Sunday, December 12, 2010

A people prepared

Lk 1:5-17,24-25
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."

24After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25"Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people."

Herod the king and Zechariah the priest. Inhabiting the same physical space, yet realms apart. Herod, the impious worldly king–and Zechariah, the pious, otherworldly priest. Outwardly they coexist in the same parcel of time and space. Yet Zechariah’s outward existence is a shadow cast by God’s invisible light.

Outwardly, Zechariah and Herod trod a common path upon the earth. Neighbors in life and death. Yet imperceptibly they were moving apart, day-by-day and year-by-year, in opposing destinations, toward a looming eternity.

Herod was a man of power while Zechariah was a man of prayer. Herod was a creature of the day while Zechariah was a creature of the morrow. Herod was bounded by what is while Zechariah was emboldened what might be. Herod was an old man running out of time while Zechariah was an old man embarking on the infancy of an everlasting heritage.

Elizabeth, his wife, was barren, but like other barren women before her–such as Hannah, Rachel, Rebekah, Sarah, and Manoah’s wife–God later favored her with a son. The grace of God counteracted the disgrace of man. No longer was she the object of reproach.

Both Elizabeth and Mary find favor with God. Like Rebekah, they drink from God’s hidden wellspring. They counterbalance one another, just as Jesus and John the Baptist counterbalance one another.

In a way, women like Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah, and Sarah prefigure Elizabeth. God foreshadows the future by prophetic events as well as prophetic words.

Yet over and above this embodied oracle of things to come, such precedent reminds the reader of God’s sustaining providence for his people of all times, at all times. Grace is repetitious where the need is repetitious. Because these women had to endure a common deprivation, God blessed them with a common compensation.

At the same time, there’s a catch. God gave Elizabeth and Zechariah a son. That brought them joy.

And yet their son–their only son, their only child–would later die at Herod’s hands. Their son to die at the hands of Herod’s son. The Baptist had a remarkable birth, calling attention to his remarkable vocation. And his untimely demise.

Not all childless women are favored like Elizabeth. But by the same token, not all mothers will outlive their children. Elizabeth had him so late, to lose him so soon.

Zechariah was a man of prayer, amidst a people of prayer. Prayer is a river. The river feeds into the sea, while the sea feeds into the river. The river fills the sea. The seawater rises, to form clouds, which snow on mountains, which melt in spring, replenishing the river, replenishing the land, replenishing the sea.

Like a water cycle, prayer has a cycle all its own. We speak and we receive. We are blessed by what we receive, so we give thanks. And thanksgiving is, itself, a blessing. A blessed blessing. Blessing upon blessing–as God’s buoyant sunshine turns our heavy petitions into wafting clouds–which rain upon our parched hearts, causing the desert to bloom.

God answered Zechariah’s prayer. Some prayers go unanswered, just as some seeds never germinate. But what we never sow, we never reap. If we scatter seed, some may take root and flourish. But if we never seed the fallow ground with patient prayer, the ground will never bloom–except for thorns and thistles.

A prayerful people are a patient people. An expectant people. A hopeful people, and a trustful people. A people with one foot in the future. Stepping, by faith, into the unseen horizon ahead.

Yet they also have a foot in the past, as a foothold leading up to the future, just over the summit. A foothold firmly planted in God’s past promises. A foothold firmly planted in God’s past providence. Which are, in turn, the pledge and prefiguration of God’s coming kingdom.

As the incense ascended, the angel descended. While Zechariah burnt incense in God’s temple below, an angel came down from his temple above. The hidden ceiling between the outward token and the upward reality became deliquescent for a little time in a little place.

Are we a “people prepared”? Many men grumble about the silence of God. About his absence in their lives–as they perceive it. They don’t see him, or feel him, or hear him.

But are they even prepared to meet their God? Have they set the table, should their dinner guest arrive unannounced? If God came to us, would we even know the day of visitation? Or would his passing come and go unnoticed. Some people can’t wait. They cram their lives with busywork.

Do we set our clocks by heaven’s time? If we are there when he is not, if he is there when we are not, then God will seem to be remote. If we wait at the right place at the wrong time, we will miss the Lord. If we wait at the wrong place at the right time, we will miss the Lord.

Are we overlooking God because we stare in the wrong direction? God might be nearby, but he seems far away because we stare out the window when we ought to turn around.

Mary Magdalene went looking for Jesus. And she found him. Yet she saw him without seeing him, and heard him without hearing him. Sight without insight. Sensation without perception. She could see with her eyes, but her mind was blind (Jn 20:1-16). To a darkened mind the day is night.

When Jesus came for the first time, Anna and Simeon were prepared, but many others were oblivious. The missed him, not because he came too late, but because he came too soon. In truth, he was right on time, but his arrival was premature to them since they were not expecting him.

Men murmur that God is taking too long. They tire of waiting. But suppose they wait for someone who came and went? It’s not that God is late; no, they are late–like the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-13).

If Jesus came again, would we be ready? If your watch is running fast, then everybody seems to be running late. If your watch is running slow, then everybody seems to be ahead of schedule.


Like Zechariah the priest, we, too, inhabit two worlds at once. We inhabit the fallen, dying, earthly world. We live side-by-side with the ungodly.

Yet we also live in God’s pervasive, but unseen presence. We live before the face of God. We live in the present, but we live for the future. We live in the present, but we grow out of God’s past providence and God’s past promise. We live in the present, but we grow into God’s consummation.


Thank you, Father, for preparing us for yourself. Zechariah was a man of prayer, amidst a people of prayer. And you made us a prayerful people. You gave us faith to live by faith. We live in the backward glance of your faithful providence as we trust in the forward reach of your crowning promise. We rest in all you have done as we hope in all you will do. It matters not if we hear you as long as you hear us.

By the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.