Elizabeth and Zechariah must have had long-running, low-grade grief. Sure, we could expect that their lives were fulfilling. Zechariah was a priest, a role he inherited that meant some level of wealth and privilege, not to mention the satisfaction of serving the Lord in this manner. They had shared life together for decades. Undoubtedly, there were joys in all their years together. But in a culture where children were a way of securing your future, not to mention that sons would follow in the line of the men before them as priests, Elizabeth and Zechariah carried the sorrow of being childless. There were days when they carried on with life, but always there must have been an undercurrent of grief.
On one of his terms of service at the temple, the lots fell to him, and his priestly ministry hit a high point of offering incense within the sanctuary – a rare occurrence but certainly not an accidental one. God was at work in a way that was entirely unexpected. Zechariah was in the temple sanctuary offering incense when an angel interrupted him with this stunning announcement. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord….He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of 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).
For decades they had prayed for a child. Out of nowhere, this angel breaks the Lord’s silence on the matter. It’s a reminder that God is at work even when prayers seem only to be answered with silence. Still, this encounter stuns Zechariah. He’s not ready to hear it, so he’s forced into silence himself until the birth of his son, John.
The months go along. Elizabeth conceives. Zechariah is still silent – his silence and Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy leaving their community wondering what is going on. Elizabeth’s young cousin, Mary, pays her a visit, both women nurturing children of promise in their wombs. God is on the move, yet few notice. Finally, Elizabeth’s long wait culminates in the birth of a son. The community gathers around to celebrate with Zechariah and Elizabeth.
When it comes time to name the child, this faithful couple surprises everyone by defying their expectations. Firstborn sons were to bear their father’s name. But Elizabeth and Zechariah knew the instructions from the angel. The child was John. It’s another in a long line of moments where people defy social expectations to align themselves with God’s will, but this one is special because it looses Zechariah’s tongue. After a year of being mute, just as quickly as he lost speech, he regains it, and out of his mouth comes praise.
Isn’t it interesting that the stories that lead to the birth of Jesus are written like a musical? They alternate from plot to song, almost like Broadway took its cues from the Bible itself. Sometimes life just needs to stop for some singing, doesn’t it? Like Tevye singing about what life would be like if he were a rich man or Elphaba and Glinda singing how they’ve been changed for good in the musical Wicked, Luke puts songs in the mouths Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This year we’re going to focus on the Songs of the Season. That is, not only are we going to sing the carols and songs we love so much and that we missed so much last year, but also we are going to dig deeply into four of the songs Luke shares with us as we prepare our lives from the coming of Christ in our midst. Today we’ve heard Zechariah’s song read as Scripture and prophecy. It’s often called the Benedictus because that’s the first word he utters in the Latin translation.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” Zechariah sings, “for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” He is realizing that his waiting is a microcosm of the waiting of the entire world for a Savior. For centuries, people have prayed for God’s intervention. Prophets have spoken of it. Countless women and men have oriented their lives around the expectation that the hurt and brokenness will one day become whole.
For decades he and Elizabeth have hoped for a child, and now that they have one, I find it so interesting that he knows so clearly that John, his promised child, is not the child he spends so much time singing about. Zechariah’s song is about the Savior that is coming soon, the one his child will prepare the way for. He sees the bigger picture. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John have their story. It’s a good and important story, but it fits within a much bigger story – the story of God’s work of salvation for the whole world. All the world’s a stage, and they are merely players, to apply Shakespeare’s logic to this story. Yet, what I found so moving about Zechariah’s song is that he realizes both the importance of his family and the way that God is using their story to advance the biggest story of them all, the one that reshapes not just their lives but the life of each and every person.
Every year at Advent I am struck by the way that God works on the margins, often in ways that are not immediately obvious. Unless you were kin or neighbor to this family, you would have no idea that the one preparing the way for the Messiah had arrived. Herod the Great was king in that region. He built magnificent palaces and structures that showed his power and magnificence. You would have known what he was up to.
God does not choose to use Herod’s power to advance this story. God chose a priest, a barren woman, and an unlikely son. The same remains true today. Our eyes are often fixed on the rich and powerful and how they shape the world. We follow trends set by people who attract the cameras or who make a catchy TikTok video. We know what’s happening with people we’ll never actually meet but we are completely unaware of what’s happening with the people on our street or even within our own hearts.
One thing this story reminds me of is this – God works more often through the ordinary people than through the powerful and famous. God cares as much for you and me as God does for the President or Taylor Swift or Matthew Stafford. Here’s yet another instance of God acting through normal people and circumstances. An elderly priest and his barren wife. An unexpected son who will live his life in the wilderness only to die at the hands of Herod’s son. A carpenter and his betrothed and their son, who lived for decades in obscurity. So, pay attention to your life and to the lives around you. God is at work even there, weaving your story into God’s bigger story.
I want to make one more point related to how God works in ways that are not immediately obvious. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we all carry burdens. We may rate our lives as overall satisfactory, but all of us have our long-running, low-grade griefs. Perhaps yours is like theirs – the desire to have a child that has gone unfulfilled. Or maybe it’s a relationship that broke down and has never experienced healing. Or maybe you’re just sick off all the terrible things that happen in the world – disease, violence, greed. Or maybe this pandemic has ground you down. We all have burdens we carry.
There’s a hymn we’ll sing in a minute that calls God’s response to these griefs “songs in the night.” I love that image. This hymn – like Zechariah’s song – puts words to the deeper things that are going on and gives us reason to hope even when the night seems dark. Here are just some of the words:
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
What though my joys and comforts die,
I know my Savior liveth,
What though the darkness gathers round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
We all have songs in the night. We all have griefs and burdens that we lug around. Particularly during Covid, we’ve had grief mounted on grief of loved ones lost or estranged, of treasured activities missed. Even as we get ready to make this sanctuary ready for the season, I am so mindful that many of our congregation have not been ready or able to gather in this sacred space – yet another reason for lament.
Yet, God gives us songs in the night that remind us that even this is part of God’s bigger story, each story yet one more string in the tapestry that God is weaving to make all things new. Advent is a reminder that God is at work in the world AND that the project is much bigger than each of our stories. It’s about how our stories come together – in all their beautiful messiness – to be a part of God’s big story of salvation in Jesus Christ, the coming Son of God.
Like the songs in a musical interrupt the drama and like Zechariah’s song is a beautiful interruption in telling us what led to the birth of Christ, the act of worship interrupts our lives, a necessary disruption that reminds us that God is up to something bigger and that God is at work even in our mess. I find it so intriguing that the Bible turns these momentous occasions into opportunities for worship.
We all have our griefs. God wants to turn those into songs of worship. The answers you seek may or may not come this Advent, but I pray you’ll let worship interrupt your life this season. You may find the words we say together, the words we hear together, or the songs we sing together are part of God’s way of breaking into your life the way God broke into Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story 2000 years ago.