Luke 1:5-23 “How will I know? (We acknowledge our Weariness))
Well, my dear friends, once again the season of Advent has begun! We know this because the Advent Candles are here, the decorations are up, the lights are on, we are finally singing some hymns that we know, the nativity set (minus the baby of course) is out, and we are called to turn our hearts and minds to the beginning of the Gospel…to those words from Luke that highlight how this whole thing began.
“In the days of king Herod of Judea there was priest named Zechariah….his wife was a descendant of Aaron and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5). For many years this Biblical couple had prayed for a child. But even though they were good people, kind, and generous, and righteous before God, their prayer had gone unanswered. As the decades passed, and their bodies moved beyond child bearing years, their hopes had faded. We know the story, some of us know this story more intimately than others, and as such it is one that can hurt our hearts and is hard to hear.
By the time Zechariah is chosen to make the incense offering to God he is an old man. I picture him making his way slowly to the Temple. I wonder if his sciatica was bugging him, did his fingers ache with arthritis? As he entered the sanctuary of the Lord, a sacred place few had the right to go, was his head bowed, not out of reverence but of weariness?
It’s an interesting word, weary. It’s more than being worn-out after a long day of work, or the way your body feels after you’ve run a marathon, or how no amount of coffee will help you cope from the insomnia that has for some reason taken hold for the last three nights. Weariness suggests a lack of strength that comes after dealing with something for a very long time. Weariness is deeper than fatigue, it is more cellular somehow. Like it’s not just our bodies and minds that are tired but our very souls.
I would imagine we all have come to feel “soul weary” at one time or another. You know, those times when you’re just done…done trying, done caring…when we catch ourselves sighing for no particular reason…it’s just how we breathe now. And I have a feeling that weariness comes when we hit moments where, like Zechariah, our hopes have all but faded. Moments when the hope that our prayers will be answered, that things will get better, easier, lighter, have kind of paled.
In a lot of ways, I feel that our society, collectively, feels “soul weary” right now. The pandemic took its toll. And as we struggle to regain what was lost during the past four years in our own lives and our community we are now faced with global uncertainties that feel really scary and overwhelming. I have found that my prayer in the morning lately is “Dear Lord…please make today manageable. That’s all I’m looking for here, nothing fancy, just manageable.’ Not a terribly hope filled prayer now that I say it out loud…but it feels to me that it’s maybe where Zechariah was at too. Dear Zechariah who, with his sciatica, arthritis, and lost hope, does what we did today, he heads quietly, wearily, to his house of faith. But when he gets there everything changes.
As he lights the incense and it’s smoke begins to make its way heavenward an Angel appears…and not just any Angel, we’re talking the Angel: “Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayer has been heard!” Gabriel proclaims. “A baby is coming and because of him you will have JOY! You will have GLADNESS! And more then all of that many will celebrate because this child is the one who will prepare the way for…wait for it… the Messiah!”
It’s amazing, incredible, unbelievable, news and I can’t help but wonder if Gabriel was expecting a slightly different response from Zechariah than the one he got. Rev. Nora Vedress of Prince Andrew United Church, in Saskatchewan, liken Zechariah’s story to her own story of the the year my parents got her a lava lamp for Christmas. “It was presented to me with this huge flurry of excitement. I learned later that not only had it taken my dad a long time to find but it had also taken some convincing. You see my mother thought that it would burn the house down so he had to talk her into it (which if you know my mother would have taken a great deal of time, effort, and energy. You can’t talk that woman into anything.) But somehow he did it.
On Christmas morning when he handed me this gift he had this huge smile…he was so excited to give it to me. I was excited too, until I saw that it was lava lamp and I remember feeling completely underwhelmed. The problem was, I’d asked for that lamp years earlier and I’d long since moved on to other things. So my dad and I just sat there looking at each other rather awkwardly. Him not understanding why I wasn’t thrilled. Me not understanding why he looked so disappointed.” It’s how I imagine the Angel and Zechariah look at each other. Gabriel’s excitement quickly replaced with frustration as Zechariah’s reception of the amazing, incredible, unbelievable news of the coming baby boom hits subpar levels.
Of course there was more at stake here than a silly lava lamp but Zechariah he was weary and when someone is weary, when one stops hoping that what one really wants will ever happen, it can become hard to embrace joy. Any kind of joy. This angel presents Zechariah with a detailed vision of what is coming … and it’s big. Not only are his and Elizabeth’s hopes and dreams about to be fulfilled, which would be extraordinary on its own, but all the people of Israel, who were at that very moment praying for the Messiah, were going to have their hopes and dreams fulfilled too. The Promised One was coming. Zechariah’s s very own son would prepare the way. And all he can think of to say is “How will I know this is true?” He looks an Angel of God in the eye and basically says “prove it”.
I’ve wondered over the years why we’re told that the Angel went to Zechariah instead of Elizabeth. When Gabriel goes to Mary and tells her of the expected pregnancy things go a little differently. She also asks a question: “How will this be?” she says. Mary may be young but she is apparently pragmatic. A bit of a scientist perhaps? “How is this physically possible?” is her question.
Zechariah on the other hand, is a theologian. He doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with the science piece. His question is “how will I know?” Maybe all men wonder this at one point or another as their parenting journey begins. For Elizabeth of course it would be have been different…she would have been the first to know. She would feel the small effects of the new life on her body early on. That upset stomach would turn to a butterfly flutter that would grow stronger as the weeks passed. Long before her belly began to swell, months before Zechariah would hold the child in his hands…she would know. Maybe that’s why God sent the Angel to him with the news instead of her.
Maybe that’s why the Angel freezes his tongue…not merely out of frustration over his disbelief (though that for sure seems to be part of it…Gabriel is a bit of Diva) but because without speech the only thing Zechariah would be able to do for the next nine months, was wait. He’d just have to wait…without proof, without knowing for sure. And in his waiting, in his silent contemplation, he would come to relearn what it felt like to have hope.
I read this week that “weariness can harden us and prevent us from living fully” (Rev. Cecelia D Armstrong on sancitifedart.org). I know many of us feel weary right now. I know our journeys haven’t always been easy. I know grief has left its scar on each of us. I know we are tired of terrorist attacks, and wars, and food insecurity, and rising interest rates, and a groaning planet. It’s all so heavy. And yet week after week we show up here, you and me…lugging our weariness along with us. But you know I’m coming to understand that this is exactly what Advent is for.
Ross Gay wrote “What if joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another? Or even more to the point, what if joy is not only entangled with pain or suffering or sorrow but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through those things? What if joy, instead of refuge or relief from heartbreak, is what effloresces from us as we help each other carry our heart breaks?” (Inciting Joy pg 4)
It seems to me that this might be the entire point of this whole church thing. That as we intentionally open our hearts and minds to the arrival of the Holy One in our midst, sharing our weariness with each other as we do so (the weariness that we can name perfectly and that for which we don’t have the words yet) we might come to know a truth that is bigger than we are, a truth that will open our hearts and minds to joy if we let it. So come my friends, to this Advent Time, for here you are surrounded by more than candles, and decorations, and lights, and familiar hymns. Here you are surrounded by the prayers of your faith family, the love of a God who chooses to come near, and the hope, the undying hope, that this weary world of ours, will relearn what it means to rejoice. Amen.