Sermon December 9, 2018
Scripture Passage: Luke 1:68-79
Listening with the Ears of Faith
Good morning! I love the Benedictus, or Zechariah’s Song and his story, because it really brings out the humanness in Zechariah and in us! Zechariah and this song are easy for us to relate to, because all of us can identify with the many times, when we’ve been in Zechariah’s ‘shoes’, at least in the experience of being tempted to feel like he did. The Benedictus is perfect for this second Sunday of Advent, because it causes us to pause and reflect on peace. I think we, like Zechariah challenged Gabriel in the good news that his very old, barren wife would have a baby, are tempted to challenge God, when God promises to bring us peace, especially during the hectic Advent season! I think many of us may often be tempted to think, “Peace? Are you crazy? How am I going to find peace, when all the commercial society around me is reving up its pace to sell me Christmas gifts at warp speed?! How do I find peace in the middle of a to-do list, which will keep me busy until well beyond Christmas?” These thoughts are not too unlike those doubtful thoughts of Zechariah, when Gabriel brought him the best news ever, up until that point in his life. Perhaps, what we and Zechariah both have in common, when we have trouble believing the good news of peace, which God brings us, is that we are responding to the good news, through the ‘ears of reason’, rather than through the ‘ears of faith’. But, God has a sense of humor, and knows just the remedy, to shake us out of our doubtful or dismal perspective, make us laugh at ourselves and our world, and see the peace, which God is trying to give us. I loved the antidote, which a commentator shared about British Philosopher, Geoff Midgley, who confessed to be sort of a pessimist. Midgley had tea with his landlady and was discussing all the gloomy news that day about the Cold War and a possible nuclear holocaust, and he, in frustration of how horrible everything seemed, asked her, “Who could resist pressing a button to electronically blow up the whole world?!” That’s my paraphrase of Midgley’s question. His landlady, in her sharp wit, said, “Oh, I wouldn’t. I’m terrified of electric things.” Her dose of humor immediately put Midgley in his place, cheered him up and reframed his fear to give him hope!
In the same way, I think that God’s sense of humor, in causing or allowing awkward things to happen to us, like Zechariah losing his gift of speech, or my friend, Rev. Matthew Ruttan, throwing out his back, has the potential to reframe our doubts or busyness. Matthew is Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Barrie, Ontario in Canada and the author of the devotional, Up!, which I asked Yolanda to share with you by email. Up! is a free email devotional and it is now also available in a printed book. So, Matthew shared in one of his devotionals, a story about a time, when he somehow threw out his previously-injured back, again, by moving it in that just slightly wrong position! At first, I’m sure Matthew probably thought, like most of us would, “Oh no, here we go, again! How long am I going to be laid up this time?!” It just provokes so much anxiety and frustration, for those of us, who have previously-injured backs! I have one, too, so I really empathized with him. However, Matthew has an incredible faith and positive perspective, and he tried to see what good God could accomplish through him in this very unfortunate and humbling situation. He bravely shared that he honestly, really benefited from that period, of being literally ‘knocked off his feet’ and confined to his bed for a while. Matthew said that, while he was unable to get up or do most of the usual things he does as the Head of Staff of a vibrant church and father of 3 young kids, he spent most of that time, focusing on prayer, reflection and reading of scripture.
I wonder, just as many of you might have wondered, if Zechariah, may have spent some time in prayer, reflection and reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, during those 9 months, when God took away his ability to speak? I wonder if Zechariah re-read some the scriptures and pondered more deeply over their meaning. I wonder if Zechariah tried to apply the scriptures more to his personal life and awkward situation. And awkward, it truly was, since as a priest, one of his most important gifts, like for us pastors, was the gift of speech! He needed to speak, in order to proclaim the message to people every Sabbath. He needed to speak, in order to provide pastoral care to people at the synagogue or temple. He needed to speak, in order to teach on the scriptures. I think by now we can appreciate just how frustrating it must have been for poor Zechariah! I think it would be similarly frustrating for any people, who are extroverted and chatty, to have their speech taken away from them, like Zechariah! I’m one of those chatty people, and it’s hard for me to imagine even just 1 day, of not being able to say a word! It would be enormously frustrating! That’s probably how it was at first for Matthew, as a very busy pastor, father and husband, who’s used to running around and living his life at a million miles per hour, when he was confined to his bed. So, my guess is that Zechariah did put on his ‘ears of faith’ sometime after he had his speech taken away.
