(Luke 1: 5-20; Isaiah 2: 1-5)
When I started seminary, I lived for the summer with some friends in their spare bedroom. Their apartment was in Vinings, outside Atlanta, up I-75 in the far northwestern corner of the city. The seminary was way over in Decatur, due east of Atlanta. It wasn’t an ideal commute, but the place was free so I wasn’t complaining.
The first time or two to the seminary, I took the interstate down into town and then hung a left on Ponce de Leon, which led right into Decatur. On paper it looked pretty straightforward and simple, but if you’ve ever driven in Atlanta you know very little is straightforward and simple. Just under fifteen miles the trip was – and yet, in the horror that is Atlanta rush hour traffic, it took me nearly an hour to drive it. And most of the time my car was just sitting still in the road.
So one night I got out the map – this was before the days of Google Maps and GPS, mind you – I got out an actual paper map and unfolded it and started looking for another route. And I found a string of neighborhood roads, winding through Buckhead and Lindbergh and down into Morningside and Emory Village. It still took me the same hour to get to the seminary. So why did this become my go-to route for the rest of the summer? Simple. I was moving. It was nearly a third more miles, but I was totally okay with that. Because I was moving. And that made all the difference.
Truth is I, like most people I know, do not like to wait. To paraphrase a well-known song: what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again….
Our scripture today, if you didn’t notice, is chopped full of all kinds of waiting; this odd little story of the priest Zechariah and wife Elizabeth, and how the pregnancy of John the Baptist came to be. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been waiting – waiting for a child, waiting a long, long time for a child. The people of God also were waiting – waiting for Zechariah to emerge from the sanctuary where he’d gone to offer incense to God. This is what the priest would do from time to time, when the people were feeling like they hadn’t heard from God in a while and were tired of – you guessed it – waiting. One of the priests would be chosen by lot, by chance; and sent into the temple by themselves to offer incense and receive a vision from God. Of course, this vision didn’t happen instantaneously, so the priest would have to wait for it. And the people as well, waiting outside the temple, waiting for their beloved priest to emerge with a good word.
Can you imagine if this were how sermons went? We all gather here in the sanctuary, sing hymns, pray some prayers, read some scripture; and then Grace or me, back in the library, lighting some incense and waiting for a sermon to come. And you all out here, just sitting in the pews during that time, doing whatever you do when you’re waiting for a sermon in church. I don’t think that’d work out well for either of us!
But here – here, Zechariah is doing his waiting in the temple when the angel Gabriel appears. This terrifies Zechariah, because who wouldn’t be. And the angel tells Zechariah that his waiting is over. Not the waiting for a vision – that waiting we can assume is over – obviously. No, the other waiting, the waiting-for-a-child waiting. Gabriel shares with Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth will soon have their long-awaited child. And not only that – this child will be a special child. And we’re not talking top 5% of the class special. Listen again:
He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
I mean, you get mentioned in the same breath with Elijah, you’re going places!
So how does Zechariah react to this incredible news that his long-awaited child is on the way, and he will be a pretty special child at that? He hedges. He is less than convinced. He wonders out loud how in the world such a thing could happen physically given his and Elizabeth’s advanced age?
And I love how the angel responds to this: he says, I am Gabriel. In other words, I’m an angel, okay? I’ve dropped in on your little vision-seeking endeavor in the holy sanctuary, hello?! And before Zechariah can say something, the angel takes away his ability to say anything – strikes him mute, until that which he has spoken of comes to pass.
Imagine the scene when Zechariah emerges from the temple to the throng of a crowd who’d gathered there for just that moment; all the waiting they’d done that day, for days; for years and decades and centuries, really – all that waiting for this moment, when the lucky priest gets to tell them about the amazing and wonderful thing God is doing in his and Elizabeth’s lives and in the lives of God’s people….
…..and he cannot speak a word.
Can I ask you something? Can I ask you why you think the angel shut Zechariah up so that, in that most highly anticipated moment, and for months to come, Zechariah could not speak. Why? What was the point of that? Was the point, as I think most people tend to think, to punish Zechariah? Punish him for not believing in the instant the angel’s words met his ears? Is this a punitive kind of a thing?
Punitive in the way we might think of Moses not being allowed to enter the Promised Land when he struck the rock for water instead of speaking to it, as God commanded. Punitive in the way we might think of Peter, sinking in the waves when he suddenly became aware of how big they were and how deep the water was. A lack of faith, a sign of weakness: these things, conventional wisdom says, come with consequences.
Is that what’s going on here?
I gotta tell you, I’m not buying it. I’m not. Not with Moses, not with Peter. Not with Zechariah. I just don’t think God works that way. Because honestly, if that were the case, none of us would be doing a lot of talking, right? Your minister would be standing in this pulpit, speechless. Literally! We all have moments of doubts. Instances when the goodness of God far exceeds our human expectations, stretching our awe and wonder just a little too far.
