December 3, 2023 ~ First Sunday of Advent
Rev. Beckie Sweet
It is December of 2023 ~ and we have plenty of reasons to live in fear. If one lives in Ukraine, Armenia, the Gaza Strip, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other war-torn places on God’s earth, one would live in fear of genocide, killing of family members, kidnapping, rape, and the loss of one’s home, business, and place of worship. If one lives in an environment or neighborhood where racism, homophobia, classism, misogyny, or other forms of hate are rampant, one would live in fear of these attitudes becoming causes for violence and discrimination of many kinds. If one lives even here, in relatively comfortable Ithaca, one might fear porch piracy, being attacked, scammers, loss of housing, loss of employment, loss of health care insurance. And we all live on God’s earth. In these days of climate change, we all may fear the long-term effects of global warming, contamination of fresh water, spoiling the land, polluting the seas, and the deteriorating quality of life for our children and grandchildren. There is no denying that we all have plenty of reasons to live in fear.
Even in Biblical times, there were plenty of reasons to live in fear. Fear of genocide, violence, and war. Fear of going to debtors’ prison, contracting incurable diseases, fear of being left a childless widow, fear of power-hungry authoritarian leaders…. It’s not so different now, is it?
As God heard the prayers of those who lived in fear, God sent divine messengers to let humanity know how God intended to answer those prayers in accordance with God’s plan. And each of those messengers, understanding the human condition, began their proclamation with “Fear Not!” or “Do Not Be Afraid” or “Don’t Fear”! Well, that is easier said than done!
During our Advent journey this year, we will hear God’s divine messengers engage in conversations with Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and shepherds in the field. Each of these conversations announced God’s activity to answer prayers and bring prophesies to fulfillment. Each of these conversations, while disturbing to the human hearer, were intended to calm fears, inspire servanthood, and ignite a passion for being part of God’s plan for the salvation of the people.
We begin today with the angel Gabriel delivering God’s message to a skeptical Zechariah. You see, Zechariah, a holy and righteous priest, along with his devout and faithful wife, Elizabeth, had yearned and prayed for many years to have children of their own, but were unable to do so. Now, they are old enough to have given up on that yearning, that dream of producing progeny. When Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son who will be gifted by the Spirit for a sacred mission for God, Zechariah has questions: “How can this be?” Gabriel is a bit offended by Zechariah’s apparent lack of faith in God’s ability, and causes him to lose his voice until the child has been born. We now know that child as John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.
When he was younger, Zechariah, of course, was filled with HOPE. He not only wanted to have a child who would be a servant of God, he prayed for it, and expected it to happen! But as the years went on, and there were no signs of an impending birth, Zechariah had begun to lose hope. He no longer really expected that a child would be forthcoming. He had resigned himself to being childless in order to quell the repeated disappointment. He had ceased to believe that God would look with favor on him and Elizabeth, and give what now would be a colossal miracle of human reproduction.
Zechariah is astonished when his prayers are answered by the God of miracles. Knowing that reminds us of the power, the efficacy, of persistent prayer aligned with real HOPE for a divine response from our loving God. This suggests that seemingly hopeless prayers for recovery, healing, and even pregnancies are NOT out of place.
We are also reminded that even in the midst of the heaviness of fatigue and exhaustion, God is still at work. In Zechariah’s day, the people of God had prayed and prayed for the coming of the promised Messiah. For generations, for centuries, it seemed as though God had not heard, or was not responding to the prayers of the faithful. They had waited for a sign of the coming of God to change their circumstances, circumstances that were not only beyond their control, but much larger than they imagined were repairable.
Many of the churches in the US and Canada are tired and weary in the wake of epic social, technological, and cultural change in the last few decades. All of that was magnified by the pandemic of COVID-19. More than ever, many once thriving churches wonder about their survival, even as they come to grips with the reality that the church will never be what it once was. This text brings a bit of news; news that is too good to be true. Are we praying for a growing, vibrant and active ministry for children, youth, and their families? The news from God is too good to be true that God’s promises are reliable and unpredictable.
This news reveals that God’s Spirit is hovering and speaking over places that may seem to be close to death; and God is speaking a new word of LIFE. The news promises that “even before he [John the Baptist] is born, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is unbelievable, laughable, and absurd – but that is the way God moves. God’s movement removes shame, disgrace, and feelings of failure and inadequacy, and replaces those with Wonder ~ renewed HOPE. Only God can do that!
Fear not! Keep praying! Do not be afraid! Keep praying for the opportunity to be a partner or vessel as God works miracles to bring NEW LIFE where fears abound. Don’t be afraid! Your HOPE in the fulfillment of God’s promises will bring great joy to all. Amen.