Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Isaiah 2: 1-5; Luke 1: 5-25)
When I started summer Greek school at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA many years ago, I lived with some friends in a spare bedroom in their apartment in Vinings, another Atlanta suburb. If you know anything about the geography of Atlanta, you know Vinings and Decatur are practically on opposite sides of that sprawling city. Was it ideal? No. But it was free.
The first time or two driving to the seminary, I took I-75 into town and then veered right on Ponce de Leon Avenue, which led me straight to Decatur. On paper it looked straightforward and simple, but of course very little about driving in Atlanta is straightforward and simple. The trip was right at fifteen miles, but in the horror that is Atlanta rush hour traffic, it took nearly two hours out of my day, round trip. And most of the time, I wasn’t even moving – my car was trapped in traffic, barely creeping along.
So one night I got out a map – and just to be clear, when I say “map,” I mean an actual paper map; this being long before the era of GPS. I unfolded the map on my friend’s dining room table and started looking for another route. It took awhile but eventually I found a string of neighborhood roads, winding through Buckhead and Lindbergh and coming down Morningside and Emory Village all the way into Decatur. Now it still took the same two hours to get there and back. Even so, this route quickly became my preferred route. And why? Simple – because I was moving. It was nearly a third more miles, but I was okay with that. Because at least I was moving. And I wasn’t having to wait..
Our scripture today is a story about waiting. All kinds of waiting. Nothing in this story takes place in a quick time frame; nothing happens as fast as hoped for. It’s a story about the priest Zechariah and his pregnant wife Elizabeth. The two of them had endured more than their fair share of waiting – waiting for a child; a long, long time for a child.
The people of God were waiting – waiting for Zechariah to emerge from the sanctuary where he had gone to offer incense to God. This is what the priest would do from time to time when the people had not heard from God in a while and were getting tired of – you want to take a guess? – waiting. One of the priests would be chosen at random and sent into the temple all 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. Nothing but waiting and waiting and waiting….
Here’s a question: can you imagine if that’s how we did things here? Sunday morning rolls around, everyone’s gathered in the sanctuary. We’d sing some hymns, pray some prayers, read some scripture. And then Rebecca or me, whoever’s preaching that day, we’d make our way back to the library, let’s say; we’d light some incense and wait for a sermon to come. Waiting for a sermon to come. Meanwhile, you all would be sitting out here, doing whatever one does when waiting for the preacher to come out with a sermon, with no idea how long you’d be waiting. Now how do you think that would go over, I wonder?
And yet that’s exactly what’s happening in our passage today. And in his sacred seclusion, we are told, Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel who tells him that his waiting is over – namely, that he and Elizabeth will finally have their son. But there’s more – this son of theirs, Gabriel tells them, will be special. And not “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. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
So, just to recap: Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have their long-awaited child, a child they’d been waiting on for decades, more years of their life spent waiting than not waiting. And then he reveals that this child will prepare God’s people for the coming of the Lord.
And how does Zechariah respond to this? Is he bursting with excitement, tears of joy? No – he hedges. He’s uncertain. He asks how such a thing could possibly happen at their age. Which, to be clear, is a perfectly understandable question.
And you got to love what the angel says: I am Gabriel, he tells him. I am Gabriel. In other words, I’m an angel, okay?! And before Zechariah can say anything, he suddenly loses the ability to speak – struck mute, until that which the angel has spoken of comes to pass.
So imagine the scene when Zechariah finally emerges from the temple to the throng of a crowd who’d gathered there for that very moment; all the waiting they’d done for days in one sense and in another for centuries…..
…..and he cannot say a word.
You’d be justified, by the way, if you questioned whether Zechariah got a raw deal here. You’d be right to wonder if this is the divine M.O. when we hedge, when we’re uncertain; when we have a hard time believing the impossible can actually be possible. You’d even be right in wondering if this was some kind of punishment going on. It sort of feels like it, doesn’t it?
Maybe, if we look at it through the lens of the world we live in and the way that it tends to operate. But I’m not so sure that’s what’s happening here. In fact, I’m actually inclined to wonder if this divinely-imposed “quiet time” is more of a gift. Holy, sacred space – the word “sacred,” we remember, means “set apart.” Holy space designed to allow the impossible to slowly seep into the depths of who we are and take root there. It is waiting, but not “waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-75” waiting. No, this is waiting with a purpose. Waiting for God to work in us.
I am telling you: God can do some of God’s best work in our waiting.
Noted author and speaker Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, writes about vulnerability. There is some level of vulnerability in waiting, don’t you think? Waiting leaves us exposed, defenseless. In fact, the word “vulnerability” comes from Latin and literally means “to wound.” To wound – think about that. If we’re going to go head-first into our vulnerability – having a hard conversation, applying for our dream job, telling the therapist what we’re really feeling – if we’re going to embrace our vulnerability like that, some part of us is going to get a little wounded in the process. A little nick, or maybe a big gash. Whichever it is, the healing of that wound won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take some time. It’s going to involve some waiting.
In her book, Brown claims that vulnerability is key, not just for people living into their full selves, but for companies and organizations – and I would add churches. She writes:
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 when we keep ourselves busy and moving. When we don’t take time to reflect and think on all that is around us. When we take the longer route from Vinings to Decatur just because we don’t stop as much. We are experts at avoiding vulnerability.
Until something happens – or doesn’t happen – and we can avoid it no longer. We make ourselves vulnerable and we are forced to wait. So it was with Zechariah, so it was with the people of God, so it is with each and every one of us today.
And that is okay. Because vulnerability is not weakness – it is, as we’ve been told, the bedrock of courage. It’s God’s non-physical holy space. It is where God does some of God’s greatest work.
And when we choose to make ourselves vulnerable, when we go into our waiting, what we find, time and time again, friends, is this good news: that what we are waiting for is very much worth the wait. Jesus, Immanuel, is coming into the world to be with us. With us! The very definition of vulnerability. Jesus is coming to be with us because of God’s steadfast and unwavering love for us. More vulnerability. And through it all, we rest assured in the promise of God-with-us; and it is on this foundation that we live the rest of our lives in the fullest of confidence and the greatest of hopes:
When the waves of change are swirling all around us, when we barely feel we can get a solid footing in our daily walk, the One who is coming is the solid foundation on which we stand.
When so much around us is unclear and uncertain; when so much is unknown and mysterious, when we are living every minute of every day in the gray, the One who is coming helps us see things clearly and lean into hope more confidently, in ways couldn’t do on our own.
When chaos ensues, when nothing seems to be going right, the One who is coming is the calm in the storm, steadying our way and guiding us home.
And when every day seems to bring with it a new obstacle, an endless traffic jam, another battle to fight, another problem to deal with, the One who is coming is our peace, our light, our companion along the way, never leaving our side.
It is all challenging and difficult and hard, and none of it happens overnight. But people of God, rest assured in this: the One who is coming is coming. He always has been. He always will be. And that right there makes it all worth the wait.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 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.
 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, pgs. 15 & 37.