Parson’s Note: The Characters of Christmas
Since becoming a minister (not too long ago), I have stayed pretty much on task with the Lectionary. There has been the odd Sunday when I have wanted to give you a different message, but on the whole I have stayed true.
When turning to this Sunday (the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the First Sunday in Advent), I was rather dismayed by the readings and found it all a little too “doom and gloom.” There is, of course, a certain element of darkness and horror in the Advent Season… but the Lectionary seems to have chosen that for its general theme for the weeks to come.
My first inclination was to try and make it work, try to find the hope in prophecies that went for centuries unfulfilled, and try to find that spark of light in a world covered in darkness. However, there is this wonderful invention known as the telephone. When I had a spare moment, I called another minister so that we might “commiserate” together and we decided, jointly, to just toss the Lectionary as we—like everyone else who is feeling isolated this Advent Season—want a bit of cheer in our lives.
By the end of the conversation and after a latte and much pondering, “the Characters of Christmas” was born. Each week we will look at a pairing of Biblical characters in the Gospels. Each pair will be interconnected with one another, their stories will relate, and I will give one sermon on the topic in my weekly video sermon and another sermon here in the blog. So far, I have plotted through the end of December, but the characters may continue to feature into Epiphany.
I hope you enjoy.
Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
First Week of Advent: Elizabeth and Zechariah
I like to think of Advent as “the time of women.” This, of course, is unofficial, but women tend to feature heavily in the weeks leading up to Jesus’s birth. We have, of course, the Virgin Mary, who will be the subject of the video sermon for December 6th. However, there are other women. There’s the prophetess Anna and Saint Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is one half of our sermon pair this week. She is the cousin of the Virgin Mary and the mother of John the Baptist. What most people forget, however, in our rejoicing of the maternal every December is that Elizabeth is also the wife of Zechariah, who was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Our video message will focus on Elizabeth.
Our mini-sermon will look at Zechariah, who far too often ends up as only a footnote in the Christmas Story.
Who is Zechariah?
Zechariah, perhaps first and foremost, is the father of John the Baptist, but there is at the beginning of Luke, a bit of a snag. Zechariah was old and his wife was barren –they were unable to have children. We, as sophisticated readers, are supposed to draw a parallel between Zechariah and his forefather, Abraham. We should draw a parallel between his wife, Elizabeth, and Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who was also barren.
However, each man reacts differently when the Lord comes to him—and each of their wives react differently, as well.
We must also remember that Zechariah is a priest. He was trusted to go into the Lord’s presence to burn incense, showing that he was not only “righteous” in his personal life but that he was trusted and revered among the priests.
It is there, in the sanctuary of the Lord, where God is physically present on earth, that a messenger of the Lord appeared to Zechariah quite unexpectedly.
The messenger is none other than the Angel Gabriel. This is his first appearance in Luke, his first annunciation or giving of glad tidings. We, as readers, are meant to contrast the different reactions people have when Gabriel presents them with the good news. And Zechariah, who is the first to receive this message from God—that he is to have a child of his blood born soon despite unlikely circumstances—reacts very badly in the eyes of the Lord.
Let’s Remember Abraham and Sarah
If we remember the annunciation in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 18)—Abraham bends over backwards to be a good host to his three visitors. Although he is astounded by the news that Sarah will bear him a child, he accepts it and prepares for the future accordingly.
It is Sarah who disbelieves. In fact, she laughs in disbelief, showing that she does not trust the Lord or his words.
Here in the New Testament, with Elizabeth and Zechariah, we have the roles reversed.
Once again, the messenger(s) for the Lord comes to the soon-to-be father.
Once again, the messenger(s) chooses a holy place. The oaks of Mamre, if we recall, were a sacred place. The sanctuary Zechariah enters—the Holy of Holies—was the most sacred place on earth, being the home of the Lord God on earth.
The messenger comes to the father (and not the mother).
When the messenger speaks the good news, it is met by those who hear (Sarah who is listening in and Zechariah who is the intended recipient) with disbelief.
The messenger comes to tell of a future child who has a purpose. Isaac—child of Abraham and Sarah—is one of the patriarchs and through him the Covenant of the Lord is fulfilled. John—child of Elizabeth and Zechariah—is to become a great prophet and will herald the coming of Jesus.
We, as readers, are supposed to make these connections. We’re supposed to see the similarities and—more importantly—note the differences.
Zechariah, although old and childless just like Abraham, is not the father of a great nation. Zechariah’s child will be important, but he is not the embodiment of prophecy, whereas Abraham’s child is the potential embodiment of the Lord’s Covenant with Abraham.
