Message for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C (12/5/2021)
As a little Advent surprise, the psalmody for today is not, in fact, a Psalm, but is drawn instead from the first chapter of Luke. It’s the prophecy that Zechariah proclaims over his infant son, John, who would become the forerunner of Christ. It’s often called the Benedictus, Latin for “blessed,” the first word in the famous canticle: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel….” It’s also called the Song of Zechariah, and has long been used as the Gospel Canticle for Matins, or Morning Prayer. Zechariah’s proclamation is a beautiful way to affirm the hope of the gospel at the beginning of a new day: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” The version we sang this morning comes from the Morning Prayer liturgy in our hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. You can see the whole thing starting on page 298.
Zechariah’s prophecy is particularly noteworthy because his words, joyful and eloquent, are the first to come out of his mouth after nine months of silence. Do you remember the story?
Once when [Zechariah] 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 and to bring you this good news. But 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.”
Upon hearing the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zechariah is skeptical. The promise of a child so late in life does not correspond to his view of what’s possible, and he says so. And for that, Gabriel silences him until John is born.
The angel’s response is often interpreted as a sort of punishment for Zechariah’s purported lack of faith. But, what if there’s something else going on here? What if Zechariah’s extended period of silence is not so much a penalty as it is an opportunity? Imagine that Gabriel says I, the messenger of the Lord, have been sent to give you good news. But, you don’t have ears to hear it yet, so I’m giving you nine months to let it sink in. Don’t talk; just listen. Don’t jump to your own conclusions; just be open to possibilities you haven’t considered before. Maybe after a time of focused attentiveness you’ll no longer allow your assumptions to prevent you from hearing the truth.
Of course, this discipline of silence is not just a suggestion. Zechariah doesn’t have a choice in the matter, but he does experience a change. After nine long months, with the promise fulfilled and his newborn baby resting in his arms, Zechariah is suddenly inspired to speak: “You, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins….”
I feel for Zechariah. I can’t imagine falling silent for nine hours, let alone nine months. Those of you who’ve spent time with me in Bible study or confirmation probably can’t imagine it either. I have lots of ideas banging around in my head, and they’re just dying to be expressed in words. What’s more, on account of my identity – white, male, cisgender, heterosexual – the world gives me plenty of latitude to speak freely and plenty of reason to assume that I’ll be taken seriously.
And in this way, I’m a little like Zechariah. As a member of the priestly class, he’s entrusted with the preservation of Israel’s religious tradition and thus exercises a great deal of power. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that Zechariah would have the nerve to talk back to the angel Gabriel. What is surprising is that he’d be compelled to keep quiet and listen for once.
If you were required to be silent for a time, to pay attention without speaking, what kind of truth might you be able to hear in a new way?
In her memoir, Waking Up White, Debby Irving emphasizes the importance of listening in the quest for understanding and justice in matters relating to race and racism. Listening – real listening, and not just waiting for our turn to speak – demands that we acknowledge realities of which we are simply unaware on account of our identity and corresponding experiences. To those who want to expose themselves to the truth and be part of the process toward healing, Irving writes, “Prepare yourself to adopt an ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’ attitude. The sooner you can become comfortable with seeking what you don’t know, as opposed to proving what you do, the more you will learn and the more effective you’ll become as a racial justice advocate.”
That wisdom sounds something like the angel Gabriel’s: Zechariah, your frame of reference prevents you from hearing what God has in store, so I’m inviting you to adopt an “I don’t know what I don’t know” attitude for now. Wait, listen, and see what’s possible with God. Then, when the time is right, you’ll have true and hopeful words to say. And in time, he does: “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.”
Friends, if we are to come to that light, we’ll have to resist the urge to justify ourselves at every turn. We’ll have to wait, listen, and see what’s possible with God. And when we do, we’ll learn for ourselves how attentiveness, especially to those whose voices have not been heard, is a step in the way of Jesus, a step along the pathway to peace.
Liturgy © 2021 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Now the Feast and Celebration”; text and music: Marty Haugen, b. 1950; © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Prepare the Royal Highway”; text: Frans Mikael Franzén, 1772-1847; tr. Lutheran Book of Worship; music: Swedish Folk tune, 17th cent.; text © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“He Came Down”; text: Cameroon traditional; music: Cameroon traditional; arr. John L. Bell, b. 1949; arr. © 1986 Iona Community, admin. GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-706920.
“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”; Lloyd A. Larson; © 2016 Lorenz Publishing Company, a Division of The Lorenz Corporation (admin. Music Services). All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“By Your Hand You Feed Your People”; text: Susan R. Briehl, b. 1952; music: Marty Haugen, b. 1950; text and music © 2002 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.