Sunday, December 2, 2012

He took away the disgrace

Luke 1: 5-24, NT page 56 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 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 turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you now. Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur." Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me when the Lord looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people." Sermon Last Friday I was surprised to read that, "When Columbia Central won the Class 5A state football championship in 2010 it was the second title in school history, but the first in 58 years" (Justin Lamb, "Lions set sights on title," The Daily Herald, Friday, November 30, 2012 1A). Having only followed the Central Lions since 2010 I na├»vely assumed that Columbia was used to winning high school football games. I wonder what changed, and how hard it was to change, as I imagine that going from 58 years without a title to reaching the state finals three out of the last four years even though running back Jaylen Herd single-handedly beat them last Friday night, demanded a dramatic change of expectations. Expectations can be powerful things, and there’s a big difference between the expectations that we’ll have for the Central High School Lions for the next several years and the expectations we had for them before 2010. Still there is a problem, as getting used to success and developing high expectations after 58 years of low expectations means that now we risk being disappointed - Tennessee football fans might say that even mediocre expectations mean that you risk being disappointed. However, expectations that are too low are dangerous as well and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy - for those who expect to lose probably will. I think it’s also true that children who don't have someone to believe in them stand at a true disadvantage to those who do, for those who aren't expected to make anything of themselves probably won't. But then I also feel sorry for the kids who have parents that tell them everything they do is amazing regardless of whether it really is or not - every soccer season deserves a trophy, every scribble on paper deserves to be framed, and every miniscule milestone is deserving of photo documentation. You know these people. I might be one of them. They show you the video of Billy's first step, which is significant, but it’s followed by Billy's second step, and then the video of his third. Then you have to watch his first experience with a stair case, the time he pointed to a squirrel - it’s all amazing - and if this attitude continues into high school Billy will subconsciously chose between two doomed scenarios: either he is going to think that he really is as amazing as his parents say he is and will wind up surprised that no one else seems to agree, or he will stop trusting his parent's praise and their words will become empty. Both scenarios are sad, the young man who suffers from high-selfesteem and the young man who stops trusting his parent’s praise, but it’s that distrust of praise, those empty words that lose their meaning that I think religious people like us can relate to the most. Every Sunday, after we pray the prayer of confession together, I stand up here and tell you all that "your sins are forgiven," but do you really believe it? Every Sunday at the end of the service I look you in the eye to tell you with all the conviction that I can muster that "you are God's own," but have you heard it so often that its becoming too commonplace to mean anything? And once a month we gather around the communion table to "take and eat" the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so much as to give us his body and blood, but does communion strike you that way every time or has it been done so often that now it's not much more than a piece of bread and a tiny cup of juice? When words become empty it’s easy to participate in rituals without believing that they mean much of anything. Our second scripture lesson from Luke tells that story in a way. The two main human characters, Elizabeth and Zechariah were good and righteous people, our lesson goes so far as to say that they were, "Both of them... righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." Not only that, Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the original priest of Israel. There can be no doubt that both of them knew right from wrong, went to the Temple, not just when they had to but as often as possible. We should all assume that they knew how to pray, and when they had trouble conceiving they knew who to ask for a miracle, but at some point or another they must have stopped believing that it would actually happen. Month by month the disappointment became too much to take, and rather than be the victim of their high expectations, they lowered their sights and settled into the reality that children would just not be in the cards. After all, "both were getting on in years". Their disappointment wasn't going to stand in the way or their faith, and Zechariah continued on as a priest, wearing his priestly garments, saying his priestly prayers, and was surely honored when he was chosen to go offer incense in the holiest place on earth, the sanctuary of the temple, the place where all good Jews knew God was must truly present. Surely he was honored, but did he really expect to meet God there? He had been a priest long enough to get used to the idea that God was at work in the world. He had been a priest long enough to know that God is watching, and that God's law is a gift and should be respected and obeyed. Surely he had been a priest long enough to know the significance of being chosen, what he was supposed to do once he got in there, and what all the pomp and circumstance represented, but what did he expect to really happen - what did he expect to see? When words become empty it’s easy to participate in rituals without believing that they mean much of anything. I think this is true of Zechariah, this man who must have known all the stories of scripture by heart, all the accounts of God speaking - to Abraham and Sarah and Rehab and Jacob and Moses, all the times angels appeared, all the miraculous events that changed the course of history, still this man was terrified when an angel of the Lord was there, exactly in the place that an angle of the Lord is supposed to be. I can't say that I blame him. I talk about God all the time, and I believe that God is present with us here, but after an evening meeting and I am left to turn out the lights in this room late at night I flip the switch and run the other way for fear that the God I confess to believe in might actually show up. And Christmas is about this God being born – really being born and walking around on the earth, but do you really believe he’s coming, are you really ready for his birth? Zechariah wasn’t a faithless person – he was a priest after all – but when an angel really showed up and told him that his prayer for a child would be answered – he was terrified. His wife on the other hand, you might be thinking, “and you thought Zechariah was afraid,” but our lesson tells us that “after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me when the Lord looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people." There is so much ritual to our celebration of Christmas – but do not forget that there is something terrifyingly real beneath all the wrapping paper. He is coming – the one who will take away your disgrace is born. Amen.

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