Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Well, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
Christmastime is almost upon us again,
although it hardly seems possible, doesn’t it?
In the tradition of the Church, the countdown to Christmas
is a season known as Advent.
As a counter to all the hustle and bustle of the holiday rush,
Advent reminds us to not let the time get away from us
– and more importantly, not to let all the decorating and festivities
distract us from remembering why there is even a Christmas at all.
Some people will observe Advent by marking each day
with a little piece of chocolate or some other novelty.
Again, in the custom of some branches of the Church,
the Advent practice is to mark each Sunday by successively
lighting candles placed around the corners of a festive wreath
until finally, on Christmas Eve, the center candle is, at last, lit
in celebration of what Christmas is all about.
The Light of the world
– the Light that is the very life of all creation – coming down to earth.
What is known as the Incarnation –
God, the One in whose image we are all made,
drawing us close to us as our own skin
– bearing the fullness of our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
Along the way, over these next few weeks,
we’ll be getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus
from the perspective of the Gospel of Luke.
Together we’ll be reading the Christmas story
through the lens of receiving unexpected gifts.
Have you ever gotten a Christmas gift that you didn’t anticipate?
Something that was totally unexpected
– that we never even imagined was possible?
Perhaps a gift we didn’t ask for – maybe didn’t even want
– but ended up discovering was exactly what we needed?
We’re all so familiar with the Christmas story
we forget very little about the story of Christmas was expected.
In the opening lines of his gospel account,
Luke seems acutely aware of this.
So much so that he begins with an introduction that concludes in this way,
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” -Luke 1:1-4
“…so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
This story – the Christmas story – is filled with a lot of surprises.
The characters are unexpected. The setting is unexpected.
And the gifts – each of them, all of them – culminating in
the divinity being delivered through our humanity,
eternity swaddled in infancy – the gifts of Christmas are unexpected too.
So let’s begin by unwrapping the first unexpected gift of Christmas
– a gift that is universally longed for but more often than
a gift we give up on actually getting – the gift of hope. (TEXT)
One of the first things we learn about the unexpected gift of hope
– the unique hope of Christmas – of God with and for us,
is that this hope comes, not in a general or generic fashion
but at specific moments in our human existence.
Luke is careful to note the date when hope begins to dawn for the people of Israel – and by extension, the rest of the world.
“In the time of Herod king of Judea…” – Luke 1:5
It is the time of Herod, King of Judea.
Herod wasn’t born to be a king.
Decades earlier, he has been made one by the Roman Senate,
both as a matter of political convenience
and as a reward for services to be rendered – namely for keeping
Judea’s service and tribute to Rome uninterrupted.
More of a puppet than an actual monarch, the irony of it all was,
Herod, as the King of the Jews, wasn’t even Jewish by birth.
He was an Edomite – a person of Arab origin –
lorded over the people of Israel.
By all appearances, this is not exactly a promising start to the story.
Nonetheless, this is the moment when hope is about to be delivered.
And yet God’s gift of hope is often unexpected by us
because hope is one of those things we need to give up on too soon.
Hope necessitates patience.
And humankind is not known for its ability to wait
– especially when it comes to the unfolding of God’s timetable.
One of the earmarks of sin – our brokenness
– part of how we get separate ourselves
and get lost in terms of our Creator is our impatience.
Just like an anxious child with his or her parents,
humanity repeatedly gets into trouble because of our refusal to wait.
Instead of waiting for hope, we give up on God
and take matters into our own hands.
We stop expecting more – the more God promises will come – and we decide to settle for less – the less that is all we can manage on our own.
In the time of Herod, King of Judea, the majority of Israelites
have moved on from being hopeful to acting hopelessly.
It’s been more than 550 years since anyone has heard
from a true prophet of Lord, witnessed a divine miracle
or some sign of the arrival of God’s long-promised Messiah.
Most have given up hope and are trying to make their own luck
– attempting either to provoke God into acting
or just work around the Lord altogether.
Take the Pharisees, for example.
They are the faction of Israelites who are working the legal angle.
