David A. Davis
March 1, 2020
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Our text in Luke for this first Sunday in Lent is found in chapter 1 with the familiar story of Elizabeth, Zechariah, and the birth of John the Baptist. The story is familiar because it is most often read in a congregation’s worship life in the season of Advent. These familiar verses that serve as the introduction of John the Baptist are woven into Luke’s expansive birth narrative and are therefore etched forever into the church’s Christmas tableau. In fact, just last Advent, the first Sunday of Advent, I preached Zechariah and Elizabeth. December 1st. Now March 1st. Lent I. Looking not to Bethlehem but to Golgotha. Elizabeth and Zechariah, again. When you take something intended for Christmas out of the box in March, and you blow the dust off, it can look different. It can sound different.
When my friend Rabbi Feldman and I would compare notes on our professional lives and our family lives, our roles leading congregations and our kids all being clergy kids, he would sometimes say to me, “Well, the Feldman’s and Davis’ are really in the same business, aren’t we?”; meaning the two of us and our families, all in the same business. According to Luke, Zechariah and Elizabeth were in the business. Beyond the priestly office, Luke describes them both as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all of the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” There are not a whole lot of people described like that in the scripture; righteous and blameless. They had no children Luke reports; and they were “getting on in years”.
The Angel Gabriel, who also doesn’t appear all that often in Lent, comes to Zechariah one day while he is at work in the sanctuary of the Lord. The angel appeared to the righteous and blameless one who was smack in the midst of his daily routine, taking his shift at the altar of the Lord. The angel scared the bejeebers out of Zechariah and told him Elizabeth was going to bear a son. The angel said some incredible things about who this son, to be named John; who this son would become; what he will do; what he will mean. But Zechariah couldn’t get past “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” When Gabriel took a breath, Zechariah said “I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years”. Fortunately for Zechariah, Elizabeth didn’t hear that. But Gabriel was not pleased about the hesitation and told Zechariah that his priestly voice would be silenced until the day the child was born. Zechariah motioned to all the people who were waiting for him to come out of the sanctuary that he couldn’t speak. He finished his day, waited to punch the clock, and he went home.
Which brings us to Luke 1:24-25: 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 he looked favorable on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
This week I heard someone say the strangest thing on the radio when I was in my car. I was listening to ESPN and some refreshingly mindless sports talk when I heard someone say this. “No, you have to listen more closely than that. You have to listen more to what is not being said.” I actually repeated it out loud to myself in the car. You have to listen more to what is not being said. Now I know what the person meant. But how do you “listen to what is not said”?
But that may be the best way to hear Elizabeth and Zechariah and the birth of John when the theological context is not the promise of the manger but the promise of the cross is to listen to what is not said. Luke says so little about Elizabeth but so much about Zechariah. So many details about the scene at the sanctuary that day. The conversation with Gabriel. The prophetic words about John. Zechariah’s hesitation. The imposition of silence. His wordless explanation to the worshipers. And when it comes to the other righteous and blameless one in the priestly business? Only this: 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 he looked favorable on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Zechariah even get’s the song in Luke. Hannah got to sing in the Old Testament when she lent her child Samuel to the Lord as long as he lived. Mary got to sing after Gabriel’s visit. But not Elizabeth. I bet Zechariah couldn’t even carry a tune!
This week in New York City the Broadway production “To Kill A Mockingbird” was performed in the round in Madison Square Garden to an audience of more than 15,000 middle and high school students from the city. Reports described the audience moaning, even booing when harsh racist things in the script were said and cheering for the characters of Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch. Taken from the gilded, high priced theaters of Broadway and dropped into the middle of a crowd of thousands of teenagers of all colors and all faiths, it as if the organizers want to underline and emphasize the play’s portrayal of institutional racism; Harper Lee’s trenchant indictment of the timeless sin of racism must have come to life in fresh, powerful, even raw way.
When you read Luke chapter 1 on your way to the cross, it is as if the gospel writer, in giving Elizabeth such a minor role in terms of text time, it is as if the gospel writer wants to underline and emphasize, even display something of what Elizabeth herself names as “the disgrace I have endured.” Because the disgrace comes not from the hand of God. She was righteous and blameless, after all. No, the disgrace comes at the hands of her people who label her, objectify her, ridicule her, shame her, and minimize her because she isn’t a mother. This foundational birth narrative in Luke underlines and emphasizes the disgrace in the elevating of Zechariah and the naming, even mimicking the seclusion of Elizabeth, minimizes Elizabeth’s presence in the text.