I say this, because Zechariah’s story does have a happy ending, as we saw with his song of praise. During the time, when the naming of John the Baptizer is discussed, Zechariah writes down, that he wishes to name his son John, rather than Zechariah, which had been his previous plan. Wow- that reflects that Zechariah finally saw some of that dawning light, which he refers to in his song, during his 9 months of muteness, and his ‘ears of faith’ opened up to believe Gabriel’s words that, yes, Elizabeth was indeed having a miracle baby and he should listen to the angel’s instruction to name him John! Unlike Mary, who was perplexed at first with the news of her miraculous conception, but who quickly opened her heart and ‘ears of faith’ to Gabriel’s good tidings, Zechariah’s openness to Gabriel’s news came a bit slow, after months of being unable to use one of his most important gifts, speaking, and perhaps much time spent in prayer, reflection and scripture reading. I find it interesting that a man, who was an elderly priest and highly educated in the Hebrew Scriptures, had a much harder time opening his ‘ears of faith’ than Mary, who was still a teenager and had hardly any education since women were not allowed to have much education. Perhaps, that is why the scriptures, such as Isaiah 11, remind us that sometimes it is little children, whose hearts are much purer than that of adults, who lead us to that peace, which Zechariah speaks of and was in search of, when God took away his speech. I loved how one commentator connected Zechariah’s song with Isaiah 11, which is about the ‘peaceful kingdom’, where the wolf lies down with lamb, and the leopard lies down with the calf, and they are led by a little child to peace. Mary’s ‘ears of faith’ were purer and more open to Gabriel’s good news than Zechariah’s or than Sarah’s, when the angel told her that she would have Isaac in her old age. Sarah was also a woman with very little education, like Mary, but she was much older, and perhaps her age brought some doubts and pessimism to her ‘ears of faith’, because she thought God had played a joke on her and she laughed in sarcasm at the angel’s news! Well, I’m grateful that both elderly people, Sarah and Zechariah, who were a bit challenged in their ‘ears of faith’, did finally, slowly come around and had their ‘ears if faith’ opened, even if it took a painful, humbling experience, like being mute for 9 months! I think that once Zechariah was able to ‘hear’ God’s good news to him, he was ecstatic and filled with peace and joy! It want to note that this is not simply peace, which is the absence of violence and wars, but it is that healing peace, which surpasses all understanding, that Philippians 4:6-7 discusses. It is a deep peace, which can only come from God, which brings health and wholeness. Praise God that Zechariah, even in his in senior years and perspective of reason rather than faith, finally felt that peace from God, and he was convinced that this little boy, John, would lead his people to Jesus and the way of peace, just as Isaiah spoke of the little children leading us to peace! It is also neat to realize that the name John appropriately means, “Gift of God.”
Well, Matthew referred to his time of being laid up as a kind of ‘gift of God’, and he said it was one of the richest times, spiritually, which he ever had! He said he finally had time to slow down and catch up on all the prayers, which he needed to say for certain people or situations in his ministry or personal life. Being laid up gave him the opportunity to finally get caught up with his relationship with God and prayer life, which he might not have gotten to, if he still had been given the choice to get up and go, like he normally does, in a very busy life. So, while the initial human response to a thrown out back is usually one of frustration, Matthew’s response through his ‘ears of faith’ became a very positive one, and by the end of his time of being laid up, he was honestly grateful for the time to slow down and get caught up spiritual practices!
I know that this time of mid December is just as crazy as it could be, but what if each of us, tried to intentionally slow down and spend more time, being quiet, praying and meditating on the Advent scriptures, rather than on the holiday bustle, before we throw out our back, lose our speech, or have some other humbling thing happen to us? I hope that Zechariah’s story and Matthew’s story will encourage us to do that. I hope that we stay focused what the Spirit is trying to whisper into our ears, hearts and minds, about the true meaning of Advent and Christmas. I hope that instead of trying to out-do each other in giving fancy gifts, we will instead listen to the real needs of our loved ones and everyone around us, and share some of that peace, which Zechariah and Isaiah speak of, and the little kids in our circle, model for us.
May each of us, open our ‘ears of faith’ this Advent, and share some that dawning light, which the coming Christ Child is bringing, to those, who sit in darkness or near death, and bring them peace and hope! Come, Lord Jesus!