12/2/18 – Advent Week 1

A young pastor- fresh out of seminary and in the first week at his first church was told that the matriarch of the church was very ill in the local hospital and needed him to go see her and pray for her.  He found the woman very ill and weak in her hospital bed.  They talked a bit and she asked him to pray for her.  He asked what she would like him to pray for, and she said for total healing of her body.  So, with all of the polish of a new seminarian, everyone in the room with them held hands and he prayed for her total healing. To everyone’s surprise, she exclaimed, “Oh my, I feel something moving through my body!  My pain is gone!  I can feel my heart working and pumping too.  I think I can walk again.”  And she got out of bed, began dancing around the room and praising God.  Everyone at the hospital said they had never seen anything like this before – it was a great miracle.  The young pastor excused himself and left quietly.  He sat down in his car, closed his eyes and leaned his head against the steering wheel and said to God, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”

Have you ever been surprised by an answer to your prayer?  If so, you have a connection to that pastor, and the main character in our scripture lesson today.  Advent is our time to prepare and anticipate God’s working in the world.  We remember the Christ Child came 2000 years ago, but we also anticipate that the Christ King will one day return as well.  Advent is a time to remember, to wait, to anticipate and to watch how God works in the world, in the church and in us.

During Advent 2018, we will look at different people that were a part of the unfolding Christmas Story and the places where their story took place to discover what this ancient story still teaches us! Today let’s meet John the Baptizer’s father, Zechariah in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Zechariah and his wife were from priestly lineage. They were faithful and obedient to God and the law. They were older and they had no children.  They lived in a beautiful hill country town of Ain Karem, 7 miles from Jerusalem.  When required to work Temple Priest duty, he’d walk the 2-hour distance to work.

Imagine his life.  No children – a curse and in that region, and grounds for divorce.  But Zechariah didn’t divorce Elizabeth. They must have gotten used to their nickname as the “barren couple”.  He had been a priest for years, but never had burned incense in the Most Holy Place in the Temple. (It was a once in a lifetime experience for a priest to see inside the Temple.)  This is really a hard-luck story. In his old age, he had probably gotten used to “losing out” year after year. But this day, things would be different.

Zechariah wins the “lottery” and goes into the Holy Place behind the curtain and burn the incense when suddenly an angel appears with incredible news of a son – his son, born to him and Elizabeth.  He must be called John and he will be a forerunner for the Lord.  He will be a great man in God’s eyes and his ministry will be incredible – and divisive.  It’s too much for Zechariah to process and he questions the angel, telling him that he is an old man.  There is a story of a 90-year-old man who went to his Doctor and told him that his knee hurts.  The doctor asked him what he expected for his age.  The old man replied, “I expect you to fix my knee!  Gabriel says, “Don’t argue with me…I’m an angel for crying out loud!  I stand in God’s presence – you think today is a great day because you’re burning incense – I stand in God’s presence every day!”  And Zechariah’s voice was stifled.

Gabriel tells him that his prayers have been heard.  Zechariah had been praying for a son.  He had probably begun praying shortly after he and Elizabeth had been married.  It probably was prayed in earnest at first and then began to fall to lower numbers on the prayer list as the years went by until it was just something to add to the daily prayer.  Perhaps it was “…and please give us a son of our own.  Amen.”

I wonder if Zechariah ever gave any thought to that specific prayer as he prayed it?  Have you ever done that – do you do that?  Do you have something you have been praying for over a long time – day after day after day – weeks, months; years go by and still nothing?  Perhaps that request has become just a way to mark the end of the prayer – or mindless routine. Do you have something you have been praying for over a long time and are still waiting for an answer?  Are we like that 90-year-old man and expect our prayers to be answered? Do we have hope beyond hope?  Nine months later, Zechariah writes “John” on a slate, and suddenly he’s able to speak again.  Finally!  He praises God and celebrates this miracle. I wonder what Zechariah learned about God through all of this?  I wonder what we can learn about God through this.

1) God is faithful when we have forgotten.  The rote prayers were long forgotten by Zechariah – but not God.  We can hope beyond hope because of God’s faithfulness.  We are called to pray and even Jesus said that we don’t have because we don’t ask – pray about it.  How devoted is your prayer life these days?  God’s answer to our prayer request is yes, no, or wait.  When the answer is no, it does not mean that every answer is no.  When yes, it does not mean every answer is yes, etc. We find hope in the fact that God’s answer to our prayers can be linked to what God is doing or will do in other people’s lives too.  If we want ALL of God’s will to be done – it may take an entire generation of time to make it happen.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God thinks long-term, we usually pray short-term prayers.

2) Continue to be faithful in the waiting.  Zechariah may have figured that his prayers would never be answered, but he still served God.  Carry on when the answer has not come to your concern, need or request.  Never give up on hope in God.

3) Regardless of age, God wants to use us in faithful service to God.  For years, Zechariah probably hoped to be chosen to offer the sacrifice of incense and see the inside of the temple as worship leader.  Even in his old age, he continues to serve.  God is never finished with us.  God has something for us to do that will fit into the age or the stage of life we are currently in.  God has new things for us today that require, at times, a lifetime of learning before we are called to do them. Countless mission, ministry and outreach events have been led by those society have called too old.  God never looks at our age – but God does look at our willingness to be used.  We discover hope beyond hope at every age!

Advent reminds us to stay hopeful. We worship a God who gives us hope beyond hope through Christ! There are no hopeless situations; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them.