Sermon by: Robert Austell
download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below)Today is the first Sunday in Advent and the first sermon in a series called “Looking forward to Christmas.” Advent is meant to be a time in which we prepare both for Christmas and for Jesus’ return. Today I’d like to start on a very practical note and talk about the importance of silence and solitude to having a meaningful Christmas.
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I think for many or most of us, this can be one of the most hectic times of the year. Kids are in special programs at school and at church. There are Christmas parties of all kinds – with the office, neighbors, friends and family. There is shopping to be done and many folks travel. Even here at church we have some of our biggest services, programs, and missions of the year. We are trying to focus on the birth of Christ and on helping those in need, but it’s also more to do, go to, and be a part of.
All of that has its place and certainly focusing on Jesus’ birth and the real meaning of Christmas is a vital part of a meaningful Christmas. But today, I want to look at a very special biblical text that may challenge us to try something a little different this year.
Today’s text is the story of a miracle pregnancy – not Mary’s, but that of her cousin, Elizabeth. There are several points we could focus on, but I’m going to focus on just two that are kind of tucked away in the details.
A Miracle Pregnancy
Zacharias and Elizabeth were in a busy time of year. Zacharias was a priest and, as was the custom, rotated through various duties at the Temple. At this particular time, he was schedule to offer the incense offering inside the Temple. This high honor typically only happened to a particular priest once or twice in a lifetime. It was the closest an ordinary priest (i.e., not High Priest) would come to the presence of the Lord in the Holy of Holies. The people would have been at worship in the Temple courtyards while this offering was going on.
It was there that Zacharias had a vision of an angel, who came with news from the Lord. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, but I guess you never think God’s going to send you a hotline. Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a baby. Like Sarah and Abraham before them, Zacharias and Elizabeth were past child-bearing age and Elizabeth had been unable to conceive when they were younger. She was barren, an emotional and challenging thing in any place and time, but particularly so in a culture where children and family were so very important. In fact, having many children was part of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants and to be barren was especially difficult for a couple who were heirs of that promise.
And like Abraham and Sarah before him, Zacharias fearfully recognized the angel for who he was, but found the message laughable. And this was no hazy promise of one day having a child. This was a full-on vision and promise, with details including the baby’s name, calling, and future. He was to be called John, be raised under strict guidelines, and promised to be a prophet like Elijah. And Zacharias asked the question any of us probably would have asked, “How can this be?” (Or, we might add, “Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?”)
Now here’s where a miraculous story gets even more interesting. Because Zacharias asked how he would know this for certain, the angel (Gabriel) told him he would be unable to speak until the baby was born. Gabriel attributes this action to Zacharias’ unbelief, but the muteness is not a punishment, but a SIGN that God was at work. I want to spend the rest of our time pondering the meaning and usefulness of that sign, and then a corresponding decision made by Zacharias’ wife, Elizabeth.
Zacharias asked for a sign. He said, “How will I know this for certain?” As if an angel appearing with a word from God wasn’t enough… and the answer he got was silence. Now here’s one question: was being struck dumb the sign? Or did being silent allow him the quiet and reflection to recognize God at work?
I’ve never experienced anything quite like that… or perhaps I have. About two weeks ago I came down with a head cold – and it was a nasty one. I know enough about the way my body responds to sickness that I could either lay low for 3-4 days or be sick for weeks. And so I worked from home, slept a lot, and took a break leading into one of the most hectic times at church – the Thanksgiving to Christmas stretch. Was it a sign from God or just a head cold? I think it was the latter, but it accomplished the same thing. I slowed down enough to begin to listen to God and pay attention to prayer and what God was doing in a way that I don’t when I’m running full speed.
In the case of Zacharias, I think being made mute was itself the sign; but I think it also afforded him the opportunity to really ponder God’s word to him through the angel. It probably slowed him down and gave him lots more opportunity to listen since that was all he could do.
Has God provided opportunity for you to really listen to him? Or maybe it’s not something God has caused, but nonetheless invites you to make use of… a head cold, some time off between jobs, a broken down car. The point here isn’t so much the sign as taking time to listen to God. I’m not asking, “Is God trying to get your attention?” I’m asking, “Do you need to give God your attention?” And the answer to that is always YES.
Zacharias needed to listen and give attention to God because God had spoken and God was acting, and those things are true for us as well. God has spoken and is speaking all the time. And God has acted and is acting in and around you. Are you paying attention?
There is a second example of someone paying attention to God. At least that’s what I understand to be going on. Look at verse 24. After Elizabeth became pregnant she “kept herself in seclusion for five months.” Now, our minds might be quick to think that a pregnant woman in seclusion means shame or embarrassment, but look at Elizabeth’s reasoning in verse 25. She is anything but shamed: “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when he looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.” Her barrenness was shame to her; her pregnancy was the Lord’s blessing.
Whereas Zacharias’ voice was taken from him as a sign and so that he could ponder the promise of the Lord, I believe Elizabeth made a conscious choice to be still and wait on the Lord. She withdrew to receive the favor and blessing the Lord had promised to her. Certainly the pregnancy also served as a very real and tangible sign to her of the Lord’s promise. Needing no additional sign, her solitude afforded her the opportunity to really ponder what the Lord was doing and was going to do through this miraculous birth.
Making Time to Listen to God
This silence and solitude is a secondary part of this story. Certainly first was the miraculous action of God in sending a new (and the last) prophet before the Messiah. This is all part of the larger narrative of the Messiah – promised, announced, and arrived in Jesus of Nazareth.
But don’t miss this secondary lesson as we look forward to Christmas – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus into the world. Whether silence and solitude has been your active choice or not, make time this Christmas season to pay attention to God. Pace yourself; prioritize; and if you have to, just say ‘no’ in order to have some moments of quiet reflection, listening for what God is saying and doing in your life and in the lives of those around you.
As important as the once-in-a-lifetime offering in the Temple was, God was doing something even more important with Zacharias and Elizabeth.
As important as Christmas parties, decorating, shopping, and travel are, don’t miss what God is doing – it just might involve you.
I would even extend this challenge to our many church events. Surely, we are trying to point people – including each of you – to what God is saying and doing. But you don’t have to do it all!
I can’t think of any more important thing each of us could do this Christmas season than to seriously make some space in our life for silence and solitude before the Lord. It may be in the quiet of communion in just a few moments. It may be taking the family on a drive to the mountains to get the tree and taking some time to read the Christmas story to your kids. It may be in the car in the parking lot at the mall, taking 5 minutes to pray before jumping into the fray. You don’t have to follow these suggestions to the letter – mix and match; be creative. But give God some time and space and I don’t think you will regret one minute of it.
Zacharias and Elizabeth were privileged to bear and raise the last great prophet who announced the arrival of God into the world. Their preparation and contemplation of that blessing and honor came through paying attention to what God was saying and doing.
One of the things I speak frequently about and am convicted of is that God is still speaking and acting. And I believe that God is inviting each person who trusts in Him to participate in what He is doing. Our paying attention to God this Christmas season not only prepares us for a real and meaningful experience of Christmas, but also for serving God in the way God has called us. And all who find that promise of God find a real gift indeed! Amen.