Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Make Ready a People

Rev. Kathy Donley

Advent Week 1 - 12/03/17


Scripture Lesson:  Luke 1:5-25


There is a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that depicts young Calvin marching through the living room where his mother is having her morning coffee.  Calvin's head is encased in a large space helmet while a cape drapes across his shoulders down to the floor.

His mom asks, “What's up today?”

Nothing so far.”  Calvin replies.

So far?”  She questions

Well, you never know, something could happen today. 

And if anything does, by golly, I'm going to be ready for it!”

His mom looks pensive and says to herself, “I need a suit like that!”


My question about Calvin’s suit is this:  Is it offensive or defensive?  Is it hopeful or fearful?  Calvin is probably hopeful.  He is looking forward to some amazing events that day,  but I wonder about the Mom, the one I identify with more readily.  When you and I get up and get dressed every day, what suit do we put on?  Do we clothe ourselves with hope or fear?  

That day in the Temple, maybe Zechariah needed a suit like Calvin’s, or at least that attitude of being ready for something to happen. 

Priests worked at the Temple two times a year for one week every time.    The greatest privilege of serving in the temple was being selected to make the afternoon incense offering.  You could only do it once in your lifetime, and some priests never got the opportunity.  So Zechariah was already having a pretty significant day before the angel appeared. 

This was probably a day that he had been waiting for for a long time.  Just like he and his wife Elizabeth had waited a long time, a lifetime, for a child. 

In the ancient near East, a woman’s God-given role was to bear and raise children.  Their understanding of biology led them to believe that if a couple couldn’t conceive, it was always the woman’s fault.  And it was believed to be a sign that God was displeased.  So a woman who couldn’t get pregnant was a disgrace to herself and her husband.    Luke describes them as “blameless” to tell us that their childlessness is not a punishment from God.

Luke might know that and we might know that, but at this point in the story,  Zechariah and Elizabeth may not know that.  They prayed for a child for years.   Elizabeth watched her friends get pregnant and went to all their baby showers.  She listened as they considered what to name the baby and tried to guess whether it would be a boy or a girl.  She watched everyone else’s children grow up and now her friends are showing her the pictures of their grandchildren.  It is a constant heartache and disgrace for her, but it’s also a fact of life.  She never had children, and that’s that.   The dream has died.

Until this day in the temple.  Zechariah goes into the sanctuary to perform the highest priestly task. The rising smoke from the incense was to symbolize the people’s prayers rising to God.  Just like the prayers of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the ones where they’d begged and pleaded for a child.

Here is Zechariah, serving as priest in the holiest part of the sanctuary and yet he doesn’t seem to really expect God to be present.  How often does it happen to us – we go through the motions of prayer and worship, but we hardly expect to meet God in the midst of it. 

And so, caught off-guard, Zechariah’s response to Gabriel  is natural – How can I know this?  He doesn’t exactly say that the angel is lying, but it’s clear that he wants some more evidence or proof. His disbelief seems reasonable, logical, but on the other hand, he is a priest.  He knows the stories of Sarah and Abraham, of Hannah and Elkanah, of their prayers for a child, answered in their old age. 

Zechariah would also know that the last person to encounter Gabriel was Daniel.  Generations earlier, Gabriel came in response to Daniel’s prayer, to say that God would deliver the people from exile in Babylon.  If Zechariah is old, Gabriel is timeless.  If Zechariah has seen much of one human life, Gabriel has seen generations rise and fall.  And most importantly, Gabriel is God’s messenger who was to bring good news to Zechariah.  And since Zechariah was not prepared to receive and believe this good news, he will be unable to talk about it until after it he knows that it is true. 

Now I’ve never been visited by an angel, but I have had momentary experiences of God that left me uncertain – was that God or my imagination?  What did that mean?  What should I do now?   Perhaps many of us are like Zechariah, sometimes we find it hard to believe, to trust really good news, to accept that God is at work and has something for us to do too.

Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry who is best known for his family systems theory.   Without going into too much detail, his idea is that people are individuals who function within systems.   The family is our primary system.  That’s where we learn healthy and unhealthy ways of living.  We function within that system, influencing other people within our family, even as they influence us.  We are also always functioning within other systems beyond the family, systems like school, church, the workplace, social networks, and even the larger culture of the country we inhabit.  Bowen paid a lot of attention to how anxiety is managed in a system.  His idea was that societies experience times of higher and lower anxiety, and that when anxiety peaks in a nation, then fundamentalism, terrorism and toxic polices also go up. [1]

