Glimpsing in December Darkness: Zechariah

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Luke 1:57-79

“The whole world waits in December darkness for a glimpse of the light of God”

So writes poet Ann Weems… This week that has seemed especially true.  In places like Ferguson…  the world seems to grow darker… As I was watching the rioting… I noticed (and I wonder if you noticed)… the holiday decorations were up… and across the road was this message: “Seasons Greetings”…  Really? It will be hard for light to break through there…

In places like West Africa… there is a darkness descending upon people dying with Ebola… 7000, have died…. news of ISIS never seems to end…

This week, the world seems to wait in a darkness that strains to see a glimpse of the light of God…

And as I think about the many of you for whom life grows darker due to personal circumstances you are facing…  like the news that the doctor tells you that the reports are not as good as we hoped for… the cancer has spread… like the news that my child is out of control… like the realization that my life is out of control….  Or simply that Thanksgiving ushered in a season of missing the ones we love who are no longer with us… the darkness can seem to descend…

We all wait, do we not… for a glimpse of the light of God?

Zechariah would understand. He was waiting… and I imagine the world looked very dark to him indeed. It was the days of King Herod… like Kim Jong Un in North Korea… he was a despotic leader.

When Luke mentions that the word to Zechariah comes “in the days of King Herod of Judea” … a chill should run down our spines. He was a monster. As one commentator describes him,

“He came to power amid a bloodbath with the help of two Roman legions in 37 BC. He murdered both of his brothers in law and his wife as well as her mother. He murdered his mother!!! Just before his own death he ordered the prominent citizens of Israel to be executed so that there would be mourning in Israel.[i]

Zechariah’s  world was very dark indeed.

His personal life was not all that bright either. He and Elizabeth were good and faithful Jews… He was a member of a priestly division… Both he and Elizabeth were from a long line of priests… They were good and righteous people. If God was going to bless anyone, it would be this couple….

Which is why none of their friends could understand why they didn’t have a child.

It’s not that they had not tried… Oh, they had tried for years… but after years and decades of trying… and praying… Elizabeth was still barren. Still barren. There would be no little Zachary or Betty….

They couldn’t understand… their friends could not understand why they had no children. Back in those days, to be childless was sign that you had done something wrong and it was punishment for sin… Well, that was clearly not the case with this couple… It was theologically confusing…It was a disgrace… a public disgrace…

So it was a dark and confusing time for them…

Made darker still as they watched the children of their friends grow up… watching them bring their kids to the temple… watching them grow up… It was hard… The years didn’t make it easier for them…  as their friends shared pictures of their grandchildren… bragged on them…

And it’s not that Zechariah and Elizabeth weren’t happy for their friends… but it was hard… confusing… They kept praying, “Why God?” It looked like the line of Zechariah would die out. It was a dark and difficult time for them – this good, righteous and faithful couple.

Still, what really amazes me is this: they never gave up on God… Do you know how many people give up on God when their prayers go unanswered?

Not Zechariah and Elizabeth: week in and week out they prayed, worshipped and did their duty… and it is while they were going about their faithful following that the good news broke for them… and a glimpse of light began to shine into their darkness…

As Zechariah stands before the altar of incense, he becomes aware of another presence in the room… and the first words that he hears are these:

“Do not be afraid…” the words that are always the first words of an angel… “Do not be afraid for your prayers have been heard. Elizabeth will bear a son… he will be a joy and delight… he will be great… The Lord will use him to help bring light into a very dark world… turning the hearts of people back to God…”

No doubt this was the best news he could have heard… You’d think that he could hardly wait to run out of the temple to tell Elizabeth the good news…They are going to have a baby! But that is not what happened.   Even Zechariah has a hard time believing that this news can break into his darkness… “How can it be since we are old and just turned in our application to Glenaire?”

Of all people you would have thought he might have believed… he was a priest after all… he even knew the stories of God providing miraculous births to old couples like Abraham and Sarah… He was a Bible believing priest… but even he could not believe this…

Even Zechariah has his moments of doubt… the darkness can do that to you… it’s hard to believe in the light when you have lived in darkness for so long…Ask anyone who lives or has lived in the darkness.

