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Sermon for December 20, 2013

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: Luke 1:5-13 and 50-80

 

A Reading of Luke 1

 

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple.And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

    for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

    in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we should be saved from our enemies

    and from the hand of all who hate us;

to show the mercy promised to our fathers

    and to remember his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

that we, being delivered from the hand 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

    in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God,whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

A Father’s Love

         I’ve been thinking a lot about fathers lately. Last week I told a story about a paltry Christmas, the year that changed everything, when my parent’s started life over again in a new town, with my Dad’s new job, and a newly constructed church. I’m not just waxing nostalgic because it’s Christmas and I miss my parents. I’m thinking of the fathers because in every Advent, either on the third or fourth Sunday, we light the candle of love.

         When we think of the Candle of Love, Fathers are seldom on our minds. The candle of love is pink, for Mary, for girls, for feminine love. On the love Sunday we usually read Mary’s prophetic song, or we talk about the two young women, Elizabeth and Mary, holding hands, as they experience the leap of babies in their pregnant bellies. God had big plans for both of them: for Elizabeth, the mother of John who grew to become known as a prophet and a baptizer, preparing the way of the Lord to come; for Mary, who previously received a visit from the angel Gabriel, telling her that she would have a son from the most high, that she would name him Jesus, and that he would redeem God’s people from their mis-guided ways and reconcile all people to God’s own self.

         We sing Mary songs that move us, songs like “Mary Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry. The lyrics summarize for us the love of Mary for her son, and the love of God for all people in coming to be with us though the life of Jesus.

         “Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know.. Mary did you know

The blind will see.

The deaf will hear.

The dead will live again.

The lame will leap.

The dumb will speak

The praises of The Lamb.

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know

that your Baby Boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?

The sleeping Child you're holding is the Great, I Am.”

         When we think of love, we think of Mary, but the writer of the gospel of Luke invites us to take a second look. The first chapter of the gospel of Luke tells a love story all right, but it begins and ends with a father’s love, not a mother’s. Does this surprise you? You don’t need to look this up on Snopes to see if what I’m telling you is true, or not, just go home and dust off your Bible if you have to, and start reading Luke.

         The first twenty-three verses and the last twenty-three verses, forty-six in all, more than half of the eighty, tell God’s greatest love story from the point of view of a father named Zechariah. So even though more than half of the first chapter of the gospel of Luke is about a father, I couldn’t find a single Christmas carol entirely about Zechariah, the father of John, or Joseph, the father of Jesus, for that matter. This may be interesting if you’re playing a game of Bible Trivial Pursuit, but you may wonder why you should care about this at all.

         The story of Jesus begins here, long before we get to Bethlehem. We see the love of God reflected in the love of a priest and father named Zechariah, whose faithfulness set the stage for all that was to come. If it weren’t for Zechariah, there would be no John the Baptizer. John would have been named Zechariah the II or the III after his father, rather than the name John which means Yahweh or Jehovah, God is gracious, in Hebrew, as asked by God’s messenger. If it weren’t for Zechariah’s faithfulness, we might never have known that God is gracious and merciful, coming into the world in flesh to dwell in us and among us, close to us as breathing, not just distant as the farthest star.

         Before the angel appeared to Mary to let her know that she would be overcome by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God, before the baby John inside Elizabeth recognized the baby Jesus inside Mary and lept in her womb, Zechariah the priest was visited in a vision by the angel Gabriel.

And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John…And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

         And as a sign that this vision came from God, Gabriel told him that he would become unable to speak until this vision came to pass, and Zechariah the priest was unable to talk for the remaining month’s of his wife’s pregnancy.

         From that time on, this wise and respected temple priest communicated love for his people through prayer, through gestures and through hand signs. These actions of Zechariah were the first glimpse that people had, that God was about to do a new thing. He couldn’t tell them what would come to pass, he had to show them through his on-going devotion.

A father’s love often reveals itself more through what he does than by what he says. Christian writer Max Lucado tells the story of his struggle to communicate with his father in the last days of his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.     Lucado came home from travels abroad to be with his mother and father in the final progression of the disease. At the end, his father tried to communicate with him but could only turn his head. Trying unsuccessful to discern the slight movement of his father’s lips, he simply looked into his father’s eyes. It was then that he knew what his father wanted him to understand.

Lucado wrote: “I’d seen that expression before. I was seven years old, eight at the most. Standing on the edge of a diving board for the first time, wondering if I would survive the plunge. The board dipped under my seventy pounds. I looked behind me at the kids who were pestering me to hurry up and jump. I wondered what they would do if I asked them to move over so I could get down…

(I stood there shivering on the board), and

Then I heard him, “It’s all right, son, come on in.” I looked down. My father had dived in. He was treading water awaiting my jump. Even as I write, I can see his expression— tanned face, wet hair, broad smile, and bright eyes. His eyes were assuring and earnest. Had he not said a word, they would have conveyed the message. But he did speak. “Jump, it’s all right.” So I jumped.

Twenty-three years later the tan was gone, the hair thin and the face drawn. But the eyes hadn’t changed. And their message hadn’t changed. I knew what he was saying. Somehow he knew I was afraid. Somehow he perceived that I was shivering as I looked into the deep. And somehow, he, the dying (father), had the strength to comfort me, the living (son).

Through his eyes, this final action, the father assured the son that even in dying, “Its all right.”