I don’t think I need to list current events to convince you that we are experiencing nation-wide anxiety.  There are things that we should rightfully fear.  But there are also a lot of people with the means and motivation to heighten, manipulate and exploit our fears.  Politicians, advertisers, advocacy groups, even sometimes religious leaders, often turn to fear to bolster their messages.  One theologian calls this the fear-for-profit syndrome.[2] 

On the other hand, the fundamental biblical message is “Fear not.” It comes to Moses in the wilderness and to Israel when the people were in captivity and about to be liberated but facing an unknown future, to a skeptical old man and a frightened, pregnant teenager, to startled shepherds in the field watching their sheep, to grieving women at an open tomb: “Do not be afraid.”[3]

We are individuals within a system.  We can be influenced by the system and we can exert influence on the system.  The system surrounding us now is toxically fearful.  Our anxiety will be higher simply because we are part of this system, unless we resist.  Unless we attend to the fundamental message of our faith “Do not be afraid”.  Unless we believe that message is for us.  Unless we believe that it is as true for us as it was for Moses, and the people in captivity, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, and thousands of others, known and unknown to us,  who have trusted and hoped and believed over the centuries.  If we can take in “Do not be afraid”, then maybe we can choose hope over despair, courage over fear.

But how, do we get there? 

Notice what happens for Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zach comes out of the Temple and can’t speak. Maybe this is a punishment, but I wonder whether being unable to speak is just a more or less natural consequence of being in contact with an angel.  Perhaps it takes a while to get your mind around what’s happened and to have something to say. 

And Elizabeth - we don't know what she thinks.  How long did it take for her to believe that she was pregnant?  And then what?  Here she is, old enough to be a grandmother, with a husband who has suddenly lost the power of speech, and she is pregnant.  It is the biggest news of their life together and they can't talk about it.  Although I suspect there is a lot of communication happenening even though Zach can't speak.

By the time the baby is born, they both know his name is John.  When the villagers question Elizabeth’s judgment, Zach takes a tablet and writes “His name is John.”  Not ‘his name will be John” but “his name is John.”  This is not  Zach’s decision, but his obedience to what has already been decided.[4] Immediately, he regains the power to speak.  This makes me think that maybe one key to choosing hope over fear is obedience, doing what we already know to do.  This story tells of their ultimately joyful response to God at a turning point, but I expect that there had been many more acts of everyday faithful obedience leading up to this one.    

I also notice that Zechariah and Elizabeth are together.  I picture them standing together, maybe slightly apart from the villagers, affirming and encouraging each other’s obedience.   When someone believes in us, it often ignites hope.  And, similarly we may create hope for someone else by our encouragement and affirmation.

Bible scholar Justo Gonzalez says, “This entire episode reminds us of a situation in which many faithful believers often stand.  They are called to do the unexpected and perhaps the culturally unacceptable.” [5]  And there is one more key to creating hope.  Hope can happen simultaneously with the unexpected, the counter-cultural.  When someone has the courage to step up and say that what is expected and culturally acceptable is just plain wrong, it signals that things can change and that creates hope. 

We might be reminded of someone like Rosa Parks.  It was 62  years ago on Friday that she violated cultural expectations and refused to move to the back of the bus. 

Or Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement which sought to relieve the suffering of the poor during the Great Depression.  She was a lifelong activist and advocate for social justice.   She said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” 

We might recall the faith leaders who were arrested in Washington this week for reading scripture about justice for the poor in the Senate as protest against a tax bill that would give tax breaks for the wealthy on the backs of the poor.  Actions like these may or may not seem that significant at the time, but sometimes, we look back and we realize that it was this kind of unexpected initiative that kept hope alive. 

But it is not just the visible, public counter-cultural things that generate hope.  We can practice hope in every day ways, by doing the unexpected.  Like speaking kindly to a hateful person, or stopping a long while to really enjoy beauty or believing the words of a stranger without trying to figure out their agenda or paying attention to the systemic tools of fear-mongering so that we can resist them.

We might think of ourselves as orinary, maybe even boring, not the sort to be visited by angels.  That's probably what Zechariah and Elizabeth thought, too.  And yet, God chose these humble, old, insignificant people to do something wonderful.  God wasn't finished with them yet.  And God isn't finished with us either. 

If Gabriel came to us today, he would say, “Do not be afraid.”  And then he would say “There is a future, you have life to live and work to do and people to love. Clothe yourselves with hope and courage, because you never know what could happen in a day and by golly if something does, you want to be ready for it.”  Amen. 


[1] Roger J. Gench, in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009),  p. 34. 

[2] Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2007),  p. 16

[3] Walter Brueggemann as quoted by the Rev. John Buchanan in his sermon Fear Not  http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2001/121601.html

[4] Justo Gonzalez, Luke in the Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 28. 

[5]Gonzalez,  p. 28.