First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine
Rev. Kate Dalton
December 16, 2018
Scripture: Luke 1:26-42, Matthew 1:18-23
I have a problem with this birth narrative – it puts forward an explanation of God that I don’t subscribe to. If you listen carefully – you’ll notice that the passage makes a point of explaining that Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous before God. Luke 1:6, “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” And yet they have been unable to conceive. There is an underlying notion that perhaps God is angry at them – otherwise, why wouldn’t they have had a child.
As the story goes on – I like it even less. John’s conception is seen as a gift from God, an answer to their prayers. Almost as if God was testing them to see if they could remain faithful and finally gives them a reward. In Luke 1:25 Elizabeth says, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” John’s conception is seen as an answer to their prayers – provided because of their faithfulness.
I have no doubt that John’s conception is an answer to their prayers – but I don’t believe that God’s work in the world is transactional like this. If you just have enough faith – your prayers will be answered. While there are many times when I wish this were the case – too often prayers such as those for conceiving a child are unfulfilled. I believe that God is love. And as such, I don’t believe that God would allow us to suffer if prayer worked this way.
That being said, I think scripture always has some kind of truth for us to explore and this passage is not an exception. This morning scripture contains some repetitive themes from stories throughout the Bible. First, let’s look at Zechariah’s reaction to encountering the angel. Luke 1:11-15
11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “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. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
Like so many others in the Bible, when Zechariah encounters God’s angel he is afraid. I always wonder why the biblical characters are afraid when they encounter the divine. Is it because it’s rather unexpected? Are they worried about being punished? Is the power projected in that encounter just so overwhelming they can’t handle it? It seems like if anyone should be able to handle such an encounter it would be Zechariah – after all, he is blameless before God. And yet he is afraid.
While I don’t believe that God is scary and that we should fear encountering God, I do wonder if one of the truths this might be reminding us of is that following God can sometimes be scary. Sometimes following God requires us to do things that are counter-cultural. Sometimes following God comes with disapproval from those around us. Perhaps that is the fear that Zechariah is experiencing. Perhaps there is a sense that he will be asked to do something scary.
And he is – he is asked to name the child John. This is not the convention of the time. The convention of the time is to name the child after the father.
Being overwhelmed by the entire situation, Zechariah is having a hard time believing what he is hearing. He questions Gabriel – as anyone in his position might do and we learn the he is “punished”. He is struck dumb and is unable to talk until he asserts John’s name at the baby’s circumcision. I have a hard time with that idea as well – that he is punished. People questioning God is a regular occurrence in the Old Testament – not all of them are punished. I wonder if Zechariah’s inability to talk might serve another purpose. Perhaps the pressure would be too much if he discussed the baby’s name before it was time. Perhaps the silence strengthened him the angel’s instructions.
Finally, we get to the part of the story where John is named. The community is taken aback when Elizabeth announces that his name will be John. When Zechariah is consulted, he agrees (and consequently, now that he has successfully followed the angel’s instructions, he is able to speak again.)
The reaction of the crowd says a lot. Luke 1:66 “All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”
What then will this child become? A simple name change, and it seems that the people who have gathered suddenly have a different sense of possibility for John. His life is no longer ordinary – the people suspect extraordinary things will happen because his parents have the courage to depart from convention, to depart from what’s expected and to give him a “new” name.
This week we focus on Joy. In a recent episode of God Friended Me one of the characters remarked that every time he sees someone smile – he sees God. God is joy. And God’s joy can propel us through our fears. It is impossible to live a life without fear. Not even the Bible greats could escape it. They even feared God – the very source of joy. And yet, joy strengthens us to move forward. Joy can give us the courage to take a risk – to follow God’s leading even when it is overwhelming because joy does not require anything we don’t already have. Joy simply requires recognizing the presence of God around us such that we can’t help but smile. I imagine silent Zechariah smiling as he awaited the birth of John, experiencing the joy that gave him the courage to boldly name his child and follow God.