Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Season of Advent: From Where Does PEACE Come

During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.
The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered why he was in the sanctuary for such a long time. When he came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he gestured to them and couldn’t speak. When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home. Afterward, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. She kept to herself for five months, saying, “This is the Lord’s doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people.” (Luke 1:5–25 CEB)
We sometimes tend to romanticize the stories of Christmas. We depict the Christmas story like this:

This is a scene commonly witnessed on front yards around the world. Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus; the wise men (though they were not there). A typical barnyard scene, but this picture is not so typical. If you look closely, you can see that the animals are actually smiling! Ten-minute-old Baby Jesus is smiling too! As is His mother, who only moments ago gave birth in a barn, nevertheless, she is fully clothed, sitting on her knees on the ground, entertaining guests, and perfectly pleased that her newborn infant is lying in a feeding trough! Mothers, how accurate do you think this picture is?

Though certainly overjoyed with the arrival of their new baby boy, here was a young couple (13-15 years old), far away from home, and Mary has just given birth to her first child outside! Now, here is a couple that desperately needed some PEACE in their lives! And Mary’s cousin was no different. The Text that we’ve heard remind us that Zechariah and Elizabeth desperately needed some PEACE in their lives too. Just consider the first three verses I read to you:
During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. [BUT] They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. (Luke 1:5–7 CEB)
I’ve inserted one word into this translation, because I want you to clearly see what Luke is trying to tell us. Zechariah and Elizabeth were good people! They were religious people. Zechariah was a priest. Elizabeth’s father and husband were priests. Luke says they were both “righteous.” He also says they were both “blameless” in their observance of ALL of the Lord’s commands. Luke’s main point here: There were not two better people in all of Israel than Zechariah and Elizabeth!

BUT… They had no children. Those four words mean one thing to us, but something entirely different in the first-century Jewish world. To us, this is an awful tragedy. And our hearts go out to Zechariah and Elizabeth (but especially Elizabeth). Some of you have been unable to have children. You’ve had to watch your sisters and friends prepare for their new baby. You’ve had to visit the hospital and see the small little clothes and the strollers and the car seats. You’ve had to attend the baby showers. You’ve had to sit through Mother’s Day sermons and baby dedications. Some of you know the tragedy of being unable to have a child. To Elizabeth, this was a tragedy, but of a different sort. In her world to be without a child meant God was angry with you. When people saw Elizabeth, there first thought was not, “Oh, how tragic for her.” Their first thought was, “I wonder what she’s done that none of us know about.” Children were considered a blessing from the LORD, given to those who deserved them, given to those with whom God was pleased. Luke wants us to see the theological dissonance here: Zechariah and Elizabeth were good people, the best! BUT… They had no children. Here was a couple who desperately needed some PEACE in their lives. Who knows how long they had prayed to God for a new baby? Who knows how many times Elizabeth had to endure the stares of the young pregnant women in the streets? This text offers allusions to I Samuel 1, where another barren woman, Hannah, longed for a baby. Before she and her husband had Samuel, they went many years without children. One evening, while everyone else was enjoying a festival, she slipped away to be alone with God in God’s house. She pleaded with God: LORD of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy!

Can you hear the anguish in her voice? Hannah, like Elizabeth (and Rachel and Rebekah and Sarah and countless others) needed PEACE. And Luke tells us the story about the time when Elizabeth found the PEACE she was looking for. Notice what the angel says to Zechariah about the son he would have.

He will be a joy and a delight to you.

He will bring many Israelites back to the LORD their God.

He will turn the hearts of parents back to their children.

He will turn the disobedient back to righteousness.

Do you hear what Gabriel is saying? When John comes, he will bring with him Peace. Because peace occurs when things are set right again. The Jewish concept of peace or Shalom is not about the absence of conflict. Peace is what happens when the world is as it should be and John came to set the world as it should be, to make the world ready for his cousin, Jesus! Surely, John’s arrival (and Jesus’ arrival) had universal consequences for the world. But here is what I want you to notice. John’s arrival finally brought peace to Zechariah and Elizabeth. To these two old, struggling followers of God, who had prayed and prayed and prayed for peace in their lives, finally God brought to them the peace they had sought for so long.

We have a lot of folks looking for peace. And some of you have been looking for peace for a very long time. You know, the economy is not what it once was. Some of you are not on speaking terms with your children. Some of you are not on speaking terms with your parents. Some of you have lost children or parents and this time of year is especially difficult. Some of you are battling God right now. You have questions and you are waiting for God to respond with answers! Your faith is on shaky ground. Our world is filled with people looking for peace. We are looking for a way to set things right in our world. We just want things to be as they should be! We want families to love each other. We want to find meaning in our jobs. We want to connect with God in a deep way, the way God intended for us to connect with Him.

You know, sometimes, when peace is absent in our lives, we become convinced that we should try something new. When life gets difficult, sometimes folks look for a new job, a new family, a new spouse, a new church, or a new body (which sometimes leads to eating disorders and many other kinds of unhealthy habits). Sometimes we just run away thinking we should just start over again somewhere else. There is a tendency to believe that the grass is always greener over there. I live in chaos over here. But there must be PEACE over there.

If that is the way your brain works, can I show you something from this first chapter of Luke? I think Luke wants us to see something so important from this text, something we might not see at first glance. Notice that the peace Elizabeth and Zechariah are looking for doesn’t come from anything new. No, it comes right in the middle of their everyday life. When Gabriel shows up, Zechariah is doing exactly what he had always done. This righteous man was in the Temple. He was offering sacrifices the same way he had always done. This is a story about God bringing peace to the world through the ordinary vehicle of an established religion and two ordinary God-followers. Was Judaism perfect? No. Were Elizabeth and Zechariah perfect? No. Couldn’t God have looked from heaven and thought, “Boy, those Jewish people have blown it. If I’m going to fix this mess, I better just start over with something new.” Yes, God could have done that. But God didn’t. Instead, God brought PEACE to the world from within the normal and the mundane. The same ole’ story we’ve read 100 times in the Old Testament. Barren woman, casting lots in the temple, a heavenly messenger, a promise, a sign. Same ol’ story. Folks, sometimes God works through our same ol’ story to do exciting new things.

I love the way Fred Craddock puts it:
And God is at work from within, not from outside the institutions, rituals, and practices of Judaism. The couple is of Aaron’s line, Zechariah is a priest, they are blamelessly pious in all of God’s commands and ordinances, and the word of God comes in the temple. For Luke, God works in and through the normal avenues of life in the believing community. Luke will show us later that he knows that those ways can and do become distorted and corrupted, but here he lays out a fundamental conviction: continuity with Israel’s institutions, rituals, and faith puts one in position to be used for God’s purpose. The old (in this case, an old couple) will usher in the new. (Fred Craddock, Luke)
Luke reminds us that sometimes peace comes to us when we go about the normal routines of life with God. God can bring new life to your church, you don’t have to go anywhere new. God can cause the renewal of your family, you don’t have to find a new one. God can restore your marriage, you don’t have to give up. God brought peace to the world through an old, committed, barren couple in Israel. A couple who remained committed. A couple who never gave up. The grass is not always greener on the other side; sometimes you just need to wait for the rains to come so the grass can become healthy again.

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