Unlikely Characters

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on December 22, 2019

•Luke 1:5-25, 57-80•

Since September we have been moving through the Old Testament. We started with human beings in the garden, moved to some early church fathers, spent time with the Israelites in the wilderness, heard Ruth’s beautiful confession to Naomi before the kings and prophets brought us to now. It has been a long journey and while I have thoroughly enjoyed it I am ready for something new.

Ever since we started using the narrative lectionary five years ago, I look forward to this week — the week we move into the New Testament. It is not that I don’t appreciate the Old Testament, but as I share with colleagues, after a long arduous journey through it, I am ready for Christmas — I am ready for Jesus to make his entrance. And while we still have a little time until Jesus’ debut, today we venture into the New Testament. Off with old and onto the new — sort of. For while we are making the move I have looked forward to, our story actually has all kinds of allusions to where we have just been.

Of the four Gospels, only Luke begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story. A story of a couple getting on in years, the wife thought to be barren, any hope of having children all but gone. All seems lost, but then comes the incredible promise that in fact they will have a baby in their advanced age. If this plot sounds familiar, it should, for it is very similar to the story we talked about in mid-September. The story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac.

Rather than staring fresh, Luke wants to go back and remind us of an earlier beginning. Luke spends a great deal of time and energy recalling the beginning of the story of God’s relationship with God’s people Israel. In this way Luke places his story of Jesus, within the larger story of faith — the story that began when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and go to the place that God would show them, in their advanced years when God promised them a child and many descendants and when God promised them they would be a blessing to all.

Luke reminds us of the truth that the biblical story is story after story of God choosing unlikely candidates, in unexpected ways, to accomplish God’s purposes. Both Abraham and Sarah laughed when they first heard the promise that they would have a son. With Sarah 90 years old and Abraham nearly 100, the promise seemed utterly absurd. In fact it took no time at all before they took the promise into their own hands and Sarah gave Abraham her maid-servant Hagar so that he could produce a child by her. Abraham and Sarah just didn’t see how God was going to work out this promise of their having children on their own.

Yet despite Abraham and Sarah’s skepticism and their attempts to take matters into their own hands, God’s promise proves true. Sarah conceives in her old age and gives birth to a son, who is named Isaac, which in Hebrew means: he laughs. Sarah exclaims, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

While there appears to be no laughter in our story today, Zechariah and Elizabeth are rather unlikely candidates to play a crucial role in the fulfillment of God’s promises. They, too, are old and childless. Zechariah is a priest from the hill country near Jerusalem — Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron.

Two weeks out of the year Zechariah’s division of priests is on duty at the Jerusalem temple and this is where he is at the beginning of Luke’s story. Zechariah is faithfully going about his ordinary priestly duties, when he is chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary to offer incense. At this point his ordinary service quickly becomes something else entirely.

The angel Gabriel appears to him to announce that Elizabeth will conceive and bear a son, to be named John, who will bring them joy and gladness. His son will be filled with the Holy Spirit and set apart for a special purpose — to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Like Abraham and Sarah before him, Zechariah is somewhat skeptical when he hears the promise of a child so late in life. “How shall I know that this is so?” he asks. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” His reasoning is sound — his first question borders on ridiculous.

Zechariah is in the holiest place when an angel shows up and tells him what God is up to. If you can’t believe an angel in the holiest of places — or for that matter if you have to ask for a sign to know that your wife is pregnant outside of all the normal ones — it seems lucky that all Gabriel did was render Zechariah mute until the time when these things will be fulfilled. It still wasn’t the sign I suspect Zechariah was looking for.

Nevertheless, the speechless Zechariah goes home to his wife Elizabeth. We are not told if she enjoyed this silence or not. At some point she conceives and Elizabeth, like Sarah, recognizes the Lord’s hand in these events immediately. She needs no other sign, rather Elizabeth exclaims, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me to take away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Now again, it is not until his son is born, circumcised, and named that Zechariah is able to speak again. In Bible Study this week we talked about what nine plus months of silence might do to a person. And one thing that came up was the idea that Zechariah probably replayed his interaction with Gabriel a couple thousand times over.

I imagine he thought about all the other responses he could have made and how those might have differently influenced the outcome. I imagine he might harbor some feelings of ill will toward the famous angel and the one whom he stands in the presence of. But when the gift of speech comes back to Zechariah, his first words have neither of anger or frustration, there is no malice, rather his words are joy-filled. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.”

Zechariah recognizes that with the birth of his son John, God has looked with favor not only upon him and Elizabeth, but upon the whole people of Israel. John’s birth is another piece in the ongoing promise God made long ago to their ancestors before. God is raising up a savior for God’s people, and Zechariah’s son John will go before this savior to prepare the way, “to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

The entire story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, beginning with the promise to Abraham and Sarah, is coming to fulfillment in this story — this story that begins, once again, with a promise and a birth against all odds. There has been plenty of waiting — fulfillment a long time coming. As we know Israel has been through wars, captivity, exile, and domination by foreign rulers, and at this point is under Roman rule.

It can be hard to hold onto a promise when everything around you would suggest otherwise. And perhaps that is why Luke tells his story in the way he does. Because remembering how God has proven faithful in the past — especially when all hope seemed lost — has the potential to build confidence that God can be trusted in the present and the future. For even while Herod and Caesar rule with an iron fist, God’s reign of justice and compassion still breaks into the world in the unlikely births of two infants in obscure Judean villages. One to really old parents — and the other to young virgin woman.

Which ought to provide some measure of hope for us in the here and now. For there are times in our lives, and in our life together as God’s people, when problems mount and it is difficult to see a way forward — when it seems as though all hope for the future has reached a dead end. But in Bible story after Bible story, we encounter a God for whom there are no dead ends — detours, certainly — but no dead ends. God always finds a way through, even when we are the ones putting up the road blocks and messing with God’s plans. God has a knack for creating something out of nothing — for opening up a future when none seem possible.

And more often than not, God proves faithful by working in unexpected ways and through unlikely characters. We don’t often understand God’s ways or God’s timing. Often we are filled with doubt and tempted to despair. In our haste and unbelief we can seek to solve it on our own. But God works against all odds—despite our weaknesses, despite our doubts, despite our resistance, to create faith in us and to accomplish God’s purposes, even in such unlikely candidates as you and me. Amen.

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