But the disgrace, her disgrace, it is not a theological disgrace. It is a sociological disgrace completely smothered in “her people’s” beliefs, assumptions, and conclusions about God and what God has done to her and why. What God has done to Her, the one the bible calls righteousness. The disgrace is the community of faith, even those closest to her, heaping their own disdain and disappointment on her all the in name of God. Talk about a timeless, ever-present sin. The disgrace. But according to Elizabeth, “God looked favorable on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Listening to what is not said. Luke doesn’t say anything about what many in this room have always assumed; what few preachers (like me) ever say. Elizabeth no doubt had a lifetime of conception, pregnancy, loss, suffering. All of it at the risk of her life. The five months of seclusion must have had to do with shielding herself from yet one more painful experience of loss and a collective shake of the head from even those who loved her most. Luke writes about Mary, “When the time came for Mary to deliver her firstborn son.” Here with Elizabeth, it is when the time came for Elizabeth when she was able to claim God’s promise for her; at five months. Elizabeth and trusting in the promise of God. It had to have been what Eric Barreto calls in our study guide for Lent, “a hard-earned trust in God.” “A hope rooted, not in naivete or optimism” he writes, “but a hard-earned trust in God’s promise.” A hard-earned, life scarred, loss filled, reality weathered, experience driven, Christmas shine long since worn off kind of hard-earned trust in God. “My wife is getting on in years” Zechariah said. Maybe that is less a statement of age and more a description of her well-worn faith.
I have been in this business too long to rush to the birth of John. You and I know the child doesn’t always come. An answered prayer doesn’t always keep death away. To stop today here with Elizabeth is let the prayer of the psalmist from earlier echo a bit longer. “How long, O Lord?” (Ps. 13) To stay here with Elizabeth in Lent is to let the prayer of another psalm sink in. “Hope in God, for I shall….again…praise God.” (Ps. 42) I have sat with too many people with nothing to say, been asked too many questions that have no answers to rush to the birth of John. Let’s just stay here with Elizabeth this morning and sing that setting of Psalm 116 “I Love the Lord who Heard my cry.” Because, as one of the theologians I work with everyday has said, “The promise of scripture is that God hears our prayers, not that God answers them.” Not that God answers them in the way we ask, demand, or plead. Let’s just stay here with Elizabeth this morning and look toward the cross at the suffering and unanswered prayer of the one who prayed “Take this cup from me”. Stay with Elizabeth and her response; “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorable on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
I don’t have all the words, or all the answers, maybe it’s because I’m getting on in years. But what I can’t get out of my heart reading Luke chapter 1 the first week of Lent, what I keep coming back to when I read about Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John in Lent is that Elizabeth experiences the very promise of God weeks before the baby is born. According to Luke, God took away her disgrace with four months to go. Hope came with still four anxious months to go. She tasted something of her salvation right then. Not only when John was born, not only at Christ’s crucifixion, not only at his resurrection, and not only when she herself meets Jesus in paradise. No, right then. When from Mary’s womb, the Christ Child embraced her with the promise of salvation. When God took away the disgrace. “Salvation is thus about a hope rooted, not in naivete or optimism but a hard-earned trust in God’s promise.”
I am always a bit puzzled by the stories that I read and hear about the pop-up imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday. Again, last Wednesday accounts of street corners, train stations, drop-in hours at a church. People one by one receiving that liturgical mark of our flesh, our mortality. It’s a kind of stop and smudge spirituality. This week it struck me how different the practice is from our Reformed theological practice of the sacraments: baptism and communion. Because in our Presbyterian tradition, we are called, indeed required to celebrate them together. Home communion is an extension of the table, an extension of this Table where we feast together. We taste and see and feast and are nurtured… together. Not just every head bowed, everyone in prayer, being nurtured individually by the promise of our salvation. You and me, together, the body of Christ, nurtured at this Table. It is the reformed and sacramental critique of the ever-increasing individualism of faith and spirituality.
Here at this Table we are nurtured by the promise of salvation together. Receiving anew the gift of our salvation and being sent out as servants of the kingdom. And if it is true that salvation in Luke is not just about eternity but is a liberating, abundant life-giving gift now, then we are being sent into the world as midwives of the very salvation of Jesus Christ. Called by Jesus to bring salvation to bear in the lives of those who live with the disgrace; the timeless, ever-present sin of the disgrace of the world and the church and even someone’s people heaping disdain, pain, and suffering of them all in the name of God.
Elizabeth at about five months, said, “God took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Come, taste and see, and bear witness to salvation.