The Light of The World Week 2: "The Light & The Mission"

Of all of the beautiful Advent stories in the Bible, my absolute favorite has to be the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.  In Luke's gospel we get introduced to this lovely old couple, who--we are informed--are faithful, God-fearing and childless.

That last bit of information is sort of placed there in the Scripture as a glimpse into the secret pain of these two lovely people, which, by now in their life together, they had undoubtedly learned to accept.  Knowing what we know about 1st Century Jewish culture, a childless couple would have felt the weight of societal and religious pressure to have children, and perhaps may have even heard the whispered word, "Cursed!" uttered by their neighbors.  

But that pain, the kind of pain that we've been talking about, probably faded to a dull ache by the time we are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth for the first time.    

Zechariah was a priest---one of 18,000 of them to be exact.  As such, he and Elizabeth were part of the upper classes in Jewish society.  Twice a year Zechariah was given the honor of presiding over sacrifices at the Temple, but only once in his life was he given the honor of going into the Holy of Holies--the very inner sanctum of the Temple, where the Divine Presence dwelled-- to intercede on behalf of the Hebrew people.  

It just so happened that it wasn't until he was an old man.  

Just so we are clear on the kind of man Zechariah was, he had undoubtedly prayed fervently for a child, particularly for a son to carry on his name and his faith.  By the time he was given the chance to go into the Holy of Holies as an old man, those prayers were long forgotten.  What Zechariah was most definitely praying (like all faithful Jews) was for the deliverance of Israel.

So while Zechariah is in the Holy of Holies---the place where God's presence was believed to dwell---he encounters an angel, and is scared out of his mind.

Can I just comment on this before we go any further?  The guy was in a place called the HOLY OF HOLIES where the DIVINE PRESENCE was supposed to be hanging around and he is SURPRISED that something divine happens?

How many times has God surprised you by showing up?   Maybe you come to church just sort of expecting to sing a few songs, get some coffee, enjoy the music, maybe hear a decent sermon----and then you find yourself weeping uncontrollably, cut to the very core of your heart by what you heard, transformed when you walk out the door...

And your surprised by this.  Sort of a sad state of affairs, isn't it?  But even then in the Holy of Holies for a once-in-a-lifetime moment, Zechariah is shocked that God does something awesome.

Anyway, the angel tells Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth are going to have a son in their old age, and that this son is going to be named John.  John, the angel tells Zechariah, is going to be the messenger for the Messiah, and will prepare the world for his arrival.  The words that the angel uses to describe John connect him with the same sort of miraculous prophecy for the Old Testament prophet, Samuel---looking back to Israel's past, but pointing toward a cosmic future.

Zechariah, I am sure was pretty blown away by all of this, but he is also a realist.  He's old.  His wife is old.   They are both old.  Too old for things to--work properly.  That ship sailed.  There's no turning the clock back.  And so Zechariah points this set of facts out to the angel, who promptly gets mad.

The Scripture says that the angel shares his name with Zechariah:  Gabriel.  The name Gabriel would have had meaning for the old priest, because it was believed that Gabriel was the very messenger of God, a presence in the very throne room of the Almighty.  The message, in other words, was from the very heart of God himself.  And because Zechariah doubted the words of God, the angel told him that until his son was born he would remain deaf and mute.

When Zechariah emerges, he cannot hear and cannot speak, which freaks out the people who are outside waiting.  I've often imagined how Zechariah broke the news to Elizabeth that they were going to have a baby, since he could not hear or speak.  I am pretty sure it was a mixture of wild hand gestures and crazy expressions along with him writing down everything he could on a tablet, or the ground or whatever he could find.  I bet she had a hard time believing him.

Until she turned up pregnant a little later on in the story.

Fast forward to the birth of John---or should I say the eighth day after the birth of John, when his proud parents brought him to be circumcized.  As they were performing the ceremony the officiants declared that they would name the boy after his father, but Elizabeth spoke up to say that his name was John.  Not believing her, they made signs to the still deaf and mute Zechariah as to what name he wanted to give to his only son.  He wrote on a tablet, "His name is John."  At that moment, the Scripture says, Zechariah's mouth was opened and he was able to hear, and to speak, and to sing---which is exactly what he did:

67“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
75  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Now that's a good song right there.  Imagine having that song sung over you as a baby.  Pretty good way to start out life, don't you think?

So what can we learn about this story?  What do we make of this song?  This is an amazing story with an amazing climax.  It's got everything a good story needs---unlikely heroes, a miraculous moment, an unusual birth, a promise of destiny and redemption... and singing.

But what's the Big Idea behind all of this?  What transformative lesson can we learn?

Here's what I take away:

God always calls the wrong people.
God's timing is messed up.
God's purpose is bigger and more important than you.

THAT is some good news, am I right?
Just what you were expecting to hear.

