Between the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and anticipation on the arrival of Santa, millions of people have spent the past week preparing and waiting in eager expectation. The people of God were waiting for something much bigger than Star Wars and Santa. God had promised to bless his people to bless the world. And one day, he would send a king — known as the messiah — whose rule had no end. They were still waiting for that king.
Although God’s people had turned away from him and found themselves are exiles in a foreign land, God promised that remnant would return and they would once again experience his blessing the land of promise. Many had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, but they were still under foreign occupation. They were still waiting for return from exile.
Implicit in God’s promise to them was that their relationship would be restored and he would be with them. The prophet Malachi said that God would send another prophet to speak on God’s behalf, ushering in a new period of God’s nearness to his people. Not only had that prophet not come, but 400 years later God had still not spoken. At all. So they were still waiting for him to speak.
In their waiting, the world seemed to be deteriorating at a troubling rate. The rule of foreign empires brought moral deterioration and a corrupt government. Religion was allowed … as much as it did not interfere with a person’s allegiance to the emperors, but it was still scoffed at. This lead people to question Where is God in all of this? Why hasn’t he acted yet?
Finally one of the Greek emperors named Antiochus IV outlawed Judaism, putting up a shrine to Zeus in Jerusalem and slaughtering a pig — deemed unclean by Jewish law — right in the heart of the temple.
This was the last straw for the Jewish people. They were tired of waiting for God to speak and act, so they took things into their own hands. Under the leadership of a family called the Maccabees, they took back their city from the Greeks and rededicated the temple.
Given all that had happened, was it possible that this was what they had been waiting for? Was one of the Maccabees the messiah for whom they had been preparing? Well, less than a hundred years later they were overrun by yet another empire, the Romans. Once again they were waiting for a king. Once again they were exiles in their own land. Once again God was silent.
Had God given up on his people? Was God wrong in what he promised? If these foreigners with their own gods kept winning, was God even the real God? These are the questions which are facing the author of the Gospel of Luke, who in his opening chapter answers emphatically: no. Luke 1.5-17 reads:
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
There are some subtle details in this pretty familiar passage that might be easy to overlook but have great impact on the way we read the story. First is that this story is occurring in the time of King Herod. Herod was the king of the Jews, although neither “king” nor “of the Jews” say much about him. The Romans placed Herod in charge as a puppet king, ruling over his countryman but merely as one loyal to the empire. So the events that unfold are happening under guise of a ruler over God’s people, one who has sought power over faithfulness.
We then meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, an elderly couple who have for years been unable to have children. This couple probably would have been seen as cursed since they were unable to carry on their family name and profession. But in Zechariah and Elizabeth we also hear echoes of another elderly couple who had been childless. Anyone? Abraham and Sarah, the ones to whom God made his original promise.
So finally, to this seemingly cursed couple is sent the angel Gabriel who announces that they will be blessed. They will have a son who will go before the Lord and fulfill the prophecy of Malachi.
The time of waiting and preparation is coming to an end! God has spoken! Like Abraham and Elizabeth, Zechariah and Elizabeth will be conduits of God’s promise! Their son will prepare people for the righteous messiah and a new era of God’s presence and blessing!
And to this great news, Zechariah responds with … disbelief.
In the verses that follow, we see Zechariah responds like Abraham and Sarah before him and Mary the mother of Jesus after him, blown away that such a promise could even be possible.
Abraham and Sarah had laughed at God. Now Zechariah says, “How can this be? I’m old and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1.18).
The idea that God is now speaking and fulfilling his promise miraculously through his family is just too good to be true. It’s too idealistic. It’s too magical. It doesn’t match with reality.
Gabriel doesn’t laugh, though. He reiterates that after 400 years his words are from God. He then closes Zechariah’s mouth “until the day this happens.”
The time of waiting is over. The first advent has arrived.
On the one hand, we read the story of Zechariah with 2000 years of distance and scoff at his lack of faith. I mean, come on, he was a priest and God spoke to him through an angel. Why would he be surprised or doubt what he heard?
But think about it. For his entire life, Zechariah had seen people like the Romans and that foolish King Herod win. The message was well received: righteous people like he and Elizabeth don’t win, it’s the powerful who do.
For his all his years of service at the temple, he performed his duties faithfully — perhaps even ritualistically — without anything special happening. Again the message was well received: God hasn’t spoken in 400 years and doesn’t speak now.
He wanted all that God had promised to be true. But sometimes life just got in the way. Politics and aging and past disappointment are powerful things.
Still Advent laid right before him.
Given all that, we might be 2000 years and half a world from Zechariah but I don’t think our stories are far removed from one another. Christmas is the advent of Jesus — God with us, righteous, victorious. He came to us, taught us, acted on behalf of us, died for us, rose again for us. Most importantly, he has promised to come again to establish his kingdom of justice and peace where there is no longer and mourning or crying or pain.
And yet, we are reminded day in and day out that the world is not as it should be. The kingdom started its in-breaking in Jesus, but it doesn’t seem like it’s getting any better. Rich people can buy their way into a presidential race — and apparently do amazing in the polls — while the poor continue to get poorer. We have freedom to practice our faith, but are asked not to bring it into public. Sure, God spoke definitively in the past. But he sure has been a long way off. Jesus’ earliest followers were anxious when he was gone two decades, now it’s been nearly two millennia.
Given our experience, we really want to believe that Jesus and his kingdom are coming into our midst. But it also seems too good to be true. Too idealistic. Too magical. Too out of touch with reality.
But notice that Zechariah never said he did not believe. The whole idea of the advent of the messiah didn’t make sense. AND he was faithful anyways. And when his son was born and it was time to name him, he insisted that he be named John. Which was ridiculous because no one in his family was named John. But that’s what Gabriel told him to do. Never are we told that faith in Jesus means we cannot and should not doubt. In fact, the author of Hebrews (11.1-2, 11-12) put it this way:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is believing in spite of doubt, resting assured despite the evidence, looking forward with eager expectation while it seems we could be wasting our time. This is precisely the reason we read the scriptures and cling to our confessions. We read them and repeat them over and over again expecting that which we hope for is true. In doing so, we share the eschatological hope of a hopeless people in Israel 2000 years ago. And as God’s people, we stay woke, we pay attention, we stretch our necks out in eager anticipation looking for the thing we expect.
So we believe that God has spoke definitely through his son, born in a manger and enthroned on high. We believe that God continues to speak through the Bible, through prayer, and through the Holy Spirit at work in us. And we celebrate the first advent in preparation for the second.
Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Some people call it insanity. We call it faith.
“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, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
O come, o come Immanuel!