December 10, 2023

Luke 1:5-25, 57-79

“Zechariah’s Song”

During this Season of Advent, I decided to move away from the usual Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sundays, and to focus on the prophetic voices of some of the biblical song-writers that had a special part to play in the story of Christ’s birth into the world. I need to acknowledge the influence of the Rev. Angie Song, another PCC minister who wrote this year’s Advent Devotional Study “Sing a New Song” and suggested that we look at the songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, Simeon, and the Psalmist through this season.

Last Sunday’s “Magnificat” song from Mary was one of the more well-known songs, and today’s is probably a bit less familiar. In fact, if I just mentioned “Zechariah’s Song” to most Christians, they might say, “Zechariah? Who was that, again?” He’s not a particularly famous person in the New Testament, given that we only have this one story from his life and ministry. But I think there is a lot that we can learn from him.

Zechariah was, of course, John the Baptist’s Dad. We know the importance of John’s role in preparing the way of Christ into the world. We remember how he preached and taught the people, how he called them to turn their hearts and their lives back to God, and to watch for the Messiah who was coming soon to turn the world around.

John was a strange and wonderful prophet who did his preaching in the wilderness, who dressed oddly and ate locusts and wild honey (whatever he could find to eat out there, I suppose). He drew crowds with his radical messages of service and sacrifice, and influenced many people who chose to be baptized, confessing their sins, and turning their lives towards God.

In contrast, John’s father was part of the established religious system. He was a priest who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah and who served in the temple in Jerusalem. I don’t know if Zechariah’s role included preaching and teaching, but it did include performing ritual acts of worship like burning incense, and presumably saying prayers.

In our text today, we hear about how Zechariah was chosen by lot to take a turn at going into the sanctuary of the Lord – the Holy of holies, as it was called. This was the inner sanctuary of the temple where the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments would have rested. This was a place where the general public would not go – a place where the People of Israel believed God was present in a particularly real and powerful way. Just one priest would go in to burn incense and offer prayer to God. This was a really special privilege for the priest who was chosen to do it.

And when Zechariah went in, what happened in the Holy of holies changed his life forever. The same angel, Gabriel, who spoke to Mary in her home and told her about the part she would play in welcoming God’s presence into the world, spoke to Zechariah in a similar way.

Gabriel’s message from God was good news and the fulfillment of one of Zechariah’s hopes and dreams. Elizabeth and Zechariah hadn’t been able to have children, but now in their old age, the angel said that they would conceive a son and name him John, meaning “God is gracious.”

But more than that, Gabriel’s message from God was good news for more than just one couple. It was the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of the People of Israel and, in fact, of all the people of the world. God was about to fulfill the promise to send a Messiah – a Saviour for the people. And Zechariah’s son, “God is gracious” would have an important part to play in preparing the people to receive the One who was coming into the world.

John would invite the people to turn away from sin and towards God. John would assure them of the graciousness and mercy of God who would forgive their sins and show them a new way of unconditional love.

Zechariah heard the message from the angel, but he didn’t quite believe it. He might have expected to meet God in the sanctuary. After all, he was going into the Holy of holies! But maybe he didn’t believe that God could actually do something to fulfill his own hopes and the hopes of his people too. Because of his doubt, Gabriel announced that Zechariah would become mute and be unable to speak until the promise was fulfilled.

Zechariah’s story makes me think about a few things. First of all, it makes me wonder whether we, like him, may sometimes doubt that God is going to do something in our lives. I mean, we’re religious people like Zechariah was. We come to worship and we say our prayers. We take our turns to light the Advent candles, to read the Scriptures, or to do other religious rituals that are part of our faith.

But when we come to church, do we expect to meet God here? Do we listen for a message that could change our lives? Do we believe that God could do something to fulfill our hopes and dreams or to fulfill God’s promises for the redemption of the world?

Yesterday, I was meeting with Sumi Jung and Taeyang No, a young couple of who are members of Norman Kennedy Presbyterian Church, and who have both been certified by our Presbytery of Assiniboia as Candidates for Ministry in The Presbyterian Church in Canada. We were talking about the courses they are taking through St. Andrew’s Hall in Vancouver and the Theological Field Education course that they each need to do in a congregation.

Taeyang is with us this morning for worship, so I hope that many of you will get a chance to meet him and start to get to know him. Right now, he’s working on his learning goals for his Theological Field Education course, and we’re discussing how he may do it right here at First Church.

But the reason I’m telling you about this in this sermon is that several times, while we were talking and discussing many things about life, and theological education, and ministry, either Sumi or Taeyang would say, “I think I could see God’s hand in that thing that happened.”

They were looking back on the events of the last year and giving thanks the ways that God was leading and guiding them. They were expressing their gratitude to God for the people that had helped them and the opportunities that come their way.

Now, someone might say that they were lucky, or that these things were either just coincidences or maybe the result of their hard work. But Sumi and Taeyang were expecting God to act in their lives, they looked for it, and they gave thanks for their blessings. Unlike Zechariah’s initial response, they didn’t get stuck asking “How can this be?” and doubting the good news they were receiving. They expected God to act in their lives, and rejoiced in God’s unfolding plans.

The second thing that strikes me about Zechariah’s story is the enforced silence he had to endure. As someone who does a fair amount of talking and usually wants to weigh in on plans and decisions, I think those months of silence would have been very difficult.

But I wonder if sometimes we all need to observe some silence in order to listen for God’s voice. How can God speak to us if we won’t stop talking? Whether it’s within our prayers where we need to not only list the things we want, but also be quiet enough to hear what God may want to do through us. Or if we need to make a decision about something, how can God help us if we don’t take the time to listen?

I’m not going to suggest that we all need to go on a silent retreat for several days or weeks or months, although many people would find that helpful. But I wonder if we each might consider how to open up some time and space in our daily lives for quiet reflection.

Personally, I find some of that quiet space while I’m walking. Sometimes people want to come in and sit in the church quietly when no one else is here to pray and to reflect, and you’d be very welcome to do that. Or maybe you can carve out a few minutes each day for a practice of prayer or devotion and take some time for silence too.

The Advent Devotional Study suggests doing the Prayer of Examen on a daily basis. The Prayer of Examen is a silent recounting of your past day to see how God was present with you. You find a quiet place, perhaps before going to bed, and set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes. Then you play the last 24 hours back in your mind, scene by scene, like a movie, and you look for where God was present with you throughout the day, whether in moments of joy and kindness or moments of sorrow and confusion. Then you thank God for being present with you in those moments.

I don’t think that the silence was a punishment for Zechariah. I think it was a gift. What he couldn’t comprehend through the sudden appearance of an angel in the Holy of holies in the temple, he came to understand when he went back home to his wife and silently supported her through her late-life pregnancy.

Angie Song imagines that Zechariah probably had a lot to think about during those months, including pondering the stories of Sarah and Abraham, Rachel and Jacob, Hannah and Elkahah. God miraculously gave them children who would have such important parts to play in God’s plans for the People of Israel. Now God was giving a child to Zechariah and his wife, not only for their joy, but for the good of the world.

God spoke to Zechariah through that time, and clarified God’s plan for the child who would be born. And when, at last, he was able to speak again, he was ready to use his voice as a prophet to sing and proclaim the good news of God that was coming through John who would prepare the way, and through Jesus, the Saviour of all.

I wonder what God is planning to do through us, through our voices, and through our lives. I wonder what God will do through us when we expect God to act, and when we quiet ourselves to listen for God’s voice.