And if we think about “prophecy” and “Covenant”, let us think of it this way. A prophecy is a promise the Lord makes for the future, through certain of his followers, known as prophets. A covenant is a promise the Lord has made with his followers that is to take place in the here and now.
Why Zechariah Is More Relatable than Abraham
Many sermons you may read or hear will talk about how Zechariah had little faith and he was rewarded for such little faith. The Angel Gabriel tells him he is to be a father and that there will be gladness—that this child will be “great in the sight of the Lord”.
And what does Zechariah do?
He disbelieves. He argues with the angel who brings glad tidings. His arguing isn’t really arguing. It is more a statement of fact: what the angel has said cannot happen.
And what happens to Zechariah?
He is punished (though only for a little while). He is rendered mute until the time that what the angel has said will come to pass. As a result, Zechariah will not be able to speak of what he has heard. Because he did not believe the glad tidings, he cannot spread them. This is a very “Biblical” punishment. It’s not quite on the level of “an eye for an eye” as Zechariah will speak again in approximately nine months, but it goes along the lines of the mentality: “may the punishment fit the crime.”
But wouldn’t most of us react the way Zechariah did? If we’re in church and an angel suddenly appears and tells us the impossible is not only possible but is now the reality, wouldn’t many of us be confused and deny and perhaps stammer in the angel’s presence?
It’s a terribly human reaction.
Let us remember, too, that at the time of this annunciation, Israel was once again occupied by a foreign power (Rome). The people are oppressed. The prophets have all died. The time of the great heroes of their Bible (our Old Testament) is lost. There is no hope. Messiahs are a dime a dozen and each one brings more disappointment than the last. God no longer appears under oak trees to his faithful followers. Zechariah, as a priest in the Temple, potentially went into the Sanctuary countless times—and not once did God hear or answer his many, many prayers.
Zechariah is a man who had lost hope and perhaps a man who was losing his faith, as well.
Is it no wonder that he couldn’t believe the angel?
Would any of us believe in similar circumstances?
But Zechariah is One Half of the Story—and They’re Not Even THE STORY of the Gospels
Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist, and the husband of Elizabeth. Elizabeth, when she learned she was with child, withdrew from city life and into the hills. While Zechariah was silent by her side, Elizabeth joyfully prepared for the birth of her child, and she celebrated the birth of another child, the son of the Virgin Mary, her cousin.
Elizabeth was able to laugh and rejoice and sing as she awaited the birth of her son.
It was Elizabeth who had faith and her faith was rewarded with the birth of a child.
Zechariah had no faith and so he was punished—but upon the naming of John the Baptist he was able to speak once more.
Elizabeth and Zechariah are mirror opposites in the story of the Coming of Christ. Where one is silent, one sings. Where one is faithful, the other has lost faith. Without Elizabeth, the story of Zechariah would be harsh for our modern sensibilities. A man punished because the good news is too good to be true? It seems horrendous!
However, without Zechariah we would not learn that God is a loving God. Let us remember, that God forgave Zechariah and with short order. The angel tells Zechariah that he is to name the child “John”. It is when Zechariah does just this after the birth of his son that he speaks again. God does forgive…
Zechariah as Metaphor for the Children of God?
When Jesus, as a man, tells Israel (or the Children of God) the good news—that God loves them and will never abandon them, they, too, disbelieve as Zechariah once did when Gabriel told him glad tidings.
But while Zechariah lost his speech, he was able to regain it again when he saw the truth of the angel’s words and named his son as God had commanded.
So, too, is Israel saved. Although Jesus was crucified, those who choose to love and believe in him will no longer be punished. Those who believe, who came to see that Jesus was the Lord, are rewarded with Everlasting Life in Heaven.
God does not punish forever. God listens and he rewards even the most faithless of his children. God loves Zechariah. When Zechariah disbelieved, he didn’t take away the possibility of a child. He didn’t decide “let’s not answer Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers”. He fulfilled their wishes and their dreams and their hopes despite Zechariah’s disbelief.
So, too, will he reward any who come to believe in Jesus despite whatever faithlessness or uncertainty we had previously.
In many ways, we are Zechariah. He is our prototype. He was good. He was righteous. He prayed. Yet, when the test came—the test of true belief, he could not meet that test. He could not rejoice and so he was made physically silent—but only until the time when his faith in God was fully restored, which for him was when he held his newborn son and named him “John.”
The Nature of Faith
Faith can be restored. Faith can return. We have Zechariah, a man whose name most of us don’t know, as proof of that.
In these dark times, with the sun setting far too early and our country trudging forward in a health crisis, it is easy for our faith to waver. But it can return—and it will return. Jesus is the light of the world, and he comes each and every day to offer you God’s love. You just need to reach out and accept it.
God bless. Stay safe. Have hope.
Christ is Coming.