Monday, December 05, 2016

First Sunday of Advent: A Letter to Zecheriah as he asks "How Will I Know?"

Over the years, I have transitioned from preaching from a manuscript to an outline. This Advent, though, I have transitioned back to a manuscript due to the nature of the sermon (writing letters to someone requires a bit more written out). As always, my manuscript is without the editorial shortcuts I made as I was delivering the message, and thus is a little rough. But I thought some of you might want to read this.


Advent in the Christian year is a season of anticipation. A season of waiting. A season of longing if you will.

We tend to forget Advent and run straight to Christmas. Christmas songs. Christmas bells. Christmas feasts for the whole month of December. Which is sad, because I have come to believe that the waiting and anticipation makes the season of twelve days that we call Christmas all the sweeter. Advent acknowledges our doubts, our questions, our need for a Savior. Christmas brings that Savior into our presence.

This year as I was preparing for this month’s series of messages, I encountered two resources that influenced this Advent’s messages. The first resource, as you will see on the cover of your bulletin is this book “The Five Questions of Advent”. I have always been intrigued, as you have heard before, by the questions in the songs of Advent and Christmas. “Mary did you Know?”, “What Child Is This?” among others. And then there is the beautiful and haunting, “I Wonder As I Wander”. I am intrigued because these hymns and songs call us into the mystery of the Advent season.

This theme draws us into the mystery of Advent from the questions of the people around the Advent stories that are recorded in Scripture.

          Zecheriah asks, “How will I know?”

          Mary asks, “How can this be?”

          Elizabeth asks “Why has this happened to me?”

          The crowd asks of John the Baptist, “What will this child become?”

          The Magi ask “Where is the Child?”

 The second half of the inspiration comes from Gregg Hemmen, the pastor of First Baptist at Rapid City. While we were at a meeting together, he had the devotion, and he shared that one of the things that his seminary professor told him is that he could do a lot worse than writing a letter back to a character in Scripture if he could not think of anything else to do.

So, I began to think, what would it look like to write a letter to the people in Advent story, a letter that shares my response to the questions they had. And so, here we go….this is my plan for today, and in fact for all of Advent.

Dear Zechariah,

I read about you in my Bible the other day. And I have to admit, when I read the story of you in the Holy of Holies, my first thought it relief. Does that sound selfish? I thought so. It is what it is.

You see, you are a priest and I am a preacher. Our roles are similar and different. One of the ways that we are similar is that you and I we are put in a place by virtue of our position in the church and the community where we are expected to have things a little bit together, ya know? We are not supposed to have doubts and struggles. Yet we do. We are people on a journey, just like the people God has called us to lead.

What I read from the Bible is this. That you were a priest. That your wife had never had kids. That she had entered menopause. That you had given up hope of having children at that point. You had committed yourself to the ministry, and then you were selected to go into the holy of holies, the sacred place in the middle of the temple that only certain people were allowed to go at certain times. And as you offered prayer and incense, an angel named Gabriel appeared to you. He told you that you were going to have a kid in your old age.

That must have hit you like a ton of bricks. You see, I think at some point you had stopped trying to make any sort of pregnancy happen and just moved to a place of acceptance—you were never going to have kids. You got to a point where you gave up on praying for children, gave up on hoping for children, and then you got older and it just seemed impossible. It may have been the one thing you wanted the world, but you were not going to allow yourself to get yourself hopeful about ever having a kid.

And when this angel says you are going to have a son, well, I think it opened up this big wound you have been running from for quite a while.

Did you have the strength to dare believe again? Did you have the courage to take what the angel said at face value?

The Scripture says you said, “How will I know?”

“How will I know?”

Well, the angel did not take that very well. He was still faithful to God’s promise, allowing you to become a father, but he stuck you without the ability to speak until after your son John was born.

Gabriel was mad. He said you did not believe he was able to do such a thing.

I think maybe your “How will I know?” sounded like “Hey Gabriel, prove it!” to him.

I mean, really, its not every day that you go to church, offer prayers for the people, and then have an angel appear to you, telling you that your menopausal wife is going to be pregnant when she had be barren, and that your child is going to pave the way for the Messiah that is coming.

If I were you, I might have expressed some doubt too. That is what it sounds like Gabriel took away from your question. “How can I know that I can trust you, messenger of God?” He heard doubt.

It is hard to trust. To trust blindly. To not want more and then more confirmation that God is really leading you, that you should really trust this “hunch of faith” that you have been given. But….I have not had an angel come to speak to me in the middle of work like you did.

I mean, it might be easy to have faith in some sense—depending what you mean by faith. To believe in a certain sense of truths. To practice a certain set of spiritual disciplines. But it is hard to trust. To base our life upon what you believe God has told you, and to allow your whole life to take a different course.

Hebrews 11 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see”. Easier said than done.

And so God thrust you into a position where you had to trust in him and depend on him more. You were not able to speak. Not able to speak for almost a year. As a religious worker. I am a pastor. I don’t know what I would do if I was in your shoes.

As I read the Scripture, I am so thankful for your doubts. I am thankful because I have doubts at times too. I mean, it is one thing to accept the gifts we have been given when they are right in front of us. It is another thing to be asked to trust in something that is in the future, that you cannot really manage or control. To trust about a situation that you thought you had given up on years ago.

I get it.

Zechariah, I struggle to trust at times too. I am impatient. I want God to give me a sign. And then another. And then another. There are times where I think I am trusting God and listening to God, and then I wonder if I am really hearing right, you know?

But perhaps the hardest part about living by faith—trusting—is what we are supposed to practice in the season called Advent. The same season we often read your story in the Christian community. It is hard to live by trusting when we are  in the waiting stage. You waited late in life for your child. Then, after your wife became pregnant, I bet those 10 months went by so slow.

And your nation, waiting for centuries for a new word from the Lord. Waiting for a deliverer. Waiting for a Messiah. I know when you went into the Holy of Holies, you were praying for a deliverer for your people. Little did you know that the angel would bring you into the center of the story of what God was doing.

We wait in faith today too. And we struggle to understand. We want more clarity and more answers.

We pray for those we love. We pray that they will come to faith or return to faith. We pray and we pray, and we trust.

We long for and work for justice in our world and compassion for those in need. We work for justice for the unborn. We strive for more inclusiveness and acceptance for those on the fringes of society. We seek to feed the hungry and help the needy. And we pray that the help we offer will make a difference. That we will see that it somehow matters. And we wait and we trust. We pray “thy kingdom come”

We work hard just to get by. We pray we get a break, and yet it seems like it is one step forward and two steps back. And we wait and trust. We pray to be sustained. We pray for our daily bread, as Jesus, the Messiah taught us to.

We seek to do the right thing. But the right thing sometimes in the short term seems to get the wrong results. We remain faithful. We wait and trust. We pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We struggle with our personal battles. We ask God to help us to overcome our sinful habits. Too lead us away from paths that will destroy our churches, our families, our lives. We pray for God to lead us out of temptation and deliver us from evil

Do we come to God with our doubts and concerns and questions. Yes. But we also have faith that God can do the impossible, make a way out of no way, grow the seed into a plant into a tree that bears fruit. But we must wait in trust, and we must trust with our minds, our actions, and all of our hearts. Knowing that some promises are slow to come, but that God is always faithful. And he at work bringing all things together for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

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