Seriously, if you were graphing the highs and lows of this story, it would like like a stock market graph.  Zechariah is down because he has no son, then he meets and angel who tells him he'll have one, then he's down because he doesn't believe and is struck deaf and mute, then he's up when the baby is born and he gets his speech back.  Even the song he sings has those same highs and lows.

Sort of like life, isn't it?

Because God has a funny way of getting his will accomplished in the world that defies our ways of making sense,  our understanding of time and our own worthiness.

First, God always calls the wrong people.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were the wrong people to give birth to the messianic forerunner.  They were old.  They were "cursed" in the eyes of their community.  They were finished, used up and done. Here's something cool, though.  Zechariah's name means "God remembered."  How cool is that?  I am sure that there were moments when Zechariah felt just as forgotten and forlorn as a person could feel.  He was the wrong person.  He was, however, in the right place.  His heart longed for deliverance.  His spirit longed for God.  He may have given up hope on a lot of different levels, but there was something deep inside of him that still hung on.

Are you the wrong person in the right place?  Do you feel broken and messed up?  Are you full of doubts and fears?  Do you find yourself clinging to that last little bit of hope.

Then you are the wrong person, but you just might be in the right place.
God likes the wrong people.  Because sometimes the right people want to take all of the credit when things work out.  The wrong people know better.

Second, God's timing is messed up.

When John was born, it was the eleventh hour historically speaking.  The Roman Empire was taking over the world.  In less than fifty years, Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Temple along with it.  Everything was about to change.  God waited until things were about to royally fall apart before Jesus showed up on the scene.
And the people he chose to be the parents of the messenger that the Messiah was coming were probably not even going to be able to raise him to adulthood.  They weren't equipped to finish the job.
It's almost as if God is aware that the timing is bad, and just revels in it.

Are you feeling like God's timing couldn't be worse?  Is it that moment in your life when you are pretty much expecting that things are about to royally fall apart, and wish Jesus would just show up and fix it---or just show up?

God likes the eleventh hour.  He seems to dig the fourth quarter of the game with no time on the clock and no more downs to go.  I don't understand God's penchant for waiting until the last minute, or what I perceive the last minute---or maybe when it feels like the last minute came and went.  All I know is this:  God's timing is not my timing.  God has this whole sense of time and how it works that I can't possibly fathom.

Imagine being able to see the past, present and future all at once.   Just hold that thought because if you were able to do this, you would see how somehow, someway all of the stray bits of everything would seem to fit together into something that resembles perfection.

Third, God's purpose is bigger and more important than you.

Elizabeth and Zechariah were not going to see how the story was going to end.  Historians believe that they didn't even see John become a man, and that he may have grown up out in the desert with a bunch of strange people who thought the world was going to end.  And then there's John himself.  His birth was miraculous.  It was a moment of cosmic importance.  But it wasn't the moment the world was waiting for---it was the moment before the moment.  He was destined to be the messenger, not the message.  And all of that hope in Zechariah's song wasn't for the present, but for the future.  It wasn't for the generation of people who would experience the destruction of their very culture at the hands of a ruthless Empire---it was for people like us.

Here's a tough question:  Are you ready to give of yourself without expecting a return?  Are you ready to just step into the story and embrace the knowledge that the story isn't about you?  How cool are you with being the moment before the moment?

So many of us can't really make this kind of selfless way of living happen.  We want to matter.  We want to make an imprint on the world, to be successful, to have things and to be important.  But what this story teaches us is that sometimes you get the unbelievable joy and privilege of just being a small part in the great big story of how God is bringing light to the world.

And that's enough.  It's more than enough, really.

Listen.  It's time to own your brokenness.  It's time for you to realize that you are the wrong person.  You'll always be the wrong person.  You are not big enough to fill the shoes that God is intending for you to fill, and that is just the way God wants it.  Because then you have to trust him.  Then you have to know that your strength is going to come from somewhere beyond yourself.  Then you'll realize that your brokenness, your frailty, your sin, junk, mistakes and all of the rest of it are not liabilities in the eyes of God.

It's also time to realize that your timing is way off, but in a good way.  There is no way that you will ever be able to guess what tomorrow brings with a great deal of certainty.  You can try, and maybe you might be right some of the time.  But life is full of surprises.  It's also full of long moments of waiting, seasons where there seems to be nothing but silence---where the prayers that you are lifting up don't seem to be making it to God at all.  It's in that eleventh hour when you are waiting for everything to fall apart that you have the chance to experience something special:  peace that comes from submission, acceptance, obedience and trust.

And here's the last thing.  It's time to break your silence and sing.  Sing as loud as you possibly can.  Let the world hear your song of praise, your song of hope, your song of possibilities.  And let this song be one of selflessness and sacrifice.  Let this song be one that leaves a legacy of faith.  Let this song carry you away with it's melody of grace, peace and redemption.

And let the light of the world shine full on your face while you sing---like a spotlight.

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