Witness of Wonder
These videos taken together make up Luke 1:5-25, 57-80. From Alt Advent, by Jon Birch.
Luke 1:1-4 says,
"Since many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, using what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us, I too, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, have decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received."
In other words, Here is where the story of God coming to be with us begins, lover of God.
There once was this old priest in the hill country…
Zechariah. He doesn’t show up on Christmas eve. He barely makes an appearance every three years or so in our Advent texts. You and I would most likely agree that he’s not really central to the story.
But Luke begins with him. Luke starts the whole story of Jesus, and salvation, and what it is that God is doing in the world, of God coming in, with an old priest in the hill country.
Even having seen his story today, we might still say, that’s nice and all, but clearly it could happen without him, he’s not really that important. He doesn’t even say or do anything through most of it, for crying out loud.
And yet, in his rounds of delivering messages from God, the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah first.
He seems marginal – but then we see they’re all marginal, really, a random Galilean carpenter, a young girl not yet married, rural shepherds in a field, foreign scholars far away. This story is loaded with bit characters. Not a box office draw leading lady or man among them.
So why begin with him? Zechariah’s life was humming along on a trajectory, fulfilling what purpose he understood and contributing in all the ways a life does, there was no indication of, or even great desire for, change. He was a fairly unremarkable, decent human being and that was that. Until God decided to invade the ordinary. And Luke tells us: here is where it begins.
That’s not where everyone else starts the story of God coming in.
In fact, nobody else does. But neither do they start it the same way as each other.
Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy –all those so and so was the father of so and so, a lineage, a long line of people whose lives led to this moment, a heritage and pedigree and journey. Here is where it begins, says Matthew.
Mark begins with grown up John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness- Prepare the way of the Lord! For Mark the whole story starts with this invitation, this proclamation, Jesus is here, Jesus is coming, God is bringing something new! And he’s off and running, not even bothering to circle back at all to anything that happened in Jesus’ early years.
John begins a little farther back - at the very beginning of time and space itself. The vast cosmos and the spoken word that brings life into being. In the beginning was the word. And the word was with God and the word was God.
And Luke begins with Zechariah. Many have endeavored to put together an orderly account, most excellent lover of God, so here is my attempt. And here is where it all begins.
There once was this old priest...
The strange stirrings, the opening of heaven and earth, the moment God started in motion the irreversible plan to come and be not just God but God with us, was when this priest of the hill country went to do his duty in the most holy sanctuary, and an angel intruded.
This week we spent some time at my preacher’s round up talking about the contrast between Zechariah’s response to the angel Gabriel’s pronouncement and Mary’s response a few months later – as in, he missed the mark and got shushed for it, but she got it right. But really, it’s not they who differ in these interactions but Gabriel the angel.
Zechariah says, “How can this be, since I am old and my wife is barren?” Mary says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
And Gabriel explains to her how it will happen, and she responds with her, let it be to me according to your word.
But Zechariah doesn’t get a chance to come around. He doesn’t get an explanation, or even a pause. Instead, he gets a grumpy angel retort, Excuse me! I am Gabriel! I stand at the foot of the throne of God and you question me?
You’re going to be unable to speak now, until the time of his birth.
And unlike Mary, or Joseph, even, Zechariah’s response to the whole thing becomes irrelevant.
God is doing this, and that is that.
This story leaves so much to wonder. It doesn’t explain much, doesn’t give whys or wherefores, It just tells a story: it all began this way…
What if Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel prepares Gabriel for Mary’s own how can this be? What if the angel is more ready to handle human questions with human understandings of the limitations of things, like time, and space, and age, and barrenness, and virginity, and impossibility. Maybe it’s a little cherubic wake-up call to how differently human beings perceive what can or can’t happen than those beings who live in the presence and awareness of God at all times, who are used to the ways of God instead of the limits of human reality.
But my favorite part of this whole thing, the thing that keeps it most fascinating, and curious for me, is Zechariah’s long silence.
Why the silence?
Maybe silence was really what Zechariah needed throughout this experience, to come to some sort of trust.
Or what if, in fact, what the moment itself needed most was silence - a silent, observant witness to watch, and listen, and take in the enormity of this reality, when, for all those living in it normally, it might begin to feel normal.
