Lectionary blog for Dec. 23, 2012
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Texts: Micah 5: 2-51;
Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
One of my mother’s favorite stories is about the year I was supposed to sing at the Slate Mountain Baptist Church Christmas program. My mother was the director and some of us were too young to be in the play. She wanted every child to do something so she had all the little kids pick a Christmas song to sing as a sort of prelude to the rest of the program.
I picked “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and, over many objections, practiced it day and night around the house. I also faithfully went to church for play practice and sang it to the empty pews. The night of the play came and I walked out to sing and I looked at a hundred or so faces staring back at me and I sang “Rudolph the red-nosed … ” and then I stopped. I started again, ”Rudolph, the red-nosed … ” and then I quit again. Finally I ran off the stage screaming “Mama!” and fell into my mother’s arms. I was 4 and I have seldom sung in public since.
In our Gospel lesson, Mary finds her voice and sings a song for the ages. Tied up with her story is another story about a man who first loses, and then later finds, his voice.
Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist and the wife of Zechariah, a priest of the temple. Their story is also told in the first chapter of Luke. It is a story that Luke weaves in and out of the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. It is important to hear both stories together.
Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and childless. Zechariah went to work at the temple one day and while he was alone in the inner sanctuary, burning incense while the people prayed, an angel appeared at the right side of the altar, scaring poor Zechariah half to death.
The angel said, “Do not be afraid Zechariah, your wife will bear you a son and you are to call him John.” The angel then proceeded to tell Zechariah what wonderful things his son would do.
Zechariah had some doubts which, personally, I find both understandable and amusing. On the one hand, he is old and his wife is old and though it is the first century these people do understand basic reproductive biology. It is a legitimate objection. On the other hand, he’s arguing with an angel that something is not reasonable. I think we’re already outside the realm of empirical reason and into the mysterious area of miracle.
The angel was not as amused as I am and got very stern with Zechariah, “I am the angel Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent out to speak to you and tell you the good news. Because you do not believe what I have said, you shall live in silence, and you shall be unable to speak a word until the day it happens.”
And so it was that Zechariah lost his voice. He was unable to tell anyone, even his wife what had happened to him at the altar that day. After his time of service in the temple was over he went home to his wife and she was soon pregnant, but he could say nothing to her about what the angel had told him.
The story then shifts to a time six months later when the same angel Gabriel visits a young peasant girl named Mary. Gabriel tells her equally unbelievable news; that she will bear a child.
Mary may be young, but she too knows her basic biology. She is stunned, “How can this be? I don’t understand.” The angel reassures her that it is true and offers the proof that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, even though she is beyond her child-bearing years.
Then comes the part of the story contained in our Gospel reading. As soon as Gabriel left her, Mary went “with haste” to visit with Elizabeth. In one of the more charming incidents in the Bible, Luke tells of John the Baptist “leaping in the womb,” when Mary arrives; presumably excited over the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb.
Immediately after this encounter, Luke shows Mary bursting into song with the words that have come to be known as “The Magnificat” — a poem rich with images from the Hebrew Scriptures about God rescuing the poor, the lonely and downtrodden from their distress.
After Mary’s song is sung, the text turns back to the story of John’s birth. When the baby was born, the kinfolk wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth said, “No, his name is John.” They protested, “But no one in your family is named John.” (Hmm, they must have been from southern Israel.)
So the kinfolk stopped arguing with Elizabeth and turned to Zechariah. He took up a tablet and wrote, “His name is John,” and when he made that confession of faith in the promise of God, his tongue was loosed, he found his voice, and he burst into song, the song of Zechariah, a song of prophecy and joy.
It is not by accident that Christmas is a time filled with music and singing. When our hearts are full of hope, our mouths are naturally full of joyful praise.
When we embrace fully God’s promise to be with us in the world, when we give ourselves over completely to the miracle that is God’s intrusive love in the world, then we find ourselves with a story to tell and a song to sing.
The Word of God comes to us again this year. God makes promises to come into the world through us, to bless the world through us, to save the world through us.
We can make excuses. We can be like Zechariah was at first, saying, “We’re too old. We’ve already tried that, we know it won’t work.” We can stutter and stumble and run off life’s stage, unable to sing.
Or we can say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
And when we do, we will, like Mary and Zechariah, burst forth with words of hope, joy and prophecy; and we will commit ourselves anew to lives of servanthood and love.
Amen! And amen!
- Have you been able to say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word”?
- Imagine, if you can, that you are Zechariah or Mary. How do you think you would have reacted to the news from the angel Gabriel?
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.