Sunday, December 22, 2019

Promises Made, Promises Kept: Against All Odds

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 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. 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 must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 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.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “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.”

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
    that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.   --Luke 1:5-25, 57-80 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Word made flesh, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It was February 1980 - the first game in the semi-final medal round of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The United States’ men’s hockey team was up against the team from the Soviet Union, today known as Russia. Ronald Reagan was president. It was the middle of the Cold War, the rivalry that developed after the 2nd World War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and its allies. A rivalry that was fought on many fronts, including political, economic, military, and propaganda. 

In five of the six previous Winter Olympics, the Soviet team had won the gold medal. They were the favorites to win once more in Lake Placid. Their team consisted mostly of professional hockey players, who had extensive experience playing internationally. By contrast, the U.S. team was an all-amateur team. It was the youngest team in the tournament, the youngest team in U.S. national team history. 

By the time the two teams met in that semi-final game, both of them were undefeated in tournament play. But the Soviet team was still, by far, the favorite. 

With a capacity of 8,500, the Field House, where the game was played, was packed. The home crowd was waving U.S. flags and singing patriotic songs, such as “God Bless America.” In the moments before the U.S. team entered the rink, their coach - Herb Brooks - read this statement to his players: “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

As in several previous games, the U.S. team fell behind early. But, by the end of the first period, the score was tied 2-2. By the end of the second, the Soviets were leading 3-2. In the third and final period, as the game was moving to a close, the U.S. had scored two more goals, putting them in the lead by 1. Let’s pick up the last minute of play here.

The game would come to be known as the “Miracle on Ice” and would go down in sports history. The U.S. team would win the gold medal by barely defeating Finland. But the biggest win for them - the win that was against all the odds - was the win against the team from the Soviet Union.

Against all odds. How often have you heard that phrase? When something happens that is unbelievable. Even miraculous. We say it was against all odds. 

Against all odds. I wonder if that’s what Zechariah was thinking that day. He was a priest in the priestly division of Abijah, one of 24 divisions of priests established by King David. There had been so many descendents of Aaron, that David had organized them into divisions, then into family clans. For two weeks during the year, each division was responsible to carry out all of the daily functions in the temple. Kind of similar to military reserve service. Which priests would serve was determined by chance. By a lottery held each day in the temple. All of the priests of the family clan serving that day would participate in this lottery. 

On the day of our story, Zechariah had won the lottery. Against all odds, he’d won the chance to enter the temple sanctuary to make the incense offering. A once in a lifetime experience for Zechariah. What a gift it must have been for him, at his age, to win this lottery, knowing that he was getting old. That both he and his wife, Elizabeth, were getting old.

Elizabeth, too, was a descendent of Aaron. She and Zechariah were blameless followers of God and the Jewish religion. They had done everything right. Except for one thing, as if this one thing was in their control. They had no children. No descendants to continue their ancestral line from Aaron. No children in a culture where having children was everything.

Haven’t we heard this story before? Remember Sarah and Abraham. Rachel and Jacob. Remember Ruth and her sister-in-law. And now, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Barren. Without child.

So, when Zechariah entered the sanctuary that day to make the offering, when he both saw and heard the Angel Gabriel announce that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child, it is no wonder that Zechariah questioned this. After all, it was against all the odds that they, at their advanced ages, could ever expect to conceive and have a child. After all this time, it is likely they had finally come to a place of acceptance. However painful that place might have been for them.

But, isn’t that often where God meets us. In those places of pain. Or deep disappointment. Where we’ve finally come to accept that things are the way they are. Not expecting anything to change. And, yet, God brings a change anyway. An unexpected Word. A Word of hope. That our past is not our future. 

How do we respond when that word of promise - that word against the odds - is so different than what we’ve expected or experienced. Do we, like Zechariah, question it? Do we think it’s a false promise? Or do we meet it with faith? With trust that the Word of God is true?

The word of hope given to Zechariah that day in the temple was no false Word. Soon, Elizabeth would conceive. And, then, 9 months later would give birth to a son. John. John, who would be the herald of the coming Messiah and of the in-breaking reign of God into our world. 

This story in Luke is placed in the much larger story of faith. A story that began when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland. To go to a place that God would show them - a place where God promised them also, a son, and as many descendants as the stars in the sky. By Zechariah’s time, Israel has been through wars, and captivity, exile and domination by foreign rulers. By Luke’s time, the Jewish people were living under Roman domination. But, isn’t this the entire story of God’s covenant with Israel - a covenant that begins with a promise to Abraham and Sarah that is against all odds? And a covenant that comes to fulfillment in this story in Luke - a story that also begins with a promise and a birth that is against all odds?

There may be times in our lives and in our life together as God’s people when problems mount. When it is difficult to see a way forward. When it seems as though all hope for the future has been lost. When we are at a dead end. 

But it is here, in this Word of promise, where we encounter and are encountered by a God for whom there are no dead ends. Where we experience a God who specializes in making a way in the wilderness. And who opens up our future when one doesn’t seem possible. Where we encounter a God for whom nothing is against the odds. Where we encounter a God who speaks these similar words of encouragement: You were born to be a beloved child of God! You were meant to be here! This moment is yours! 

For this we rejoice! And with Zechariah, join his song of God - our God of hope and promise: 

Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.


Preached Sunday, December 22, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 4
Readings: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80; Psalm 113

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