Scripture: Luke 1: 5 – 25
Rev. Dr. Jill A. Kirchner-Rose
November 27, 2016
I recently heard a story about a wife who loved Christmas. The weekend after Thanksgiving she was hanging greens in her home, decorating the Christmas tree, and singing the Christmas carol, “There’s a Song in the Air.” Her husband was a real grinch. He exclaimed, “Lies! It’s all lies! There are no pretty angels flapping their wings. There’s no singing in the sky. The air’s not full of music. It’s full of bombs crashing and missiles exploding. Christmas is a big fat lie!” The wife took a deep breath and then quietly said, “Aaahh…but the song is louder…the song is louder.”
This Advent season, at Redlands United Church of Christ we proclaim, “The song is louder…the song is louder.” Whatever challenges and obstacles we face in our personal, national or global lives, as people of faith we proclaim, “The song is louder.” And so it is that our Advent theme this year is “A Song in the Air.” A song in the air reminds us of God’s determined and persistent love for us regardless of the headlines on the front page or the 11 p.m. breaking news stories. Over the next 5 weeks, I will be sharing with you some of well-loved contemporary Christmas songs as together we proclaim “The song is louder.”
Before I share with you my new favorite Christmas song, I would like to set the stage by looking at the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We read about two characters that we almost never hear about in church: Zechariah and Elizabeth. Generally, we like to skip over the first chapter of Luke and head straight for the second chapter where we read about Mary and Joseph. But not this year for Zechariah and Elizabeth have a critical message for us as we begin this Advent season.
Zechariah was a priest. He was married to Elizabeth. Elizabeth also came from the priestly order – in fact, she was a descendant from the very first high priest, Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God. Righteousness simply means that they lived in right relationship with God and with neighbor.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children; they were a barren old, old couple. Since Elizabeth did not bear any children and since the primary purpose of a woman was to bear children, Zechariah could have divorced her, but he chose not to. Now, they are so old, they have given up on the hope of children.
There were so many priests available for duty in the Holy Temple that no priest ever offered the daily incense more than once in his lifetime. There were a plethora of priests. Zechariah, even though he was an old man, had never been chosen to light the incense. On this particular day, however, the lots were cast and the lot fell on Zachariah. This is his big day… the most important day of his entire life.
After preparing himself, Zechariah ceremoniously enters into the Holy Place to burn the incense. Suddenly an angel of the Lord, Gabriel, appears to him, standing right beside the altar. It scared the living daylights out of Zechariah. Any time angels show up in the Bible they scare people which is why the very first words out of an angel’s mouth are, “Do not be afraid.” And so the Angel Gabriel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” and then he announces the most utterly unexpected promise to Zechariah, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son and his name shall be John.”
“What? How can this be?” asked Zechariah. “My wife and I are too old to have a child.” But because Zechariah directly questioned an angel of the Lord, Gabriel silenced him. Zechariah emerged from the temple while the people awaited a blessing. But all that Zechariah could do was play a lonely game of charades on the temple steps. For the next 9 months Zechariah was silent (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Bread of Angels, pg 94).
It’s not the first time that barren aged parents conceived. Abraham and Sarah were promised that their descendants were going to inherit the earth; their children were going to be as numerous as the stars. It was not until they were ancient…I believe Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 when Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Here we are, with the same story, but a different couple. A baby being born in the geriatric ward once again.
In the weeks to follow, it will be not an old, barren woman who will give birth, but a young, virginal woman who will give birth. God will do a new thing. Now of course some people would say an elderly woman giving birth is far more miraculous than any sort of virginal conception because a virginal conception can be made up; whereas clearly with a postmenopausal conception there is overt verification.
“In any case, virginity, sterility, longevity or anything else one can imagine are simple ways (in the Bible) of emphasizing and underlining that the conception was divine. It is the theology of the child and not the biology of the mother that is at stake. Whether taken literally or metaphorically, historically or parabolically, any claim of divine conception – whether virginal, barren or aged parents – means that child will bring extraordinary benefits to the human race.” (Borg /Crossan, The First Christmas, 26).
And so is the case with the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth gave birth to John, the forerunner of Jesus.. We will hear more about John next week.
I still, however, find myself wondering about Zechariah’s 9 month pregnancy of silence, when he couldn’t speak. All of the commentaries I read say Zechariah was punished with silence because he questioned the angel. But perhaps he wasn’t punished, but rather blessed with the gift of silence. It was in the silence that Zechariah could ponder all that God was doing in his life. And maybe that is the message for us this Advent season – to reclaim the gift of silence and ponder all that God is doing in our lives.
What would that look like practically in our lives? Undoubtedly, we are living in anxious times. Perhaps, reclaiming the gift of silence means:
- Taking a break from Twitter, Facebook or the News. When was the last time that someone watched CNN, MSNBC or Fox news and thought, “Wow, I feel 100% better”? While I certainly believe, as Karl Barth once said, “As Christians, we should enter the world with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” it is important to even give the newspaper a break from time to time.
- Build a fire in the fireplace and spend quiet time petting your dog, your cat, your chinchilla. Research shows that petting animals relieves the stress in our bodies.
- Pray or meditate in God’s glorious outdoors. Take a walk in the rain, sit under a tree, or pick a flower.
Remember the gift of silence is not self-indulgence, but self-preservation.
A few years ago, on Dec 22nd, while living in San Diego, I was in my car rushing around to get last minute Christmas gifts. I sat in mile long traffic; I fought for parking spaces, I stood in long lines at the counter. This was not the Christmas peace that I had hoped for. As I was driving from store to store, an Amy Grant Christmas song came on the radio. Although Amy Grant is one of my very favorite musical artists, I had never heard this particular song before. It spoke to me so profoundly that at that moment I vowed to not wait until Dec 22nd to do Christmas shopping, and I have vowed every since to live the Advent season much differently. The song in the air at just the right moment was Amy Grant’s “I Need a Silent Night”. Amy Grant sings,
I need a silent night, a holy night
To hear an angel voice through the chaos and the noise
I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here
To end this crazy day with a silent night
The good news is that it is only November 27th; you still have 28 more days until Christmas. So, I can encourage you, to plan ahead so that too can enjoy the gift of silent nights during this most sacred of seasons and ponder all that God is doing in your life. It may be the most precious gift you receive.