“Hope” Reflect: A Journey of Light
Psalm 130, Luke 1:5-25
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
December 2, 2018
Let’s remind ourselves of how this all begins. As you know, we are at the New Year for the Christian calendar: the first Sunday of Advent. It is the four weeks of waiting for the Messiah to be born. Each of the gospel writers offers a little bit different beginning. When you read Mark’s gospel you might think you’ve lost a page or two because Mark, the shortest gospel by far, is in such a hurry he skips the whole thing and begins with Jesus’ baptism in the river. Matthew begins with this large history book that spans hundreds of years, he reaches all the way from Abraham to his current day and he places Jesus’ birth as the last page in that history. John, for his part, takes us to the cosmos with his beginning: there’s Light and Logos and the whole world involved in waiting for this birth.
In comparison to these, Luke does something completely different: he is not in a hurry, not at all; he is not so interested in history or the galaxies. Luke begins at the office on any given regular Tuesday. You have just heard the story for yourself. Zechariah is a priest and he is on the job. Luke tells us he is on duty, along with the rest of his team. It is Zechariah’s turn to go into the Holy of Holies and while he is there the angel Gabriel shows up to announce that his life is changed forever. In his old age he and his wife Elizabeth will have a child. And, to top it off, he is going to be a great child, so great it will be like Elijah is back.
After the message is given, Zechariah finally comes out of the room to try to finish his duties—traditionally he would have led his team in reciting the blessing from Numbers: “May the Lord bless you and keep you” but he finds he cannot do it because he can no longer speak. What started as another day at the office, has become the way it all begins. We join a regular guy who is going about his life. This leads us to our candle and our theme for today. Because with a history book we seek fulfillment, and with the cosmos we seek redemption; but in a regular family in the middle of a workday, what we seek is hope.
Luke’s revelation of hope is a beautiful thing, in part, because he takes so long to tell it. It takes 87 verses before we even get to the promised baby’s birth! Something special is going on here: we are allowed to linger over these people he introduces, we get to know them. We get to know Zechariah; and we can relate to Zechariah. He is a man who has tried so hard and for so long to be faithful. But when he looks at his reality and at his ability, he does not find much hope there. We can relate to that: when we come to the end of ourselves and we realize that we don’t have much power to change whatever difficult reality we are facing.
In Zechariah’s case, it is his age. Gabriel the angel says to him: you are going to have a baby and Zechariah’s immediate response is his reality: “I am old” he tells the angel, to which the angel responds, “I am Gabriel.” “I am old,” is the cry of every difficult reality we live with: “I am old, I am sick, I am disappointed, I am broken” and to each reality the angel offers this rebuttal, saying: but “I am Gabriel.” I am old; I am Gabriel. I am hurt; I am Gabriel. I am afraid; I am Gabriel, I am Gabriel, I am Gabriel.
Zechariah follows up with “How can this happen?” This is his hopelessness around his own ability. Not only is his reality hard but his ability is not able. He cannot do it: How can this happen? And again the angel rebuts him: “I AM GABRIEL.”
Hope is not crossing our fingers, squeezing our eyes shut, and whispering “please, please!” Hope is trust. Hope is trusting that there is another reality that you do not fully see and that there is another ability that is greater than yours. That is hope. It is not begging. It is not desperate. It is trusting that God’s work begins—yes in the cosmos and yes in the history books and YES—on your ordinary Tuesday at work, or in the kitchen, or as you stand in line at the post office.
So, hope is trusting that there is a reality we do not fully yet see and that there is ability that is far greater than what we can offer. Hope is one other thing too. Hope is trusting that we can’t thwart God’s work. Remember, Zechariah didn’t believe it. He’d been praying for it for years. He has an angel standing right in front of him. And he didn’t believe it. Because of his unbelief he won’t speak until his son is born but his lack of belief will not stop what God has planned. God has begun and, as Gabriel puts it, what he plans “will be fulfilled in their time.” Even Zechariah, a star player in this drama, cannot change that. Hope is trusting that God’s work cannot be stopped, even by you.
What we learn as we wait for the Messiah to be born, what we learn at the beginning is that everything does not depend on us. Our reality is not complete, our ability is not necessary, our belief—even if it flags—is not the deciding factor. What a gift that is for this season of gift giving. Will Willimon, a Methodist preacher, offers a helpful way to distinguish giving and receiving at Christmas. He describes the way we have flipped our understanding of gifts. He says we have replaced these ordinary people at the beginning of Luke’s gospel with Scrooge in Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” Although a wonderful tale, Dicken’s message is that we will finally understand Christmas when we learn to give. Willimon argues that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth teach us we will finally understand Christmas when we learn to receive.
“I am old…how can this happen?” Receive the heavenly message. Trust that everything does not depend on you. For God is giving a new beginning, in the history books, in the cosmos, and in you. May the gifts given this season be the kind you must learn to receive. For that is how it all begins. Amen.