For generations now, the Pharisees have managed to parse
the Law – God’s rules for life as it was intended to be –
into more detailed, more stringent degrees of observance.
The argument behind turning God’s Top Ten into
an exhausting, bureaucratic canon of law
rivaled only perhaps by the United States Tax Code
may be well-intentioned but still presumptuous.
The Pharisees figure, the better we keep the rules,
the more likely it is God will have no choice but to reward our faithfulness.
God helps those who help themselves, right?
But, beloved, hope that we have to buy or earn is no hope at all.
Or how about the Sadducees?
The Sadducees were a sect of Israelites
who became adept at playing politics
– of trying to advance the religious agenda of Israel by working with Rome.
For them, Herod has become de-facto king Israel should settle for – ideally by choice, but at the very least, not to risk Israel’s power and livelihood.
Herod may not actually be Jewish,
but at least we can celebrate that he’s advancing the Jewish agenda.
Herod may be a paranoid psychopath
but at least we can behind the fact that Herod knows how to build things
– including enhancing and expanding the Temple in Jerusalem.
Herod’s character may leave a lot to be desired
but at least we can champion and support
how Herod is working to make Jerusalem great again.
But, beloved, hope built on lies and compromise is no hope at all.
And then there’s the Essenes.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of them.
There isn’t any mention of them in the Bible
because these are Israelites who went native – off the grid.
They left civilization to make their new home out in the desert.
Creating a religious bubble to insulate them
from all the temptations and corruptions of this world.
Insisting they’ve seen the signs of what’s coming,
the Essenes keep stockpiling goods in the wilderness,
prepping for the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world –
when the rest of those godforsaken people
– the pagans and all those weak, compromising, and half-hearted Israelites – have been swept away from the fire of God’s judgment
– true believers like them finally get their salvation – and a better world.
But beloved, hope that preys on the condemnation of others
is no hope at all.
It’s both interesting and sad to note, these three camps,
these varying postures of taking matters into our own hands
when it comes to our faith, still are alive and well today in the Church.
And yet the gift of hope that God promises to bring into our lives
– that Christmas points towards – will not be expected and therefore
will not be received if we’ve given up on it; if we stop waiting for it.
Where in the story of our lives have we stopped waiting on finding our hope in the Lord and instead, decided to give up or try and do things ourselves?
What situation we are facing, which relationship we are in,
has become hopeless to us?
The hope that God delivers never arrives according to our schedule;
it always comes right on time – precisely in God’s timing.
We must never stop waiting. No matter what. No matter how long.
In the time of Herod, king of Judea, some are still waiting.
Luke narrows our focus on two such persons: Zechariah and Elizabeth.
“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah;
his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.
Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing
all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” – Luke 1:5-6
Husband and wife, Zechariah and Elizabeth,
both come from priestly lineages – meaning their families descended
from the line of Israel’s first High Priest, Aaron.
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth also are noted by Luke
as “being righteous in the sight of God.”
Meaning this is a couple that is living rightly, faithfully.
There is no hypocrisy in them.
They are not perfect but they are walking the talk
– humbly walking before God –
loving mercy and acting justly before their neighbors.
Zechariah and Elizabeth.
If anybody has a reason to perceive themselves as hopeless; it’s them.
Sure, they’ve got the pedigree and the credentials.
Yes, they’ve got the right attitude, the correct posture.
But a fat lot of good it’s done them
having those credentials, keeping that mindset,
living rightly and waiting expectantly.
Because seemingly, they’ve got nothing to show for it.
Their best days appear to be behind them.
They aren’t getting any younger.
And for all those years together, they’re not just longing for the Messiah, they’re still long for a family – a child of their own.
“But they were childless because Elizabeth
was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” – Luke 1:7
Sometimes God’s gift of hope is unexpected
because we can often misinterpret waiting as a “No” from God
– a “No” to there being any hope for which to look.
After all those years – Luke tells they were very old –
after all those years of not being able to conceive a child,
Zechariah and Elizabeth must have wondered
if God had said “No” to their hope for a family.
