Repairing the World
Repairing the World (Part 1)
December 9, 2018
The very first story that Luke tells us is about a childless couple: Elizabeth and Zechariah. He tells us that their roots go way back to the beginning of the ancient people. He also tells us that they had led exemplary lives. They had lived honorably before God. They had kept the commandments every day. They had clear consciences.
Why does Luke go so far out of his way to tell us how good and faithful this elderly couple was? The answer is simple: because in that culture, being childless was considered to be God’s punishment. Either the childless couple did something to offend God and were paying the price or they were paying the price for something wrong done in some previous generation. If you get to have children, then God has blessed you. If you don’t get to have children, then you are cursed. (What a terrible way to treat people!)
Luke confronts this prejudice from the outset of his Gospel. Here are two faithful, elderly people who had always longed to have a child not because God cursed them but simply because Mary couldn’t conceive. Some things are just the way they are and not necessarily stamped, “Approved by God!” And some of those things that just are are also the things that break our hearts. So maybe instead of judging them we might try to well…I don’t know…show empathy for them? One paragraph into Luke, the revolution has begun!
In fact, these are not only good faithful people, the husband, Zachariah, happens to be a priest, too. Now, again, this is an interesting fact. Remember, those hearing the Gospel would have known the ending of this story. John the Baptist was going to be beheaded by the authorities. Jesus of Nazareth was going to arrested and tried and crucified by the authorities. Now, guess what… Luke wants to start by telling you about a great, faithful couple and the husband happened to be, to some small degree, a part of the power structure. He’s not Herod or Pilot but he is a priest.
What he also turns out to be is…the father of John the Baptist. (If you don’t gasp, just a little bit, when you hear this, check yourself for a heartbeat!) This couple, who have never been able to have a child are not only going to have one but he is going to be pivotal in the whole Jesus movement that is coming. He is going to prepare the way. He is going to baptize Jesus of Nazareth, himself, to mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
The thing is, though, that’s not the craziest part. The most immediate crazy thing was how Zachariah found this out. You’ll remember that there was a time for the ancient people when the Ark of the Covenant went wherever the people went to remind them that God was always with them. (Good reminder!) Eventually, they built a temple. When they built that temple, they built wall after wall after wall which separated off spaces. The further in you went, the holier you had to be to go there. In the very center of that space, behind all those walls, was a tiny room that contained the Ark. This was the holiest place. This was where God lived, (which made it super convenient to forget that God was still always with the people.) Only one priest got to go in that space per year. There was a lottery to pick who the lucky winner was and…
That’s right! You guessed it! Zachariah was the lucky, lotto winner! This was his once in a lifetime opportunity! So, I’m pretty sure he would have thought, “Cool…I’ll check out the Ark, all on my own—a nice perk for a lifetime of service as a local priest.” The irony, of course, is that he is totally shocked when he goes into the holiest of holy places and something holy actually happens! In fact, what happens is not only holy, it is personal. An angel (literally, a messenger of God) appears to Zachariah and he is terrified. The angel reassures him: “Don’t be afraid!” Now, what Zachariah would have been afraid of might have been his own demise since bad things seemed to happen in the Old Testament to people who got a little too close to God’s presence (not to mention that Nazi who melted in “Raiders of the Lost Ark!”) What he might have been afraid of was that he was about to be assigned some prophetic task that would leave him ignored and abused. What he never would have imagined was that God was aware of his greatest pain and about to repair that broken place… “Don’t be afraid. You’re going to have a son. His name is going to be John. He’s going to be amazing!”
Now, Zachariah, because he was a faithful man, hears this good news from the angel and says, “Wow! That’s incredible!” right? Wrong! When you and your wife have lived in pain for decades not only because you couldn’t have the child you wanted but because you could hear everyone whispering about why, when you’ve lived a good and faithful live despite that pain, when you aren’t just maturing but you are old as dirt, you look that angel in the eye and and say, “No way! That time has passed. That ship has sailed.”
Now, let’s pause… Almost anyone who was Jewish who heard the story of a childless elderly couple who were going to have a baby would have that, “That story, again?” They would have recognized Abraham and Sarah’s story. (If you are trying to remember them, just remember this, Abraham would be known forever as the father of faith and he and Sarah’s son would be named, “Isaac” which meant “laughter” which was what Sarah did when God told her that there was a child on the way. She literally fell down on the ground laughing!)
Zachariah and Elizabeth are the new Abraham and Sarah, the new father and mother of faith. Their son, John, will be crucial in the unfolding new faith, just like Isaac was centuries before. Of course, instead of laughing, Zachariah argues with the angel, Gabriel. Apparently, laughter is better received than a good argument. Gabriel tells Zachariah that Zachariah is going to be silent—mute—until the son is born…and that birth will happen exactly on time—God’s time.
So, it is possible to get lost in the cosmic part of this story. What’s an angel? Who was Gabriel? Why did he have such a short fuse? I don’t think any of that is the point. A messenger came. The message was delivered. The point was the message not the messenger.
It is possible to get lost in the ancient parallel. This matters, especially if you’re working on your PhD. It makes the story resonate at a deeper level, the way all sorts of experiences can resonate when we are left thinking to ourselves, “Hold it a minute, here. This is the kind of thing that God has done before. This could be exactly the kind of thing that God would do now!” It gets our attention and pries our hearts and minds open but it’s not the point.
Here’s the point. What is unfolding is the story of God repairing the world. The world was broken and remains broken at all sorts of levels. What everyone thought (and many still do) is that how God will repair the world is in some grand, sweeping gesture…like…oh…I don’t know…getting rid of the Roman Empire who are occupying the Holy Land! (I’ll let you fill in the modern fantasies of sweeping change for yourself.) The story Luke tells us from the start though is that God is going to repair the world one person at a time and God is going to do that from the inside out. God doesn’t make Zachariah and Elizabeth super rich or all powerful. Instead, God meets them in their greatest pain—the one that broke their hearts and gave everyone else around them license to judge them—and God heals that pain. This is going to be personal!
It is also going to be profoundly hard to understand and accept. So, the second really important message for us may simply be in Zachariah’s enforced silence. Sometimes, in the face of what we can’t understand but what we suspect might be full of God’s presence, the correct and faithful thing to do is to sit down and simply silence ourselves. Make room for awe! Create some space for wonder in your life. Silence that cynical argument in your head long enough to listen for what God is doing and saying.
That space deep inside of you…the one we all have—where we store our greatest pain? God sees it and knows it and God’s intention is to heal that pain. God is in the process of making all things new—including crusty old you and me! God’s going to do that by repairing us one person at a time and broken people like you and me are going to be a part of how others are healed.
Zachariah asks, “Do you expect me to believe this?” And the angels answers, “Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true, on time—God’s time.”