No, I wonder if what’s going on here is that this divinely-imposed “quiet time” was not punishment at all, but rather a kind of gift. A gift to Zechariah to continue his prayerful waiting outside the temple walls. Because those moments when we are so overwhelmed with the goodness of God, when we lose our voice and cannot speak, that is when we are forced to go more inward, is it not? Turning our waiting into this perpetual holy ground moment that words can only get in the way of.
I am telling you, God can do amazing work on us in our waiting, if only we’d let God.
Noted author and speaker Brene Brown, in her wonderful book Daring Greatly, writes about the word vulnerability. There is some amount of vulnerability that is present in the process of waiting, don’t you think? Waiting often leaves us exposed, defenseless. Did you know the word “vulnerable” comes from Latin and literally means “to wound.” Think about that. If we’re going to head straight-on into our vulnerability – seeking healing, applying for our dream job, asking that woman out on a first date, telling the therapist what really happened – if we’re going to enter into that kind of waiting, some part of us is going to get a little wounded in the process. Maybe just a little nick, maybe a huge gash. Whatever it is, vulnerability and waiting tend to lead us into some level of discomfort and pain.
In her book, Brown claims that vulnerability is key, not just for people living into their full selves, but companies and organizations – and dare I say, churches. In a very real sense, Brown says, we cannot “play it safe” when it comes to living our lives or being the body of Christ. We have to be willing to wait in order to grow. She goes further:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy. It’s the source of hope, accountability and authenticity. Vulnerability is not weakness; in fact, it is the bedrock of courage.
We avoid vulnerability – and do often – when we keep ourselves busy and moving. When we don’t take time to hit the pause button to reflect and think. When we take the longer route from Vinings to Decatur just because we don’t stop as much. Just as we hate to wait, we are experts when it comes to avoiding vulnerability
Until something happens – or doesn’t happen – and we have no choice but wait. We sit outside the temple waiting for the priest to emerge. We’re unable to say a word for months on end. We’re forced into waiting, and in so doing we’re forced into confronting our vulnerability. And that is okay. Because vulnerability, remember is not weakness – it is the bedrock of courage. It’s God’s non-physical holy space. It is precisely where God so often does God’s greatest work on us.
This season of Advent that begins today, it is intentional holy-waiting on our part; stubborn waiting as it were, since everything around us is in a mad dash to get to December 25th.
A Sunday school teacher was helping her third-grade class build a manger scene in a corner of their classroom. They set up everything – the barn structure, all the animals, an assortment of shepherds, the three wise men, and some fake hay to top it off. Finally, Mary and Joseph were added to the scene, and then of course, the manger with baby Jesus.
The children loved their little manger scene – except for one boy, who had a quizzical look on his face as he stared down at their creation. The teacher asked him what was wrong. “Nothing’s wrong,” the boy replied. “I was just wondering,” he said as he motioned at the manger scene before him, “where does God fit in all of this?”
You and I, we are called to resist the mad dash, because God needs to work on us a little bit longer, and that involves vulnerability and waiting. And that’s not always fun. Waiting is frustrating. Waiting is uncomfortable. Waiting goes against most every fiber in our being. Which is why waiting is one of God’s greatest gifts. We just don’t always see it as such.
Not too long ago, I started a daily devotional – an app I have on my phone. It dings me every morning when it’s time to read it again. This past Thursday was on Advent, and the waiting of Advent, and this is what it said: Sometimes it is hard to know just how close we are to something. Tracking a package, a flight, or a phone’s location can often tell us where something is, but not always exactly when it will come to us.
Sometimes it is hard knowing just how close we are to something. That, my friends, is the essence of Advent! We already know what is coming; we know this storyline through and through. A storyline of miracles! There’s the miracle of promise, and the miracle of waiting for God to fulfill that promise. There’s the miracle of being shut up, and the miracle of finally being able to speak. And there is the miracle of a long-awaited, promised, joyous birth.
All of that will come to pass. But not yet. The kingdom of God is at hand; we are close! But we’re not there yet. There is still work to be done; there is still waiting in our future. It is as if we are sitting in my car way back in the summer of 1995, stuck somewhere on I-75 in downtown Atlanta, inching along; Decatur just a few miles away but we have no idea how long it’ll take to get there.
We are a waiting people in a waiting season. So in the words of my friend Michelle Thomas-Bush:
Let us begin Advent, waiting.
Not the “going back to sleep” kind of waiting.
Not the impatient pacing, or wasted anxiety of waiting.
Not even the passive-aggressive waiting that says, “Really? We’ll see.”
Let us begin Advent, waiting.
Getting up and joining the adventure,
Even when we don’t know where it will take us.
Shifting the impatient waiting to expectant living.
Boldly claiming the Good News that we know will come.
Waiting with joy as we reach out with the grace of God
That is so much more than amazing.
Sometimes it is hard knowing just how close we are to something. People of God: wait for it!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.