For the past number of weeks, we’ve been exploring the vision statements that our church discerned together around 20 years ago and exploring whether they still fit to how God is calling us as a church. We’ve come to the end of that series and today we’ll be looking at the last of those vision statements “We seek to reach out and enfold the lost”.
Today, I’d like to explore that statement in conversation with the story we just read from Luke. As I was reflecting on the vision statement “We seek to reach out and enfold the lost”, I was thinking about who the lost are that we are to reach out to. I thought of those who don’t know God, those who are caught up in pursuing meaning and purpose in their lives through things that won’t satisfy. I thought primarily of people outside the church. And in part, that’s certainly who some of the lost are, who we as a church are called to join God in actively reaching out to and enfolding in arms of welcome.
This story of Zechariah and Elizabeth though, invited me to see something different in this vision statement. We didn’t read the first part of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story, but just to bring us all up to speed, Zechariah and Elizabeth are an older couple who have never been able to have any children and are now past the point where where that was likely. In those times and in Old Testament times too, for a wife not to bear children would not only have been something the couple would mourn, but something for which the woman would experience shame. It’s something a husband could even choose to divorce a wife over. On top of that, children were believed to be a sign of God’s blessing and not having children was considered a sign of God’s disapproval, so couples who didn’t have any children were sometimes looked on as being judged by God perhaps for something they had done.
Probably for 20 years or more, Zechariah and Elizabeth would have been walking the road of childlessness and experiencing the full spectrum of emotions that went along with that, probably over and over again. Watching their peers become pregnant and raise their families, aching for a child of their own, mourning that loss, maybe at times blaming one another, all the while experiencing deep shame, judgement from their neighbours, wondering what they had done, that God would withhold this from them.
I wonder if Zechariah being a priest felt an extra measure of shame, always wondering whether he was respected as a leader in the temple because of this perceived sign on God’s judgement on him. Do you think Zechariah might have become angry at God, might he have begun to gradually close the door of his heart to trust in God or to any expectation for God’s action as the years continued to pass?
That’s kind of the impression that we get of Zechariah when he’s chosen to perform duties in the temple. He’s to offer incense to God in the Holy Place in the temple. This is something that probably would have only happened once in a lifetime for a priest. The temple is the place where Jews believed that God dwelled, where his presence was. Do you think Zechariah came that day with a sense of expectation that he would meet with God, with an open heart, and a sense of anticipation? Or maybe do you think he came expecting nothing, believing that God had long ago turned his face away from him, never having seen any sign of God showing him favour or fulfilling the promises he made to him or to the nation of Israel?
This was a time in Israel’s history too, where there had not been any prophesy for a long time. It was a time where God had appeared to be silent. Israel had been waiting for hundreds and hundreds of years for God to speak and to them, all the while watching the Romans come and take possession of their land. They had been waiting hundreds of years for God to answer their question, recorded in the book of Malachi “Where is the God of justice?” and for God to fulfill the promise he made through the prophet Malachi, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire will come.” (Malachi 3:1)
When Zechariah came to the temple, do you think he expected this promise to be fulfilled? Do you think he expected the messenger of the Lord would come to him, do you think he expected that the one who he really desired would actually come? Or do you think he expected to go through the motions of worship, to light the incense in the Holy Place, to see the smoke rise up, and then dissolve, just like so many of his earnest prayers over the years?
Hundreds of years before, God had made a promise through his prophet Malachi: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall...See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:2 and 5)
Do you think Zechariah expected that the angel Gabriel would come to him that day as he was performing his duties in the temple and announce to him that his son would be this Elijah, this one that would announce the rising of the sun of righteousness? Would you have?
One of the things that the writers of the gospels are famous for is showing how things aren’t what they seem on the outside. If anyone should have a sense of expectation for God to act, it would be a priest like Zechariah, someone who knows God’s promises and who gets to be in his presence in the temple. In terms of our vision statement, Zechariah is a person who should be reaching out and enfolding the lost. You’d think that he is someone ‘on the inside’ someone who’s ‘found’ who can help to welcome those who are ‘lost’. But one of the things I see Luke doing in this story is showing how lost those on the ‘inside’ can be. Luke seems to be saying, Look, those on the inside of the church can be lost in a lot of ways. We can lose our trust in God. We can lose our expectation that God will act. We can lose real hope that comes from trusting that God will keep his promises. We can lose our vision of who we are in God in light of certain circumstances. We can lose our sense of identity as God’s beloved. We can lose the vision of our calling as disciples and wander around blindly in the dark.
Can you identify at all with Zechariah? Maybe you too have been tempted to lose trust in God through years of experiencing consistently unmet desire. Maybe you’ve wondered what you’ve done that God would withhold a certain gift from you. Maybe you are walking through a season where God seems to be silent. Maybe you’ve lost sight of who God is, of his delight in you, of his power that is made perfect in your weakness, of his ability to work out his will in any situation to bring about what is good, of his power to go all the way to death to be reconciled in relationship to you.
Finding and enfolding aren’t just things that we as the church do. Finding and enfolding are what happens to those inside and outside the church. It’s what God continues to do for us over and over again as we journey with him. It’s what God did for Elizabeth and Zechariah. Gabriel tells Zechariah that a prayer he had perhaps stopped praying years ago has been heard. Elizabeth will give birth to a son. He will give them both joy and delight. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Just like Elijah, he will make ready a people prepared for the coming of the Lord.
God finds Zechariah right where he is and he gives him back what he has lost--the assurance that he has not abandoned Zechariah or Israel, that he will indeed come to them and enfold them. God will keep his promise that he made all the way back to Abraham, that through Israel all nations will be blessed. All nations will come to know and love God. And this is what erupts out of Zechariah after his nine long months of silence. Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and sings about how God has given him back the knowledge that he is a God who keeps his promises. Zechariah sings about how God empowers his people to serve him without fear. He sings about his new son, the son he had long given up hope for, but who had just born eight days earlier and how God will use his son John to tell others of God’s salvation and prepare the way for his coming. Zechariah sings about God’s tender mercy that rises like the sun and shines on those living in the darkness to guide their feet into the path of peace.
As you approach this coming week and this season of celebrating Christ’s birth, how do you come? Do you come like Zechariah did to the temple that one day, going through the motions of celebration and worship, but with no real sense of trust or expectation that what God promised through the gift of his Son has any impact on you, or has any real power? Do you come with the pain of unmet desire? Do you come with longing for Christ’s presence to be made real again in you? Do you come from a place of darkness, of despair or grief? Maybe you come like Zechariah after the birth of his son John, filled with the Spirit and overflowing with praise at how God has revealed himself to you. No matter how you come to this season, know that God himself will come to meet you. He will come to find you. Expected or not, desired or not, planned for or not, Christ will come. Christ has come. He comes like the sun rising to meet those living in the darkness to guide their feet into the path of peace.