Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
Each year we hang stockings, light candles, purchase gorgeous wrapping paper and tie each red bow tight. We embrace the beauty and the sentiment, of this Season of Waiting sometimes forgetting the traditional story is exhausting, messy, and a bit scandalous. If any book represents the scruffiness of our story of Waiting, it’s the book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Let me tell you, in Robinson’s world, it is well known that Alice Wendleken plays Mary every year. She is “so smart, so neat and clean, and most of all so holy looking.” So, it came as a surprise when cigar-smoking Imogene Herdmans, along with her criminal siblings, crashed the Christmas play rehearsals and asks to be Mary. Robinson writes, “Imogene…didn’t know that Mary was supposed to be acted out in one certain way – sort of quiet and dreamy and out of this world. The way Imogene did it, Mary was a lot like Mrs. Santoro at the Pizza Parlor…loud and bossy. ‘Get away from the baby!” she yelled at Ralph who was Joseph. And she made the Wise Men keep their distance.” Even though Imogene subtly mellows out as the story continues, and is not as violent towards Joseph, Mary still did not come across as the dreamy-like figure people expected Mary to be. Robinson, again, writes, “(Imogene and Ralph, AKA Mary and Joseph) looked like people you see on the six o’clock news – refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place…(maybe) this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them. They couldn’t have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph” where Imogene’s veil was cockeyed and Ralph’s hair stuck out. Maybe at first, shoplifting Imogene Herdmans was not the best choice for the character, Mary. But by the end of Robinson’s book, Imogene turned out to be the perfect child to represent the life of Mary and the holy child’s first days of life. As one theologian writes, Mary is, you know “What’s-her-name from the wrong side of the tracks, the one with no education, no coming-out party…the one who is the object of a lot of sly talk and gossip.”
Let’s be honest, all the characters are nowhere near the perfect, dreamy-like figure we see at Hobby Lobby. There’s Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, a lowly carpenter, who accepts that his son is also not his son, and he’s as much a part of the scandal of an unexplainable pre-marital pregnancy. And Elizabeth, a good friend, a support team to Mary and Mary to her, but who could not easily have children. Experiencing the pain and loss that so many women share as she waited and aged and waited and aged. And today, we look at Zechariah, the husband to Elizabeth. A priest, who the community looks to with piousness and respect in their eyes as they raise him on a pedestal of faith, only to find out that a priest, yes, a priest, has doubts too. He becomes the mute priest. No, nothing about this story is perfect or dreamy-like. Everything about this story is supposed to change us, challenge us, surprise us, turn us away from all we think we might know and towards Christ, coming in a form of a baby, born in a stable.
Zechariah certainly experienced a turning in his story, and he takes it upon himself to turn his community to that baby as well. He opens the Advent story in the first chapter of Luke. As were the customs for Jewish priests, he is on his priestly duties and chosen by a lottery to go into the Lord’s Sanctuary and burn incense. As Zechariah is in the Sanctuary alone, an Angel from the Lord appeared to him. Typical to the Christmas story, Zechariah is startled and overcome by fear. The Angel delivers the good news that Elizabeth will give birth to Zechariah’s son and that he will be a joy and delight to them, and many people will rejoice at his birth. He will be great in the Lord’s eyes and filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And Gabriel says, “you must name him John.” Zechariah has doubts and questions, he says, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.” And Gabriel, with an eye role I’m sure, replies, “I am Gabriel, Zechariah. I stand in God’s presence and was sent to speak to you and bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day all these things happen.”
And with that Zechariah becomes mute and all that Gabriel tells him, comes true. When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, neighbors, friends, and relatives gathered to celebrate the birth with her. It is in the ancient Jewish tradition, for the child to be named after his father, but Elizabeth said to those gathered, “no, his name will be John.” This confuses everyone because there is no one named John in their family. The crowd wants to hear from Zechariah. Zechariah takes a tablet and surprises everyone by writing “His name is John.” And immediately, at that moment, Zechariah is able to speak, and he praises God, singing his loud and proud song that is our Scripture today.
