David A. Davis
December 1, 2019
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Zechariah. Zechariah. Zechariah. Poor old Zechariah. The angel Gabriel was pretty hard on Zechariah. “How will I know that this is so?” That’s all he asked. Just a little later in Luke, pretty much right after this Mary asks a similar question. “How will I know that this is so?”, Mary responded to Gabriel “How can this be? “How will I know that this is so?” Doesn’t sound all that different. Zechariah asks, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” And Gabriel takes his voice away because Zechariah did not believe the angel’s words. “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words….” Because of that one question, Zechariah is speechless. Zechariah. Zechariah. Zechariah.
The people had been waiting outside in prayer for Zechariah to finish his priestly duties in the sanctuary. When he finally came out, he couldn’t speak to them. They figured out he has seen a vision but he couldn’t speak. He could only talk with his hands. “When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.” He went home speechless. He couldn’t say a word to Elizabeth. Elizabeth conceives. Elizabeth gives birth to a child. Elizabeth called him John. Zechariah agrees with Elizabeth in writing. “His name is John”. Zechariah immediately can speak and begins to praise God. Speechless for only months but it seems a bit harsh coming from the angel who starts with “Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”
Luke makes it a point to tell the reader that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” The lack of children was not some kind of divine punishment. Luke makes it a point to describe the details of Zechariah’s priestly service. His section was on duty. He was chosen by not as was the custom of the priesthood. He Entered the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense. The whole assembly prayed outside during the time of the incense. Luke makes it a point to describe the scene there at the altar. The angel Gabriel is “Standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” This isn’t Moses out watching his father in law’s flock in the wilderness with the voice of God coming out of the blue from a burning bush. This isn’t the shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night and encountering the glory of the Lord pretty much in the middle of nowhere. This is a righteous, blameless, life-worn priest doing everything he is called to do, in the place where he is called to do it, for the people he is called serve. If there was ever a place an angel was supposed to appear in scripture, this would be it. For Zechariah, this is like a home game, this is the routine of life, this is the daily grind.
Do you remember when the prophet Elijah was up on Mt Horeb hiding in a cave? God did not come to Elijah in one of the ways a Hebrew prophet would have expected. God was not in the earthquake, in the wind, in the fire. God came in a still, small voice. Well, if there was ever a time, a place, a person, and means of an expected holy encounter, this is it, Zechariah! Yes, it’s an angel. It’s the angel Gabriel. And yes, of course, Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” That’s what angels do to people. That’s why angels always say “Do not be afraid.” But for goodness sakes, Zechariah, when it comes to experiencing the holiness of God, in biblical terms, this is like your own hand right in front of your face. This is missing God in the most expected place, the most expected time, the most expected way.
“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years?” Zechariah seems to be asking about pregnancy and birth. But what the angel tells Zechariah about the child, what the angel says about John is a whole lot more than just “Elizabeth will bear you a son.” Great rejoicing among the people. He will be great in the sight of the Lord. Filled with the Holy Spirit. A holy, devout life. The spirit and power of Elijah. Turning many of the people of Israel to the Lord. To make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Gabriel is talking about preparing the way of the Lord. A message in content that Zechariah should be all over. Familiar place. Familiar means. Familiar content. Zechariah. Zechariah. Zechariah. You of all people should be getting it. And you’re not getting it. So the priest whose calling is to communicate the Word of the Lord to the people of the Lord, the one whose life is to be a conduit between God and God’s people, the one who is to embody the expectation of the presence of God, is rendered speechless. It’s more than a response to Zechariah’s disbelief. His voicelessness? It’s a sign, a reminder, a plea for every child of God who yearns for a holy encounter and then misses it when God shows up smack in the middle of the routines of life, the daily grind, and the most ordinary of relationships. Some are blessed to find God in the least expected time and place. Most of us, however, crave to know God is with us amid the spirit numbing routines of life.
Over the holiday I have been reading a book entitled The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall. The novel tells of two Presbyterian ministers beginning with their family of origin. It moves through their college days, meeting their spouses, their sense of call to ministry, the development of their own theological priorities, and their ministry in the church. The two pastors come together in the story as they are both called to share one position at a Presbyterian Church in New York City. The church declined quickly during the previous five-year ministry of a pastor who was not well-liked. As that pastor is described in the book, he cared more about decorating the sanctuary than working on sermons, wouldn’t visit the people and perhaps most concerning, he changed the hymns at the Christmas Eve service.
The two new pastors plan to alternate weeks in the pulpit. One Ivy-league educated pastor’s faith and theology is rooted in his strong belief in a God of wisdom who provides a way to understand the world. The other pastor from the mid-west has a passion for social justice and serving the needs of those in the city. But the best theologian in the book is the 72-year-old church secretary who had been there for 40 years. As the author tells it, it was clear to the new pastors that she felt no need to earn their respect, she simply expected it. Their first morning at the church she marched them into the sanctuary and had each one take a turn at climbing the steps of the pulpit and looking out. “Intimidating, isn’t it?” she asks them. After taking in the view of the empty sanctuary from the pulpit she sits them down in a pew for a talking to.
“I’ve seen a lot of young preachers,” she said, “and none of them are very good. They’re inexperienced, insecure, and they underestimate their audience’. She gestured to the empty pews around her. Then, abruptly, she raised her hand and pointed at the two of them. “Your members are desperate for dignity. They used to have it—the minister before this last, silly one – was here for twenty years. They respected him. He had a steady hand on the rudder, and he had seen God. Not over the washing line in a white robe—but in his wrestling with why we live and what is waiting for us in the end. He had conviction.; he believed that God is watching, God is interested, God is kind’. She took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. “But then he left, and they hired what’s his name. And now their angry and embarrassed and ashamed.”
That old church theologian, she described a congregation longing for a holy encounter with God. And a preacher who believed those encounters wouldn’t come from some angel appearance over the washing line in a white robe. But in wrestling with the spirit numbing routines of life and of death.
We have been reading and sharing our vision and mission statement a lot through the month of November.
The people of Nassau Presbyterian Church celebrate and demonstrate God’s love
through worship and service in Princeton
and through our lives and work in the world.
Committed to Jesus Christ, our community welcomes the breadth of humanity
and the challenge of the Gospel.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, people of all ages can find a place here
to seek abundant life
and nurture faith.
By God’s grace in our lives, we engage with the world,
yearn to do what is just and fair,
encourage what is kind and helpful,
and seek to walk humbly before God and alongside our neighbors.
To put it another way, the people of Nassau Presbyterian Church crave a holy encounter with God amid the spirit-numbing routines of life and of death. One of the reasons we crave God’s presence is because we’ve experienced it here together in the body of Christ. God’s presence in the expected place. And we promise to help each other not to miss the real presence of Christ when he is a close as a hand right in front of your face. The presence of God in and through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit in the expected places. So that we can bear God’s presence as the body of Christ to another and to the world.