Then, as still today, infertility was a painful, humiliating,
and often devastating reality to have to endure as a married couple
– particularly for women in the ancient world.
While no one around them might ever say it out loud,
everyone probably believes the reason Zechariah and Elizabeth
don’t have a son or daughter is because of something they’ve done wrong.
Seemingly, the Torah was clear.
Old Testament Law explicitly implied faithfulness to
the covenant relationship with the Lord would lead to
fruitfulness rather than barrenness (See Deuteronomy 7:12-14).
“If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you,
as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb,
the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and olive oil
—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land
he swore to your ancestors to give you. You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor will any of your livestock be without young.”
– Deuteronomy 7:12-14
Therefore, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s peers would have presumed
the cause of her being childless to be divine disfavor
due to some unconfessed and unresolved sin in their life.
Nothing makes our lack or want more painful
then when somebody else attributes it to our guilt or shame.
But – as always – nothing is as it appears with God.
Beloved, hope can elude us, we can deny hope to others,
when we attribute something to the Lord’s doing that is completely wrong.
Hope becomes unexpected, hope risks being lost,
whenever we are so focused on insisting we’re right
that we almost miss what the Lord is actually doing
– what God is about to reveal.
Hope can be missed, if we give up on it and jump to our own conclusions.
Hope can still be found,
if we keep waiting for it despite having nothing to show for it.
For one of the next things we learn about the unexpected gift of hope
– the unique hope of Christmas – of God with and for us,
is that this hope is discovered; it is realized by those
who wait upon the Lord by continuing to follow Him.
Zechariah and Elizabeth haven’t given up hope.
Even as months turned to years and years turned to decades,
even though it’s been a long time and it feels like forever,
it feels like time is slipping away…
Even though it’s been hard and painful to watch others rejoice,
to hear others whisper their judgment and disapproval,
even though they bear the speculation and shame for
something they both could not control or fix
– for suspected wrongs they never committed,
Zechariah and Elizabeth are still waiting for hope
– following the Lord – not hopelessly but hopefully.
Where in the story of our lives
are we surrendering to our personal doubts
rather than boldly, persistently lamenting them before God
– pressing into the Lord’s presence rather than slowly pulling away?
What voices – whose voice in our lives has become the voice of God – daring to label our identity and destiny – presuming to know
the fullness of what the Lord purposes to do in and through our lives
– in this torn and tattered world of ours?
Hopelessness is not the voice of God;
hopelessness is the voice of impatience, of cynicism, of death.
For those who follow the Lord, the voice of God – of the Spirit –
always is one of hope – a living hope, an everlasting hope found in Christ.
And so, Zechariah – and by extension, Elizabeth, wait.
Zechariah waits by continuing to follow the Lord
through continuing to get up each day and going to work.
But today is no ordinary day.
Today is a divine appointment
– in more ways than one for Zechariah as a priest at the Temple.
“Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty
and he was serving as priest before God…” – Luke 1:8
As a reminder, the role of the priesthood was central
to the life and worship of ancient Israel.
This important work, exclusively delegated to the tribe of Levi,
the descendants of Aaron, is outlined in great detail from the end of
the book of Exodus all the way through the book of Leviticus.
The overall responsibility of the priesthood was
to mediate the relationship between the community
and the presence of God located within the Temple.
Through their role of facilitating the praise and sacrifices of the people,
the priesthood served as a daily reminder to Israel
of the inseparability between human efforts and divine calling.
For contrary to how we treat religion today
– delegating it to a matter of one’s private conscience,
the work of the priesthood reinforced how our relationship with God
is inseparably connected to our relationship with each other.
To wrong another person is an offense against the Lord.
Likewise, refusing to walk in the way of the Lord
– not living as God intended for us to live –
has inevitable, negative consequences, not just for oneself,
but for the whole community.
In other words, through rituals aimed at reconciliation and restoration,
the role of the priesthood was to ensure
the overall health of the individual and the community
– spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and even physically.
