Luke 1: 5-13, 57-80
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s Story
Time for miracles
Time for hope
Time for JOY!
It was a bleak time; Romans, the interlopers, the invaders, were everywhere; life was lived on a knife edge, with no one trusting anyone else.
There was an expectation of doom and gloom in the air; no one expected anything, especially not a visit of an angel, or a heavenly messenger
And no one expected a miraculous, unexpected, unanticipated, impossible birth.
Yet, they happened anyway.
Sometimes it is at the most difficult, most troubled and most challenging times that the most extraordinary things can happen.
At this time of year we usually hear about the other miracle baby born around the same time… but today we think instead about his cousin’s birth.
Elizabeth and Zechariah are elderly they have lived blessed and faithful lives, yet have not be blessed by the child they so longed to have. Now, before we go on I’d like to take a moment’s pause…
For those of us who have been blessed with children it is impossible to imagine the pain of not having them. The depths of despair, the yearning, the desperation that childlessness brings to some is beyond our imagining. Add to that this story – (and others, John is not the only miraculous impossible baby in the bible) and the pain is compounded: Why can’t we pray hard enough? Why won’t God bless us with a baby? What did we do wrong?
For all who yearned for babies to love and care for we pray; for those who prayed to God to help them conceive, we pray. For those who never got the opportunity to become parents, we pray.
In a society which set such great store by families and future generations, securing the family line, to be barren was viewed as a curse; a punishment even. Zechariah was a holy man, a priest; he served in the temple, his was a position of great honour and status; yet here he was, an old man, in his twilight years, with no son to pass on the family name to.
Into this scenario comes a stranger, a visitor, an unknown. We are told that when the angel appeared, Zechariah was afraid… and, as is customary, the angelic visitor tells him not to be. Hmm… easy for the angel to talk!
In today’s reading we then fast forward the whole nine months to the time for Elizabeth to have her baby.
In the verses we miss out, there is a maelstrom of happenings and strangeness. For a start, Zechariah is so utterly incredulous at the declaration of the angel he doubts and questions… and boom! He is, literally, struck dumb for the next nine months.
Meantime, the angel is kept busy, nipping up to Nazareth to visit Elizabeth’s very young cousin Mary and let her know that she too will be having a baby – but hers is different to Elizabeth’s. For she is unmarried and will not be conceiving by any known means… but that’s a story we know and will not visit again this year.
So, back to Elizabeth and Zechariah.
He, being struck dumb, cannot tell her the happy tidings, she has to wait and work it out for herself. Though we must suppose he has written her notes, because she knew the chosen name for her baby.
When Elizabeth knows beyond doubt that she really was going to have a baby, she makes this declaration: “At last the Lord has helped me, he has taken way my disgrace”
And when the child is born, the local population is filled with wonder and questions – what will this child be, do? What is he a sign of for the future?
His father however is roused from his silence, to declare the boy’s name, and then praises God, and prophesies about his precious son.
“You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High God.
You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his road for him, to tell his people that they will be saved by having their sins forgiven.
Our God is merciful and tender.
He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace.”
The words of the final two verses, in a different translation, I use as the introductory verses of every funeral I conduct ‘in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn of heaven will break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace’. The words remind us, in our darkest hour, that God never leaves us alone, that even in darkness there is light, hope and peace.
Because, more than anything, we need light and hope.
We need to know we are not alone; that God has not abandoned the world.
Even now. Especially now, that it seems that the whole world is hell bent on self-destruction.
From the nit-picking and compromises of the World Climate Change Conference; to the proliferation of death and destruction by the abuse of guns; to the strange and scary thought that extremist views are pervading the world giving voice to hatred, racism and bigotry… the world is indeed, a dark and scary place, yet at this time of year as we reflect on the world as it was 2000 years ago, we can see that it wasn’t dissimilar. The weapons might be different; the means of communication more instantaneous, but the world was still a dark and scary place, with fear and violence pervasive and persistent.
The world needed symbols of hope
Symbols of peace
Symbols of joy… and what can be more joyous than the promise and hope of new life!
The world still needs these same symbols: we need to know that it is not all darkness; it is not all hopeless; we need to hear the good news proclaimed from the rooftops.
God is still here!
God’s word stands for all time – God is compassion and kindness
And God’s dawning light will shine on us in our darkest hour, and guide our feet into the ways of peace.
Zechariah believed God’s promises; he knew he would never see his son grow up – that is the curse of older parents – but still he believed; his son would be a prophet of God; he would have a special task, to prepare the way, to declare God’s promise of JOY and hope would be fulfilled.
In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace, hope, and JOY.
And that’s a promise worth holding on to.