It’s not a well-known song to those gathered, but it’s carries familiar words and stories to the Jewish community. Zechariah is taking his neighbors, friends, family on a ride of memories and Scripture, emotions and truth telling. The first part of the song is to praise God and give assurance that God has saved God’s people in the past. Zechariah sings, “Bless the Lord God of Israel because God has come to help and has delivered God’s people.” In the ears of the Jews listening to Zechariah’s sweet tune, his words ring out as memories of the stories told about the Jewish deliverance from Egypt and the deliverance from the Babylonian exile. Zechariah sings about a mighty savior who comes out of David’s house. In the ears of the Jews, these words ring out as the Messiah written throughout the prophets and the Psalms. Zechariah sings about a holy covenant. In the ears of the Jews, they are remembering, embracing, and emotionally embodying the holy covenant between Noah and God, Abraham and God, David and God.
Zechariah switches at this point to sing to his son, John. I wonder if the tune slows as if it’s a lullaby for his sweet little one. He sings, “You, child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way.” In the ears of the Jews, these words ring out from the prophet Isaiah reminding them of “exile and return, of promise and fulfillment, of ancient Israel and the new movement to come.” Zechariah finally sings out about a light that will shine for those who sit in darkness, the shadow of death. And in the ears of the Jews, they will hear Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Zechariah is singing a new song, with familiar ancient stories and words that evoke emotions in the hearts of those gathered. He took old verses, old Torah or Old Testament words and adapted them into a new song. He created a song from his Jewish ancestors of faith to appeal to a new generation of Jews, who are about to experience a new, exciting and glorious faith-turn of Jesus Christ. Zechariah could have sung an old Psalm of praise; he could have spoken the exact hopeful words from the prophets. He could have used language from Abraham or Esther or David. No, instead, he writes, produces, and sings a new song for his generation taken from words of the old generation. A song that invites the community to turn and see the Divine in new ways.
And isn’t that a beautiful thing? A new generation adapting and adopting the songs of their ancestors in faith? My home church, Waldensian Presbyterian Church was established in 1893 in Valdese, NC. The Waldenses were reformers before the reformation. To keep the history brief, by 1215, the Waldenses were declared heretics by the Catholic Church because of our independent desire to read and teach scripture. The Waldenses were severely persecuted by the powerful Catholic Church and pushed into what is now the alps of Italy. While the alps protected the Waldenses for hundreds of years, the heavy snows, spring landslides, and rural isolation did not serve the Waldenses well. There was widespread poverty and hunger throughout the Waldensian towns by the 1800s. And so, a group of Waldenses traveled to the United States to scout out fertile land and found Valdese, just an hour up the road from here. When they arrived, the Waldensian people built the church first to give thanks to God. All worship services and songs were spoken in French and Italian. And to this day, we still sing those songs. They were the tunes of my wedding just this past June and have been played at every Waldensian funeral. For me and many of the Waldenses of my generation and older, they are a comfort, a reminder of all that my ancestors of faith endured and survived. They tell the story of what the Waldensian people believe, how our faith delivered us from persecution and into hope. Those songs could have been lost long ago as the church adapted to the American life, but they are still such an influential part of the Waldensian faith, my faith and development in the church. Since my childhood, those songs have been translated into English, to make it more accessible for the new generations. Adopting and adapting the songs of our ancestors of faith.
And this idea goes beyond just songs, but into the overall life of the church. Organized religion is not as appealing to the newer generations as it once might have been. Where community was once found in the church, it is now found in other places, other parts of our lives and the pandemic only expedited us further into isolation and individualism. It’s becoming harder and harder to convince people to worship and why we worship. It’s becoming harder and harder to give hopeful excused for exhaustion and apathy and to remind people that church still serves a purpose in our life of faith. It’s becoming harder and harder to build community. Sometimes, it feels like we’ve all gone mute. And yet, we must welcome newer generations to adopt and adapt songs in the church. How are we welcoming newer generations to adapt church into what they need today, tomorrow, this week, this year, this decade? Are we creating space for newer generations to take familiar stories and words that they grew up with and adapt them into the needs of the community?
My friends, the language and tradition, emotions and sentiment of church and our ancestors of faith, they are here, close to our heart. The stories and people, questions and emotions of love, they are ingrained into us and they are a comfort we turn to when we need reminding of who we are and whose we are. If we open ourselves up to these traditional stories and old words and old feelings, we open ourselves up to a new vision of the Divine, a new way of seeing the Divine. We might even sing a new song with those old words. Just like Zechariah, the newer generations, their voices might feel silent right now, but when they speak, when they sing…and they will…may their new song turn us towards Christ and may we be open to hearing it and moving with it.
Pray with me. Loving God, we believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.
 Barbara Robinson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 55.
 Ibid, 72.