Preached FCCW. December 9, 2018
Improbable pregnancies are a recurring theme in the Bible. None more so than the one we celebrate every 25th of December. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was found to be with child even though she was a virgin. What has come to be known as “The Immaculate Conception.”
While the Immaculate Conception is the one and only perfect 10 on the scale of miraculous births, highly unlikely pregnancies can be found scattered throughout the pages of Scripture. This field of runners-ups to Mary’s story share a few common denominators. Beginning with the fact that those women were all barren; which as the label implies, means that they were about as fertile as the Sinai desert.
As if that weren’t a big enough obstacle to their conceiving children, most of them shared the added handicap to parenthood of being at an age when their biological clocks had long since stopped ticking. The fact that they still managed to conceive a child in spite of these seemingly insurmountable barriers only served to make unmistakably evident that there was some divine intervention in play. It also called attention to the probability that any child brought into the world against such daunting odds, must have a God-given purpose for living.
Sara, Rachel, and Hannah are a few of the most notable examples of Biblical women who gave birth in their old age or after lifelong odysseys of failed attempts to conceive. In each case, the child born grew up to fulfill a special destiny in God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.
The child born to Elizabeth and Zechariah was one of those other miraculous, although “not quite immaculate” conceptions. Zechariah was a priest whose duties included keeping the incense burning in the sanctuary of the Lord. He and Elizabeth each came from family trees that were distinguished by their service to God and they are both described as being righteous before God, and blameless, in that they faithfully kept the commandments. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
One day, it was Zechariah’s turn to serve as the priest who would bring the incense into the sanctuary of God. As the crowd waited outside, Zechariah went alone into the holy place. But when he got inside, he was not alone. The angel Gabriel was there waiting for him.
This is the same Gabriel who would later appear to Mary to announce that – even though she was a virgin – she would become the mother of the Savior. Gabriel delivers a similar message to Zechariah. He tells the old priest that God has heard his prayers for a child and Elizabeth would bear a son who will bring them joy and gladness, and that many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Gabriel even told him what to name the child; but by that time Zechariah was only half-listening because his mind was still stuck on the part about Elizabeth becoming a mother. “Yeah, but… how is all this possible since I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years?” Zechariah asks.
And those are the last words he would utter for another nine or so months. They were his last words because Gabriel took away his ability to speak. And nine months because the thing that Gabriel predicted and Zechariah couldn’t wrap his mind around, actually happened. Elizabeth did indeed turn out to be pregnant.
Eventually, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. Just as Gabriel had predicted. On the eighth day after his birth it was time for the child to be circumcised and given his name, according to the Law. Everyone assumed that the child would be named Zechariah, because that was his father’s name. But Elizabeth spoke up and said, “No. He shall be called John.”
This caught everyone by surprise and they turned to Zechariah to hear what he had to say. Which of course was nothing, since he still was not able to speak. So, someone brought him a writing tablet and no longer doubting all that Gabriel had told him nine months before, and remembering the name Gabriel had told him to give his son, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John.”
As soon as he wrote those words, he regained his power to speak. And the first thing he did with his re-found voice, was to begin praising God. Some of Zechariah’s praises have come down to us in the Gospel reading this morning. They have been called the “Song of Zechariah” or the “Benedictus,” from the Latin word for “Blessed be” with which the song begins.
The Benedictus opens with the once doubtful Zechariah now expresses his trust in God’s promises. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
This first part of Zechariah’s prophetic utterance was not directed at his own son. Because he was speaking about a mighty savior from the House of King David and he was not descended from David. He was from the tribe of Levi. The descendant of David of whom Zechariah was speaking, is Jesus. Even though Jesus was yet to be conceived.
In the last part of the Benedictus, though, Zechariah is speaking to John, his son. Gazing into the face of the son that he and Elizabeth had waited so very long to hold, perhaps with eyes glistening in love and wonder for this miracle baby, Zechariah foresees the way the destinies of John and Jesus will be linked.
He says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 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.”
Those who were there that day to witness all this spread the word until this strange news became the talk of the neighborhood and before you knew it, the talk of all the hill country of Judea. And people asked each other, “What then will this child become?”
This is what he became.
He became a prophet who preached in the wilderness of Judea to prepare the people for the coming of God’s Messiah. And those who heeded his advice waded into the waters of the Jordan River where he baptized them. So, he came to be known as John the Baptist.
And one day, he spied Jesus coming towards him and those close enough to him heard him say, “Look! There is the one I’ve been telling you to wait for. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
You might or might not have an unusual story attached to your conception and birth. You might or might not have had parents who gazed on your face and saw great possibilities for you, and nurtured the opportunities for those promises to be fulfilled. Few, if any of us would think of ourselves as being comparable to the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. But every one of us has the potential to point others towards Jesus and the life he offers, just as John did, by the way we live and the example we set.
Advent is the season of our waiting for the coming of Jesus that we expect this time each year. But many people wait in darkness and in doubt year upon year, without any expectation at all that the light will ever reach them.
What if Advent is about God’s waiting, too?
Waiting for Christ to be conceived in you in a way that will shine a light into their darkness.
Let’s listen again to the words to a paraphrase of John’s father spoke to him. Listen this time as if they are words spoken directly to you, by your Heavenly Parent.
“And you, my child, will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways, to present the offer of salvation to his people, the forgiveness of their sins. To be a reflection of God’s Sunrise, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, showing them the way, one step at a time, down the path of peace.
Copyright 2018 Raymond Medeiros