December 2, 2019

Advent 1 Ps 24, Genesis 15:1-6, 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13, Luke 1:5-25   Be ready

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Be ready.

Don’t be afraid.

Be prepared… for God’s Good News.

One never knows when an angel might show up. Always remember  –

Do not be afraid. But – Do –

Be ready. Prepared…

Zechariah the priest is serving in the Jerusalem temple. Doing God’s work in God’s holy place. He and his wife Elizabeth are old, getting older, still childless. Children were considered a sign of God’s favor, and they’ve been praying for a child – and they must be wondering – why is that we have not received this blessing that’s supposed to come to the righteous? And they are, both of them,  righteous and blameless we’re told. Yet they have no children. They’re still not seeing the blessing they believe they’ve been promised in spite of all their prayers.

Zechariah the priest for sure knows the ancient biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah, childless for a very long time – till Sarah gives birth to their son Isaac (whose name means laughter) finally, when she’s 90 years old and Abe’s 100.

Zechariah knows the biblical stories of Abe and Sarah’s grandchildren, Jacob and his twin brother Esau, born to Isaac and his wife Rebecca after 20 long years without children. He knows the story of Samuel the son born to Hannah after long years of childlessness and many tears poured out. He surely knows Psalm 113, where we’re told God“gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children…”

And for sure Zack knows the first thing angels just about always say when they appear to people is “Do not be afraid.”

But Zechariah is shocked out of his socks in fear and terror when the angel Gabriel appears… bringing good news of great joy….

And… Zechariah can’t quite bring himself to believe the angel’s words. Can’t quite believe all those prayers he and his wife have been praying all these years are finally being answered.

Even though the first thing the angel tells him is “Don’t be afraid” – he is very afraid – literally terrified.

***

And isn’t this still….the way life so often is? We know we shouldn’t be afraid –  especially not afraid to receive good news. We know we shouldn’t be afraid of the presence of God… Afraid of receiving the blessings we’ve been praying for.

We remember Jesus telling us not to be afraid even of those who those who can kill the body, but not the soul. Long before Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” Jesus said, many, many times – “don’t be afraid.”

Roosevelt, in that same speech named many challenges and difficulties that lay ahead in the worst days of the Great Depression. Jesus names many great challenges and difficulties that lie ahead for those who follow him. But Jesus never stops telling us “Do not be afraid.”

Yet of course we still have fears… Which I sort of understand, on one level. We’re programmed instinctively to fear things that can hurt or kill us if we don’t watch out… But I have a harder time understanding –

Why, I myself, and many other people… often seem afraid not only of fearful things – but also afraid of – and thus unprepared for – God’s good news?

What is it about human nature that causes us to do many things out of fear – things that do nothing to relieve our fears? Little things like watching horror movies and cable news to excess. Larger things like drugging ourselves with opiates, alcohol, addiction to money, things. and stockpiling of weapons. Storing up things on earth that distract us from heaven. Things we probably know are going to rob us of joy and cause us regret.

Yet still, so often, we find ourselves stuck in patterns of fearful behavior… Behaviors that keep us from noticing God’s presence… Behavioral patterns of surviving without really being fully alive. Patterns that keep us from feeling the joy of God’s presence. (Here, still… Waiting for us… to notice.)

In Zechariah’s case, fear may have something to do with performance anxiety. I remember being nervous about coming to church after being away from church for many years, back in my thirties… At the time I was working for a non-profit group and I was used to speaking in public. But after I’d been back in church awhile, when my pastor asked me to read a bible reading one Sunday for the first time, I remember being anxious… Even though there were no more than 25 or 30 people in our little country church in Vermont, and they were all friendly… Still I was on edge the first few times I read scripture in church… So I imagine…

Maybe Zechariah has the jitters today… Because as a member of the priestly order of Abijah he’s not a full-time temple priest, just part of a minor religious order that pulls a two week shift in the temple once a year, with members chosen by lot to serve in the sanctuary. This may be the only time Zechariah ever serves in the sanctuary. He may be feeling like a high school kid called up to play with the Red Sox in Fenway– suddenly facing a major league pitcher throwing faster than he’s ever imagined…

He’s just a local pastor called up to lead the liturgy in the biggest cathedral in the country. I imagine he’s excited to be there, and probably he’s doing fine – till this edgy angel pops up and pronounces this huge blessing…

Maybe if the angel just said “Congratulations, Zack, you’re going to have a son” – he might have jumped in surprise, and gulped a few times – maybe laughed nervously, like Sarah and Abraham did when God told them they were going to be parents late in life… If Angel Gabrield had just told him “good news, you’re going to have a son” – Zack might still have been anxious, but… he might have just bit his tongue a little… and not asked “how will I know this is going to happen?”

But now when the angel tells him “your child is going to be turning all the people of Israel back to God – turning the hearts of family members back to each other – preparing the way for the Lord God Almighty – and now it’s maybe too much good news to absorb…. And Zack can’t quite believe it… all at once…

He knows the words of the bible… He believes the message…. But the words seem frozen to the page now… not flowing from the heart…

***

Maybe we get anxious sometimes too… in this season of Advent…as we realize…

We’re not just celebrating the birth of Jesus long ago… (We are doing that,  but – ) What we’re doing most of all is preparing for Christ’s return. Which is going to be far more surprising… than the appearance of Angel Gabriel in the temple.

And part of our work as followers of Jesus is always to keep preparing ourselves. Asking, always, God’s help with our assignment… of helping God prepare all people… for Christ’s return.

Our assignment, like that of John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth – is to be helping God turn the hearts of parents and children to each other. Turning our  hearts to the hearts of our neighbors…Turning the heart of the world to the good news of what God is doing in Jesus Christ…

Preparing the way of the Lord… So all people will see… the salvation of our God.

Preparing the way for Jesus.

the way for Christ’s kingdom of peace and joy and love…

Preparing ourselves, as the word of God says –

So – let’s –

Be ready.

Do not be afraid. But do –

Be prepared…

for the fullness of God’s Good News.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.