Now to carry out the work of the priesthood, King David,
way back when with the inauguration of the Temple in Jerusalem,
divided all of the priestly families into 24 groups
in order to balance all of the work involved related to the Temple.
Each of these groups took turns serving at the altar in the Temple.
At one time, there were as many as 18,000 priests ordained to service.
One of these groups was headed by the priest, Abijah
– the lineage to which Zechariah belongs.
A momentous day on the job has arrived for Zechariah.
The clan of Abijah has been chosen to serve in the Temple today.
“Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.”
– Luke 1:8-9
And Zechariah has been chosen by lot from within his clan
to offer the evening sacrifice of incense.
To perform this duty, Zechariah must enter the sanctuary of the Temple and stand before the veil concealing the Holy of Holies
– the most inner chamber bearing the very presence of God.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve and occupy
a most sacred space – the point of contact between heaven and earth.
It is here – on the job – at the climactic moment of fulfilling
his work for the day – as Zechariah is immersed in the white smoke
and sweet fragrance of the incense, that hope unexpectedly shows up.
“And when the time for the burning of incense came,
all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him,
he was startled and was gripped with fear.” – Luke 1:10-12
As much to his surprise, Zechariah is visited by a messenger of the Lord
– an angel named Gabriel.
Gabriel delivers a word of divine blessing
– the “good news” that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth,
will conceive and bear a child – a son. And not just any son.
“But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
– Luke 1:13-17
After centuries of prophetic silence,
Zechariah and Elizabeth are given a four-fold declaration of hope:
They will give birth to a son who will be named John.
Their son will bring joy and gladness not only to them but to many others.
Their son will be set apart by God and filled with the Spirit before his birth.
Their son will minister in the spirit and power of Elijah to
prepare the way of the Lord – the Messiah, the coming Savior of the world.
Another thing about the unexpected gift of hope
– our hope in the Lord, that we learn at this point is
that the way this hope begins to arrive is really nothing new.
An old, childless couple is now going to have a child
– a child that is going to shift the very trajectory of human history.
Haven’t we heard this story before?
Isaac. Jacob. Joseph. Moses. Samuel. And now, John.
The new stories of the Gospel are just remixes
– refreshes of the same old good news
– the unchanging, eternal story of the God who is with and for us.
The gift of hope God brings into our lives is nothing all that new;
it’s the same gift that the Lord wraps and presents to us in a new way.
Well, for one reason,
the hope we have in the Lord is the only gift we need.
But another reason is God repeats Himself
– the Lord is always coming and delivering His hope to us
in seemingly new and yet familiar ways
because we forget. We get preoccupied.
We don’t remember where our hope comes from
and how it tends to arrive – not through some spectacular,
deafening, cataclysmic event – but rather in the smallness,
in the normal, ordinary, everyday avenues of life
– another day on the job, the daily prayers of the community,
before the ongoing concerns of family.
Have we forgotten where to look for the hope God gives?
Have we even bothered to notice – let alone try to remember –
the reliable patterns of hope – the deposits of grace –
that the Lord traces again and again in our lives?
Or do we just keep moving on to the next thing
– the next concern, the next worry,
the next hopeless situation or relationship?
Are we – in all our asking, in all our seeking, in all our desperation to find, are we looking past, straining beyond,
what or who the Lord has put before us?
Or do we have our doubts
even when the hope of the Lord is right in front of our faces?
If so, let us be encouraged because apparently, Zechariah did too.
“Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?
I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” -Luke 1:18
Zechariah, whose name means “God has again remembered,”
ironically has forgotten how the Lord delivers hope.
Despite this being how God works, this being how God has worked before,
Zechariah, in the spirit of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has his doubts.
His questions overshadow his acceptance of this divine hope
– hope personalized for him and Elizabeth –
for the angel, Gabriel declares “your prayer has been heard.”
Zechariah is looking for a sign in order to believe the hope of God is real
– and again, ironically, he immediately gets one
– he finds himself unable to speak.
“Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?