So, Zechariah will be punished for a time… (and we don’t understand why)  he will be left… literally speechless… though offered as a punishment, I have come to think it  may also be a gift from the Angel… for when you are speechless… all you can do is listen… and wonder… and think and pray… listen, wonder, think and pray…

Sometimes it may be good to stop talking… and listening… He had time to think about what the angel had said… and what those words meant…

Maybe one of the lessons we can learn from Zechariah is simply to stop… Maybe one simple Advent practice he might recommend to us is this:

take a few minutes each day to stop… stop shopping… stop planning… stop partying… stop talking… just stop… you have 5 minutes to spare for God, don’t you?  take a few minutes each day to stop talking and simply listen… listen to the scriptures…listen to the messages from your devotions… listen to the music… listen to the message… Listen… and start looking in the December darkness for the light of God to break through…

As for Zechariah? He will not say a word until John is born…and then, you can’t get this man to shut up! He has been saving his words… he has been thinking and praying and pondering… so that when the time comes, — like a Broadway musical… he breaks out in song… (and maybe dance?) Filled with the Holy Spirit, he sings what has come to be known as Zechariah’s song… the Benedictus… a song of thanksgiving… deep thanksgiving… because he has been given a glimpse of the light of God about to break into the dark and weary world…

He sings:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a savior for us in the house of his servant David. As he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophet from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies…By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn 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…”

What is Luke trying to tell us as he tells Zechariah’s story? What is the point?

I think one point is this: whatever darkness envelopes you… whatever darkness you fear… look there for a glimpse of God’s light coming to us in Christ.

That’s what Advent is for… to have us begin to look for the glimpses of light breaking our way…

I think of some words a wise friend shared one Advent. He said.

“Ice, darkness, cold, loneliness, weariness, even fear—we have experienced those realities; we have known those feelings. They prepare us for Advent.

Scripture says,

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Slavery, exodus, wilderness, exile, oppression, waiting… waiting for ‘power” beyond our control to set us free from our bondage. Those realities of life lead to a true celebration of Advent.

Advent is not a time to prepare for Christmas;  Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ. Advent is a time to ask, “What hymns sustain us during the dark and cold of the night? What passages of scripture bring light and hope when we are lonely, irritated, afraid?”

Christ came into a bleak world—religious infighting, (a cruel dictator), uncertain economic conditions.  But what Luke wants us to know is this:

“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 and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

This week I saw some glimpses of that light coming our way. In Fergusen, the very place of the riots… where businesses were boarded up… families came down to paint murals on those businesses… sharing a bit of beauty… offering messages of peace…

I was moved by the story told by a Photographer capturing a moment in a protest in Oregon. He met a 12 year old black boy named Devonte who was overcome with emotion. The photographer said,

“I saw tears running down Devonte’s face and a sign that said, “Free hugs” around his neck… Then he saw Devonte and a policeman in a hug… The policeman had come up to Devonte and said, “Can I have a hug?”

A glimpse of light breaking through a dark time. The witness of Zechariah and the promise of Advent is the light is coming, look for a glimpse of the light… That’s what Ann Weems is hoping we will do as we use her poem this season to point the way:

“The whole world waits in December darkness for a glimpse of the light of God.

Even those who snarl, ‘Humbug!” and chase away the carolers have been seen looking toward the skies.

The one who declared he never would forgive, has forgiven, And those who left home have returned, And even wars are halted, if briefly, as the whole world looks starward.

In December darkness we peer from our windows watching for an angel with rainbow wings to announce the Hope of the World”

In the coming weeks, I invite us all to stop,…watch…look… and listen…  so that when Christmas comes- no when Christ comes– and we hear the familiar carols, and sing the familiar hymns, and read the familiar stories… something will happen to us… a word will come to us… that gives us a glimpse of the light, ready to brighten our darkened world. Amen.

[i] Michael Card commentary on Luke