Five months into his silence, five months of waking up each morning unable to talk and remembering immediately that something spectacular is afoot, and rolling over to see his elderly wife’s gradually swelling belly,
five months of going about town unable to answer the questioning glances, and the whispered rumors, the rumblings about what happened when God met him in the temple,
five months along in his quiet seclusion of prenatal privacy, alongside his pregnant, secluded wife, out of the blue Elizabeth’s young relative Mary blows into their lives.
And her arrival brings Elizabeth out of hiding, and brings Mary the solidarity and strength she needs to embrace this reality unfolding in her own body and through her own upended story.
And Zechariah the Silent opens his home to these astonishing things, and watches these women help each other into this reality with love and grace. He bears all these things inside himself, unable to speak of them, to contribute his opinion or observations, his conclusions or his questions.
Just watching and listening and holding it all with honor and awe.
This is how God being with us begins, Luke says.
This old priest from the hill country.
This blessed old man whose was given holy task of watching what God was doing. Shut up and pay attention. That’s your whole job.
God comes. It begins right here.
The beauty of Luke’s choice, and Matthew’s and John’s and Mark’s, to tell the story as they do, begin it where they do, is that we now know you could say that just about anywhere: Here is where it begins.
A friend noted this week all the many people for whom it began:
“He is Risen!”
Who is risen?
Jesus of Nazareth!
Who is that?
Oh! Let me tell you about Jesus…
Or, those for whom God with us begins when he lays his hands on you and heals you, or looks up and meets you gaze and you feel seen, or you hear in the crowd his words of freedom and forgiveness for the first time and they penetrate your soul.
Or, it begins when you happen to glimpse your grandfather praying on his knees by his bedside. Or you gasp your first sight of the Grand Canyon at sunrise and the artist who designed them suddenly seems electrically nearby. Or, you weep at the bedside of your departed mother and feel the presence of peace itself. Or it begins with the question your son asks that stops you in your tracks, or the kindness someone extends that softens your defiance. The story of God being with us begins wherever it is entered.
It can be entered anywhere.
One word of observation, however, most often it does not begin in the strong center of town, the seat of power, the fortress of flawless success, most often it doesn’t start where a story is typically meant to be set. God’s story is always on the outskirts working inward, on the margins, in the desert and the wilderness, the barren wombs, the youngest, overlooked sons, the slaves and the dreamers. In God’s infinite creativity and wisdom, God begins with children and old people, and people with speech impediments and murder raps, and strangers from a strange land wandering in unexpectedly.
So it is not about being perfect and prepared, pre-certified saintly, or impressive in any way, it’s more often about being powerless or awkward, messy and a little confused but deeply human.
God does it how God does it.
This fourth Sunday of Advent is the week of love.
It’s love that comes to us when we least expect it. Love that chooses us for no good reason. When we’re unprepared, humming along a trajectory, love inserts itself and invites us to wake up and see this person, these people around us, to give ourselves to them, and receive them into our own hearts making us wide open and new.
It’s love that binds us to God and to one another, that defines us, beautiful, precious, delight of my heart, and gives us that maddening view of others as well that keeps us from selfish isolation and forces us to engage the world, Precious, that one! Child of God, person alongside my person, worthy of honor and attention.
And that story begins all over the place.
You can enter it at any moment.
After nine months Elizabeth gives birth to John, and Zechariah is still standing by, witnessing the wonder, when the attention shifts to him, (and the neighbors and friends ridiculously motion to the man who can’t talk but can hear just fine), What do you say, Zechariah?
And when he answers on a tablet the same words Elizabeth had just spoken to them, “His name is John,” his gestation is complete and his silence breaks open.
And all that has simmered inside him these nine months – seasoned with the faithfulness of God in his own long life and the history of God’s relationship with his people from the very beginning – gets stirred up by the Holy Spirit, and spills out of him.
And with utter joy and complete confidence he opens his mouth and proclaims,
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
And now Zechariah the Silent becomes Zechariah, Parent to the Prophet of the Most High. Here is where it begins.
Depending on where you come from, and what you carry, and who’s doing the telling, the story of Jesus the Messiah, God with us, love alive and alongside, begins all over the place.
It can be entered anywhere.
Today I kind of like beginning with dear Zechariah. With his silent witness, his holy task, his righteous Shut up and Pay attention.
That seems to me today like a pretty good place to begin.