Waiting with Hope
Luke 1:68-79 – The Song of Zechariah
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us — to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Introduction to the text:
The first scripture reading we heard this morning from Luke’s Gospel is commonly called “The Song of Zechariah.” It’s a song of praise sung by the priest Zechariah after his wife Elizabeth gave birth to their son John. John was born just a few months before Jesus, and grew up to be the man known as “John the Baptist,” the one who prepared the people of Israel for their Savior.
Our second scripture reading tells the back-story to that song. Zechariah and Elizabeth were “well up in years,” as they say, and having a child wasn’t something they expected, especially after a lifetime of being childless. Frankly, Zechariah had a hard time believing it would happen at all.
Listen again for the Word of God.
During the time when Herod was King of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly division of Abijah, and his wife Elizabeth came from the priestly line of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and now they were both quite old.
One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his section was on duty. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, all the people who gathered to worship stood outside, praying.
While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was deeply shaken, and fear overwhelmed him.
But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. But now, because you didn’t believe my words, you will be silent, unable to speak until the day when these things come true at the proper time.”
* * * * *
Every Advent is the same, isn’t it? We’re waiting for Christmas. That’s what this is all about. Four Sundays before Christmas comes, we start marking the time. Of course the rest of the world gets a head start, lighting Christmas trees, playing Christmas music on every radio station, giving us Black Friday to get a jump-start on our shopping, which some people have already finished in the privacy of their own homes, thanks to Amazon Prime.
But still, we have to wait for Christmas. Nothing we do can make December 25th come any faster. We just have to wait.
This Advent we’re going to be thinking about waiting. What it feels like to wait, patiently or impatiently, hopefully or with suspicion. How it’s different in different situations… Sometimes waiting is tiresome, and takes a lot of patience. Other times it’s exciting, like when you’re looking forward to a trip, or a big event like a wedding.
There are a lot of things we wait for in life, and it isn’t always easy or fun, especially when you have no idea what’s going to come next. At least with Christmas, we know what’s coming. We may not know what gifts Santa will bring this year, but we know for sure the day is coming, and we can be pretty sure how the day is going to go.
But truth be told, that kind of waiting is easy, and rare.
When old Zechariah went into the Temple that day to perform the duties of the priest, he was practicing a different kind of waiting, something that was a whole lot harder. He was keeping a tradition alive, the tradition of waiting for the Messiah to come. The Jewish people had been through a lot by then. It had been 1,000 years since the great King David ruled over Israel, 1,000 years since King Solomon had built the first Temple. It was almost 600 years since Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed, Jerusalem destroyed, their nation crushed, and the people of God sent into Exile. It had been 500 years since they returned to start all over. Since then they had been under the rule of the Persians, and then the Greeks, and now they lived under Roman rule. The Romans were the worst of all.
For hundreds of years God’s people were waiting for a Savior. Their hope for the Messiah wouldn’t die. They waited for that time God would make all things new. They waited for the Messiah who would bring in the kingdom of God, the world the way God intended it to be. Waiting became a way of life, a tradition to nurture and protect. Old Zechariah in the Temple burning incense?
He was keeping alive that tradition of hope.
It’s in the words of his song: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
But it’s one thing to hope in theory; it’s another thing to actually expect God to show up. Zechariah wasn’t expecting an angel of the Lord to show up, that’s for sure. And he sure wasn’t expecting to learn that he and Elizabeth were going to be expecting. He’d given up on that a long time ago. Any reasonable person would. He wasn’t being unfaithful; he was being practical.
Expectations can be tricky, you know. Expecting too much can lead to disappointment. Better not to expect too much. It’s safer that way. It’s just better to be realistic.
At least that’s how I learned it when I was growing up. In spades.
I think it was my heritage, honestly. I come from Armenian stock; we come with a few standard features built in. One is that we’re incredibly resilient – any people who survived a genocide must be. We can withstand a lot. We’re made of sturdy stuff. But the other trait is that we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When something bad happens we’re not especially surprised. Talk about keeping expectations low!
I couldn’t really blame my ancestors for that. It comes naturally to people who have faced great trials. It’s kind of a built-in protection. Set the bar low from the beginning and you won’t get hurt. When you’re dwelling in darkness you may hope for the light to come, but you’re not exactly counting on it. You’ll believe it when you see it.
I’ve come to think of it as a kind of cynical hope. It’s not passive or resigned: you’re actively preparing for something good; you just don’t expect much.
Which is why I don’t blame Zechariah for his incredulity when the angel Gabriel shows up to tell him he’s going to have a child, much less that his child will prepare God’s people for the coming of their Savior. Why on earth should Zechariah let himself expect something so ridiculous, when his whole life experience told him otherwise? Who could blame him for his cynical hope?
There was a time in my own life when that’s exactly how I felt. It was when I was waiting for a child, too. Ben was seven years old, and I was pregnant. Again. For the fifth time. After three miscarriages, two of them in the second trimester, I didn’t expect much. Oh, we did the usual preparations: got the room ready, planned maternity leave… the church even had a baby shower.
But it was all so bittersweet. During that entire pregnancy, I couldn’t bring myself to say I was ‘expecting.’ All I was expecting was for the other shoe to drop. It was safer that way. I was just being practical.
You know, the day Luke was born was one of the happiest days of my life. I can’t begin to describe the joy I felt that day, just holding him. And every time I read these passages from the Gospel of Luke, I wonder if that’s how Elizabeth and Zechariah felt?
You know, there are a lot of different kinds of waiting. Some are fun and light-hearted – like waiting for Christmas. Some are exciting, and maybe stressful – like planning for a wedding.
But sometimes you find yourself waiting for something, and the very act of waiting takes determination, and intention, and commitment. And even if it’s tinged with cynicism, it takes hope. It takes enormous trust to believe that, despite all odds, something good might really come. And you’re willing to take that risk, because of what might be possible.
It’s like waiting for light in the darkness. You can’t know that the light is coming. But you prepare as if it is. In the meantime, you keep your lamps trimmed and burning. You stay awake, and watch, and work.
That’s what it’s like to wait for God to make all things new. To live as if, in spite of everything, that this is true:
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.
May it be so.
Rev. Karen Chakoian