A People Prepared for the Lord

Keith McFarren

November 27, 2022

Luke 1: 5-17

 

    Preparing for Advent is a lot like
preparing for the birth of a child…it’s all about the preparation, the waiting
and the anticipation.  Advent comes from
the Latin word Adventus, which means coming or arrival or presence.  If we could summarize the purpose of Advent
with words that are meant to define John the Baptist’s work and mission in the
world, I think it would best be captured by the words of the prophet Isaiah who
said, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3).
    When we think of Advent, we think of it as
being a time to celebrate the coming of Jesus, or the birth of Jesus…but we
also need to think of Advent as preparing for the return of Jesus as well.  So, if Advent means “coming” or “arrival”
then in all reality, we need to prepare for two Advents…the initial coming of
Jesus along with his second coming.
    The year was 5 BC.  Herod the Great, back by the Roman army ruled
over all of Judea.  Herod was sixty seven
years old and suffered from severe physical and mental health issues.  The people of Judea were waiting for him to
die and many hoped that this would be the time that God would answer their
prayers and raise up a king from the line of David, a king who would rule in
their favor, a king who would rule with righteousness and justice.  In fact, some wondered if this would be the
time when the prophetic message of Zechariah, written five hundred years
earlier might be fulfilled:
“Shout and cheer, Daughter Zion!
         Raise the roof, Daughter Jerusalem!
         Your king is coming!
        A
good king who makes all things right.
         A humble king riding on a donkey
         On a colt, the offspring of a donkey.
         …no more war horses,
         no more swords and spears, bows and
arrows.
         He will offer peace to the nations,
         a peaceful rule worldwide,
         from the four winds to the seven seas (Zechariah 9:9-12, The
        Message).
    The man in our scripture reading this
morning, Zechariah, who was most likely named after the earlier prophet
Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth, were among those who hoped that Herod would
soon be gone and a righteous ruler sent by God would replace him.
    As we venture into the season of Advent,
Luke is going to tell us about the virgin Mary’s extraordinary pregnancy and of
course he’s going to tell us about Jesus’ extraordinary birth; but Luke also knows
that he needs to prepare our hearts and our minds for these stories, and he
does so with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a devout couple going about
their everyday lives.
    He
begins by grabbing our attention with their human drama.  Zechariah and Elizabeth are an older couple who
are way past child bearing age.  Added to
that is the problem that Elizabeth has spent her entire adult life being unable
to conceive a child and has spent her entire life being mocked by society.  But an angel suddenly appears and tells them
that God has heard their prayers and that they are now going to have a son whom
they were to name John.  
    John was not going to be an average every day
kid.  He wasn’t going to be a star
athlete, nor would he be a Rhodes Scholar.
Instead, the angel Gabriel said that his purpose was to fulfill the
biblical promises that God had made years earlier about sending someone to
prepare Israel for their coming King…and it’s the angel Gabriel who tells
Zechariah that this will be his son, John’s task.  
    Zechariah couldn’t believe what he had
heard.  “Your prayers have been
heard…Elizabeth will give birth to your son.”
These two people are older than the hills.  They have been married for decades.  For years and years he had seen his wife be
ridiculed and made fun of because of her inability to conceive.  For years and years he must have prayed, over
and over again, that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child.  How many tears must Elizabeth must have shed
over the years because of the way she was treated?  At their advanced age, it was likely that
Zechariah had even stopped praying about it because nothing ever
happened…except silence.
   When it comes down to it, we’re no
different than Zechariah.  Are there
things in your life that you’ve prayed about for a long time?  Are there things in your life that you’ve
prayed about for years, but have never received an answer?  First, let me tell you that God always hears our
prayers, even if we don’t see the results we’re looking for or they don’t come
in the time frame we had hoped for.
    Prayer is not just about God solving all
our problems or giving us what we want.
Prayer is about communion with God…it’s about connecting with God and
drawing strength, and grace and guidance from him.  It’s about placing our life in his hands, and
inviting him to lead us and guide us and use us as he sees fit.  
    We have to understand that God’s way of
working in our world is not to always answer our prayers with everything we
want nor is it about answering our prayers in the timeframe we want.
    If God’s way of working was to grant an
answer to all of our prayers and to produce miracles every time we want them,
or when we pray hard and long enough, or when we pray with just the right words
or when we have a large group of people praying along with us, we wouldn’t need
doctors.  No one would ever be sick, or
in Elizabeth’s case, no one would ever be infertile, or die young or lose their
jobs or have problems or troubles.  
    If God did whatever we wanted all we’d
have to do is pray and God would immediately take care of all of our problems.  It would be like having God being a genie in a
bottle.  All we’d have to do is rub it,
make our wish, and our wish would be granted.
    Instead, we come to God filled with all
sorts of wants and needs and emotions and we lay the desires of our hearts out
before him…whether it has to do with health issues or healing issues, or our
family, our job or whatever…we lay it all out before him and we realize that
God’s primary way of working is through the strength and the guidance that he
gives each of us through the Holy Spirit.
    We pray to God so that we might be brought
closer to him.  We pray to God to draw
strength from him.  We pray to God asking
him, sometimes begging him, to walk with us as our friend and our companion
during the most difficult times of our lives.
“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand” – you
know the words of Thomas Dorsey’s song and you’ve sung it before.  And then there is the song, “What a Friend
We Have in Jesus.”  Both of these songs
are meant to show us the relationship we can have with God and to show us the power
of God’s continual presence in our lives during the most difficult times.
    Zechariah was a priest, a direct
descendant of Aaron, who could only marry a woman of absolute purity, a woman
like Elizabeth, who was also a direct descendant of Aaron.  But despite who they were and where they came
from, their lives were an absolute tragedy because they were childless.  And to add insult to injury, according to
Jewish laws there were only seven people who could be excommunicated from God
and among those seven people, at the top of the list, was a Jew who had a wife
but had no children.
     So
the entire story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is a story of God’s miraculous
intervention…but notice also that the answer to their prayers didn’t happen
immediately.  The answer to their prayers
didn’t take place when they were in their twenties and praying for a child,
like perhaps many of us have done.  Instead,
the answer to their prayers took place decades later, not in their time but in
God’s time, at a time when God’s unfolding plan for mankind needed a special messenger
to pave the way for the coming of the Lord…and God remembered the prayers of
Zechariah and Elizabeth.
    God had heard their prayers all through
the years…and God was no doubt moved by their prayers…and throughout the years
God continued to walk with them and he cared for them and he offered compassion
to them…and he ended up surprising them in the end in a way they could never
have expected and…for purposes they could have never imagined.  
    God hears our prayers…it’s just that his
way of answering them is done on his time and not on ours…and that’s why we
pray “thy will be done” every Sunday during the Lord’s Prayer.  Your will…your way…your time…not mine.
    Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth
were both “very old.”  We’re not sure how
old “very old” was to Luke, but we know he’s not using the phrase to insult anyone…instead,
he’s using it to teach us something about how God works.  
    In the Bible there is only one time that I
know of that we actually know the age of someone who was called “very
old.”  In 2 Samuel 19:32, we read
that “Barzillai was very old, 80 years of age.”  Earlier on in his life, Barzillai had
been a big supporter of King David, but now at the age of eighty he feels that
because of his age he has become a burden to the king and implies that it is
time for him to die (2 Samuel 19:34-37).