We need this reassurance. The angel Gabriel revealed through Zechariah that what was coming would turn the world upside down, or perhaps at last, right side up. At times it would be terrifying. Gabriel told Zechariah not to be afraid, because whatever the future would bring, it would be all right.

This is a radical message that requires a radical faith. His unborn son John would grow to become a great prophet, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” His prophetic wisdom would in the end put him in the cross hairs of Herodias, a wife of the house of Herod, and result in his violent death.

Even through this personal tragedy for Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, God triumphed. John accomplished God’s purpose for him before he died, preparing the way for Jesus, and initiating him through baptism in the river Jordan for the work God created him to do from the beginning of time.

         Philosopher Umberto Eco once wrote:“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us.” We learn by watching the myriad ways they DO love.

A loving father DOES love, he demonstrates love with even the movement of his eyes that communicate “Do not be afraid, it’s going to be alright,” or “I love you”, whether or not a word is spoken, Speaking the truth when words are needed, keeping silence before the mystery of love when there’s nothing to say.”

A loving father also respects and honors his partner. Notice I didn’t say, “Loves his partner.” We get confused about love, attached to the notion of romantic love as the basis for commitment, for marriage. For most of human history that has not been the case.

         We see the power of love in action, and we witness the power of love demonstrated through respect and honor in Zechariah’s response to Elizabeth.

         After John was born, the Bible tells us all the neighbors celebrated with them, because the Lord had shown them great mercy through this unexpected son. Then Zechariah went with Elizabeth to the temple on the eighth day, as was the custom. Listen again to what takes place there.

And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father,but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.”And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called.And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered.

         The woman was asked the name of the child, but it was expected that she would say the name of the husband or a family relative, a pre-determined name that held weight, that hinted at the lineage, the craft, the expectation of vocation into which the child would be raised. Would he become a mason like his uncle, or bear the name of his cousin, a builder of boats? The highest honor and the expected one, would be to name him after his father, Zechariah. The child would be raised to become a temple priest like his father. Elizabeth said none of those things, and so the gathered people didn’t believe her. They turned to Zechariah, incredulous.

         When John asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John,” a child who would grow to embody God’s gracious mercy, they were incredulous. The text says, “And they wondered.” Clearly they wondered at the name and what it could mean, but I also suspect that wondered that Zechariah unexpectedly backed up Elizabeth. They thought he would rebuff her for calling the child anything other than after one of his relatives. But instead, he honored and respected her, they were a team in their commitment. He didn’t even say, “Regardless of what my wife says, I’m doing to call him whatever.” Instead, he indicated that it was already done, decided between them, “His name IS John.”

It was a beloved UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden who said, “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”

         A father’s love looks like this. It looks like respect, it looks like honor, and it looks like kindness toward his partner, whether they are in love with one another, or not.

Finally, a loving father trusts God. There is nothing more powerful our children can observe than the heart of a man committed to his God.

We began today with a song of mother Mary. We conclude today with a Father’s song. I had to dig deeper to find one. It isn’t a Christmas carol and you won’t discover it in our hymnal. It’s a country song by Rodney Atkins that reminds us of how our children learn about a father’s love, and it goes like this.

“Driving through town, just my boy and me

With a Happy Meal in his booster seat

Knowing that he couldn't have the toy 'til his nuggets were gone

A green traffic light turned straight to red

I hit my brakes and mumbled under my breath

His fries went a-flying and his orange drink covered his lap

Well, then my four-year-old said a four-letter word

That started with "s" and I was concerned

So I said, "Son, now where'd you learn to talk like that?"

[Chorus:]

He said, "I've been watching you, dad. Ain't that cool?

I'm your buckaroo, I wanna be like you.

And eat all my food and grow as tall as you are.

We got cowboy boots and camo pants.

Yeah, we're just alike. Hey, ain't we, dad?

I wanna do everything you do.

So I've been watching you."

We got back home and I went to the barn

I bowed my head and I prayed real hard

Said, "Lord, please help me help my stupid self."

Then this side of bedtime later that night

Turning on my son's Scooby Doo nightlight

He crawled out of bed and he got down on his knees

He closed his little eyes, folded his little hands

And spoke to God like he was talking to a friend

And I said, "Son, now where'd you learn to pray like that?"

He said, "I've been watching you, dad. Ain't that cool?

I'm your buckaroo, I wanna be like you.

And eat all my food and grow as tall as you are.

We like fixing things and holding mama's hand.

Yeah we're just alike. Hey, ain't we, dad?

I wanna do everything you do.

So I've been watching you.

Our children are watching. Men of faith, what lessons do our children learn by watching you? Perhaps they’ll learn that a Father’s love through faith looks a lot like a Mother’s love. Strong and tender, constant and abiding, trusting God in all things. Perhaps this is the best Christmas present we can give our children after all, trusting this God who came into the world through the life of Jesus, Lord of Life, Prince of Peace, Light of the World. The love of Zechariah and the love of Elizabeth, the love of Joseph and the love of Mary, perhaps even sometimes the love of you and me, reflect the love of God, the loving parent of Jesus and of us all.

Come Lord Jesus, God with us. Amen

Christmas Blessing

May God bless you with love for your family, compassion for the need and courage for the journey. Wherever you lay your head this coming Christmas night: at home, with family or in a stable bare, rejoice in the Good News that God is with us through Christ. And may the love of God, the peace of Christ and the power of God’s spirit fill you now, and forever more. Amen