I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” -Luke 1:18-20
Don’t miss the humor here.
The sign of hope Zechariah receives is
a season of enforced silence where he’ll be reduced
to making signs with his hands instead of looking for one.
“Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple,
for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.”
Zechariah doesn’t lose the hope he is being given.
No, instead of being able to talk his way out of the hope
God is bringing into his life, into this world,
Zechariah will become more alert, more present, more receptive
to the hope that will unfold through Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
The next time Zechariah speaks it won’t be to question the hope God delivers; it will be to name that hope in telling his family,
his newborn son’s name is John.
One of the last things we learn from this passage
about the unexpected gift of hope – the unique hope of Christmas
– of God with and for us, is while this hope will not be diminished
or denied to us by our questions and our doubts,
this hope is sweeter – becomes richer and deeper –
through our acceptance – through our praise and expectation.
As Luke goes on to share, Elizabeth’s reaction to this unexpected news
is a far cry from her husband, Zechariah.
Elizabeth expresses no disbelief.
Elizabeth, the one for whom nearly a lifetime of disappointment
and facing the unkind scrutiny of others has been more acute,
asks no questions.
Elizabeth simply and completely embraces the gift of hope.
Instead of allowing herself to be consumed
by her particular circumstances, clearly Elizabeth
has persisted in holding onto the memory of God’s faithfulness in the past.
“When his time of service was completed, he returned home.
After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said.
“In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” -Luke 1:23-25
Therefore, as unbelievable as word of her being with child may sound,
Elizabeth recognizes the hope in Gabriel’s announcement
– declaring that not only this message but also her pregnancy
is thanks to God.
Elizabeth, whose name means “oath of my God,”
whose very name proclaims her long-enduring faith
in a God who keeps His promises, understood the Lord,
as He had done many times before, was working through
her barrenness not only to bring hope to her and her husband
but more broadly to extend to hope of salvation for all.
As Elizabeth becomes pregnant, though she goes into seclusion,
she extends the hope she has been given beyond herself to others.
When her much younger cousin, Mary, comes to her, pregnant,
under much different circumstances – out of wedlock,
and yet by the same means – the grace of God –
Elizabeth testifies not only to the hope in her own womb
but like her son, John, later will do, Elizabeth points to
the even greater hope – the greatest hope of all – to come by
the Lord through Mary – the Son of God and the Son of Man, Jesus Christ.
As our fractured world and our broken lives bring unexpected challenges,
we need the gift of unexpected hope
– the hope of Advent, the hope of Christmas,
the hope of Jesus’ birth, the hope of God with and for us
– the hope of the Lord’s presence and work in and through us.
The hope of Advent may seem distant and out of our reach.
But the hope to which Advent points is closer
than we could ever imagine or hope for.
For the hope of the Incarnation is not a fuzzy feeling,
wishful thinking kind of hope.
The hope of the Incarnation is hope enfleshed
– hope promised that becomes ultimately made good
in the most unexpected way of all
– delivered in person on our doorstep by God Himself.
The hope of the Incarnation is more than a few kind words expressed of fingers-crossed, prayers being lifted up, “I’m hoping for you.”
The hope of the Incarnation is the Word made flesh
– hope come down, hope being born in your life,
hope transforming our story and remaking all creation.
To be ready for such hope,
we have to be willing to wait – to wait upon the Lord
in the midst of a stumbling economy, an ongoing global medical crisis,
and the continued polarization with our world, nation,
communities, and families.
To recognize such hope – this hope that only God can give,
we need to admit how much about what the Lord is doing
we don’t understand and we often get badly and sadly wrong.
To receive such hope, we must keep humbly following
– tracing, remembering, and walking in the patterns of
the Lord’s faithfulness – both in the pages of scripture and in the story
the Holy Spirit is weaving in day to day movement of our life together.
All our doubts and all our questions
do not at all preclude us from finding hope in the Lord,
but when we embrace the unexpected hope
God gives to us in Jesus Christ, we will discover
we have hope to share with others, hope that will change this world. Amen.