, telling him that his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant and give birth to a child who would, like Elijah, be a mighty prophet, preparing the way for the Lord’s arrival (see Luke 1:13-17). Zechariah laughed at the announcement. He and Elizabeth were unable to conceive. Having gone through my own bouts with infertility, I can imagine Zechariah laughing at what seemed impossible and saying—“Um, I don’t think so. Trust me, we’ve tried and tried and tried and tried… And, besides, Liz and I, we’re really old.” The angel didn’t take too kindly to Zechariah’s humor. Stop talking, said the angel, and watch what God will do; and, once God has done what God has promised, you’ll be able to speak once more. But until then, shut up and pay attention (see Luke 1:20).
Zechariah went home speechless. Unable to speak, he and Elizabeth conceived a child. He remained speechless. The baby was born and words escaped him. Eight days after the child was born, after they had named the child, John, Zechariah’s voice returned. He “was able to speak again, and he began praising God” (Luke 1:64b, Common English Bible) and looking down at the son in his arms, he finds hope.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
Luke 1:76-79, Common English Bible
How far along the path are we?
Zechariah hoped that John would help usher in a new day of peace for God’s people: a time when God’s promises would be fulfilled; a time when the world would be at peace with itself and God; a time when, in the words of the prophet Isaiah,
6-9 The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture,
their calves and cubs grow up together,
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill…
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive…
Isaiah 11:6-10, The Message
And all will be at peace! How close to peace are we, really?
Like Paul to the church at Colossae, it is my constant prayer that we might “live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way” (Colossians 1:10b, Common English Bible). We do this by becoming full-time students of the Master, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace:
…all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
Colossians 1:19b-20, Common English Bible
This is the last weekend before the start of what is often a very hectic holiday season. Thursday is Thanksgiving and next Sunday, we will decorate the sanctuary during worship through the Hanging of the Greens to begin the countdown to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It’s a crazy time in which, I hope and pray, you’ll find comfort, hope, and joy in the Prince of Peace. But know this: the Christmas season isn’t about us—the presents we’ll receive, the food the eat, the songs we’ll demand be song. This season we’re about to enter isn’t about us—it’s about what God is doing to put the world at peace. And, it begins with a baby in a manger, it comes to its seminal moment on the cross, and continues through the work of the church.
Like John, we are called to prepare the way for God to enter into people’s lives. We are called to show the world that salvation comes through the forgiveness of sins—the things that separate us from God and one another. We are called to demonstrate to the world that God’s love for us is sure: that the dawn from heaven is breaking through the darkness and showing us the way that leads toward peace.
I like the way our Book of Discipline puts it:
The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality, and its impact on an unbelieving world.
¶130, The United Methodist Book of Discipline (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012).
We must demonstrate to the world a new way of being—living into God’s loving Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The hope Zechariah saw in his newborn son, is the same hope God has for us, the Church—Christ’s body active and alive in the world today.
God has entrusted us with message of the Gospel. God has shown us the way to peace through the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, we have no excuse. We must embody God’s deep compassion for the world as the light from heaven casts away all the shadows of fear and death and leads us on the path of peace.
Friends, we are called to “live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way” (Colossians 1:10b, Common English Bible). May it be so, in order that all might truly find peace on this earth.
 In Luke 1:10, the Common English Bible mentions that the ritual incense burning was to last an hour (this is consistent with the English Standard Version); however, I don’t see that reference in the New Revised Standard Version, King James Version, or the New International Version. Interesting and comical when you think about some congregants’ penchant for a strict hour (and no more) of Sunday morning worship.