    In the Jewish Mishnah, the book detailing the
background for every subject of Jewish law, it appears that old age starts at
sixty.  In fact, the Mishnah instructs
all people to stand to honor someone who enters a room who is sixty or older.
    Whatever age Elizabeth and Zechariah were,
the point to be made here is that God often chooses and uses older adults to do
his greatest work.  Abraham was seventy-five
when God called him to the Promised Land and promised to create a nation
through him.  A few years later, we find Abraham’s
wife, Sarah, at the age of ninety giving birth to a son Isaac.  And then there was Moses who was eighty when
God called him to lead the nation of Israel out of slavery.
    In
our story today we find God choosing and using an older couple to be a part of
his world saving plan.  As a matter of
fact, he calls for them to be a part of his greatest plan yet; he calls them to
be the parents of the prophet who would prepare the way for the Lord.  
    One thing that I have found during these
last few years is that age has a way of slowing us down.  Age has a way of telling us that our bodies
are over doing it.  But growing old doesn’t
mean that it’s time to hang it all up…it doesn’t mean that God has put an end
to calling you or working in and through you.
In fact, growing old may be just the beginning of something to come if,
like Zechariah and Elizabeth, you open your heart to him.  Growing old and being retired or even
semi-retired doesn’t mean that we stop making disciples and doing God’s
work.  Growing old presen.ts a huge
opportunity for you to open your hearts and minds to God’s calling and using
your time, your wisdom and your life experiences to begin a new ministry for
you or for this church…to go out and serve others.
    You know the song, “Here I am
Lord.  Is it I Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night.  I will go Lord, if you lead me.  I will hold your people in my heart” (Here
I Am, Lord, UMH # 593).   Is it a song you sing because you like the
words and the music?  Or is it a song you
sing because you take the words to heart and you are willing to do what they
say?
    It really doesn’t matter how old you
are…sixteen or sixty or beyond, the point is…we never retire from God’s work; as
disciples of Jesus Christ, we never retire from the work that we are called to
do to serve God and to care for others.
    Back in biblical times, when rulers
planned on visiting cities within their jurisdiction, they would send heralds
or messengers out ahead of them to let the people know that the king or the
ruler was coming.
    Malachi, the final book in the Old
Testament, time and time again promised that the Lord would be coming and when
he arrived, he would hand out both judgment and mercy to his people.  In Malachi 3:1 God said to his people, “Look,
I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord
whom you are seeking will come to his temple.”

    While standing in the Temple that day,
Gabriel said, in essence, “Zechariah, your son John, will be that messenger.”  Judgment is coming to the arrogant, to
those who do evil and to those who don’t worship God.  But for those who repent, to those who honor
and worship God’s name and seek to do justice to others, there will be mercy
and there will be compassion.
    But before this day could happen, this day
that we might call “the first Advent,” a messenger would come to prepare the
people by calling for them to repent and turn back to God so that their souls
might be saved.
    The angel Gabriel made it clear that
Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John, was the one the prophet Malachi spoke of
some four hundred years earlier.  And for
us today like the people of long ago, being ready and prepared for the coming
of the Lord involves turning back to one another as a faith community and
turning back to the right ways of thinking and living.  It means turning away from evil and all that
the world has to offer us and to temp us and returning to the ways of God.  This changing our ways and turning back to
God has a name…it’s called repentance.
    As we prepare for the season of Advent, as
we prepare for the coming of the Lord, let us remember that as improbable and
as impossible as it may seem, God works through ordinary people who make
themselves ready and available for whatever God has in mind for them to do.
    The story is about much more than Elizabeth
having a long awaited child or Zechariah having his prayers answered with a
long awaited son.  It’s a story about the
great fulfilment of God’s promise and purposes for our lives and for the world.  It’s a story that shows us that while God
acts on the large scale, he also takes care of smaller human concerns as
well.  It’s a story about the needs and the
hopes and the fears of ordinary people like us who pray…but whose prayers are never
over looked.  It’s a story about the
needs and the hopes and the fears of ordinary people like us, people who are always
the recipients of God’s lavish, self-giving love.