Advent Week 2: Finishing God’s Sentences (Or Trying To!)


In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
And the angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.” Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. “And consider your relative Elizabeth-even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. For nothing will be impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her. In those days Mary set out and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped inside her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she exclaimed with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and your child will be blessed! How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill what he has spoken to her!”

Luke 1:26-45

“How can I know this?”

Our passage this morning begins at the moment immediately after the angel Gabriel has announced to Zechariah in the temple that, despite their age, he and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a child. Last week we saw how this announcement turned decades of disappointment into a season of celebration.

But not right away.

Because how did Zechariah respond to Gabriel’s message? With joy? With dancing? With celebration? What did Zechariah say?

How can I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.

Sounds like a perfectly reasonable question. Doesn’t it?

Now bear in mind that only six months later Gabriel appears to a young girl named Mary and delivers a message very similar, yet profoundly more miraculous than the one made to Zechariah. She was of child bearing age, but she would conceive without a husband at all.

And Mary also responded to Gabriel with a question: How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man? Just like Zechariah.

And yet their respective questions were clearly quite different from one another. Because in the case of Mary, Gabriel answers her question with a theological explanation.

But we all know that Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s question was not at all like his response to Mary’s query.

Here’s what he says to Zechariah: I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. Now listen, you will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.

In other words, for the entire duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy Zechariah would not be able to say a word. For any of us who are more chatty, how would this be anything but an unbearable punishment?

I must confess, part of me felt at first that Gabriel — and therefore the Lord — was being awfully harsh with Zechariah. Doesn’t seem fair, does it, that he would be struck mute because of an honest question?

Because let’s remember: we’ve already been told that Zechariah was a righteous man. He was faithful. He performed his religious duties obediently. Indeed, God sovereignly chose he and Elizabeth to have the child — John — who would prepare the way for Jesus the Messiah.

Yet, even though all of this is true, perhaps after years of disappointment Zechariah had lost the capacity to see beyond his circumstances to what God could do. He couldn’t see past the seeming biological impossibility of he and his elderly wife having a child. After all these years of waiting, perhaps Zechariah had reached the point where his hope and his faith were limited by his own experience.

Dare I suggest that this is also true for us? Think of those occasions when we pray for physical healing (either ours or someone else’s). How often in our prayers have we uttered the words, “If it be your will”?

On the one hand, we say this to remind ourselves that God is ultimately in control. It’s up to him. We know that not every prayer for healing is answered in this life. On the other hand, don’t we also qualify our prayers like this in order to avoid the risk of disappointment that comes with acting on faith? Is that not like Zechariah saying, How can I know this? “After all these years, why should I believe this?”

“Now listen”

Maybe it’s possible to trust God on one level but still lose the hope that he can and might do something unexpected or that seems to fall outside the realm of what we think is possible. Remember Gabriel’s words to Mary?

For nothing will be impossible with God.

Even though on the surface Zechariah’s question looks a lot like Mary’s, obviously something more is going on. And so because of how Zechariah initially receives this message from Gabriel, he’s shut up for nine whole months.

But the question is: is this simply punishment? Is this just to make Zechariah feel bad over having a lack of faith in what God was about to do? I don’t think so.

Let’s be honest. Many of us don’t like being quiet. We avoid silence. We prefer distractions and at least some background noise. We’ve gotten accustomed to the constant availability of sound.

And, going further, we also like having our say. Even when talking with friends and family, we’re often tempted to jump in with our words, our opinions, our justifications.

If it’s someone we’re really close with, we even like finishing their sentences. We use the time they’re speaking to come up with what we’re going to say. And so we don’t really listen very well.

We like having the last word if we can.

Even with God.

Sometimes we try to finish God’s sentences.

Rather than listening to what God might want to say to us, we cut him off with our doubts, with our insistence that he can’t work in ways we don’t expect.

Zechariah sure was trying to do so. “Zechariah, this is what’s going to happen. This is what I’m going to do.” “But God, how is that possible? Have you seen Elizabeth? Do you really think she can have a baby at her age? C’mon!”

And then God, through Gabriel, said to Zechariah: “Shut up and watch me.”

Is Zechariah being punished or invited? Maybe the answer here is yes.

I’m sure the Lord is disciplining Zechariah here. But out of love not spite. Out of grace not anger.

Because clearly he has some learning or re-learning to do. Clearly he needs to think over some things. Clearly he needs to reconsider what it really means to trust God and place his hope in his promises.

What if Zechariah is being invited to enter a period of reflection in order to contemplate what God is doing? What if with each passing day, week, and month he found something new growing in him as John was growing inside Elizabeth’s womb?

Pastor Todd Jones puts it this way: “I wonder what was happening with Zechariah all those months where he waited for his promised child to come. Not only was a baby growing inside Elizabeth, but faith and a new recognition of the greatness and power of God was growing inside Zechariah.”

Zechariah, this faithful, old priest, who did not initially believe Gabriel, now had plenty of time to listen to God’s word, to reflect on his own faith, and perhaps have his hope revived.

Rather than being able to fill the space with his own words, he was invited to allow God to fill him with fresh possibility.

And of course we know the end of the story. Elizabeth does conceive a child. Nine months later she gives birth to John. Zechariah’s tongue is loosed. And, also like Mary, Zechariah bursts into song.

Zechariah needed a fresh burst of hope — of seeing God doing what normally wold be impossible.

And let’s not forget, the entire people of Israel in Zechariah’s day also needed a fresh burst of hope — of seeing God fulfilling the promises he made centuries before.

Conclusion

And maybe, just maybe, you need a fresh burst of hope too.

Maybe you trust God but are still not that sure he will ever do something unexpected or new.

Maybe your faith is hedged in by disappointments.

Maybe you’re afraid of trusting God because you don’t want to be let down.

For Zechariah, there would have been no song without the silence. It was the nine months of wordless waiting that eventually birthed his words of praise.

Advent is a season of waiting. It’s a season of contemplation. It’s a season of preparation. Its about opening our hearts more and more for the Lord Jesus to enter in.

What does God look to do in our hearts? What does he seek to do in yours?

And what about your life? What new possibility does God seek to give birth to in your life?

God is not likely to make you mute. But we still need to listen. And sometimes that’s a hard lesson to learn. God taught Zechariah to listen by rendering him unable to speak. He can do this with us in all kinds of ways. Sometimes he does this by allowing adversity in our lives.

Maybe we need to learn to listen too. Maybe we need to allow more quiet into our lives. Maybe we need to create space in our lives so we can hear God speak more easily.

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