31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
December 20, 2015
Luke 1: 5-23, 57-64
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Once in a lifetime, it was a once in a lifetime experience to be chosen to go into the Sanctuary of the Temple and light the incense offering for God.
And it was finally Zechariah’s turn. After years of waiting to be chosen, it was finally his opportunity for this once in a lifetime experience.
Twice a year, Zechariah traveled with his order of priests to Jerusalem and the temple. For a week at a time, they presided over worship in the Temple. After all of these years, Zechariah had become used to the pattern. Each day, a sacrifice was offered twice a day, on both the outside incense altar where all the people could see it and also on the sanctuary incense altar, where only the chosen priests could enter.
Each day, a list was prepared of those priests who had never been chosen to go into the sanctuary of the Temple and light the incense offering, and then lots were chosen to see which priest would be chosen for the special honor that day.
Twice a year, Zechariah traveled with his order of priests to Jerusalem and the temple. And each day, he stood with his fellow priests to see if today would be the day he would be chosen to enter the Sanctuary of God. And each day, as he waited, another was chosen.
Did Zechariah’s heart rise up a little bit each day in expectation and hope? Did it fall in his chest, when again, he was not chosen?
But today was different. Today, Zechariah was chosen. Today was his once in a lifetime opportunity to be the priest who would have the honor to enter the Sanctuary of the Temple, the Sanctuary of God, and burn the incense offering. And while Zechariah had never done it before, he knew exactly what to do. First, a priest would go in and clear the ashes away from the previous incense burning, bow humbly down on the floor and come out again. Then a second priest would bring cinders in to place on the altar, bow humbly down on the floor and come out again. And then, it would be Zechariah’s turn, to bear the incense in, place it on the altar, bow humbly down on the floor and come out again, where he would join his fellow priests and offering the priestly blessing for the whole gathered community.
Zechariah’s whole life had been leading up to this moment. He was a faithful man, righteous and obedient to God. He had married a woman, Elizabeth, whose father had also been a priest, and she was also faithful, righteous, and obedient to God. Together, they had lived blamelessly and kept all of God’s commandments and regulations. Despite having no child, which gave the appearance of sinfulness, they had committed no sin; they had never strayed from their devotion to God. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been as faithful to God’s ways and God’s word as two people could be.
And so, isn’t it surprising, that Zechariah, as he enters the Sanctuary of God, to offer an incense offering to God, is absolutely taken back to encounter an angel of God?
Think about that for a moment. The Temple, according to the Israelites, is God’s house. Twice a day, every day, twenty-four different orders of priests are charged with offering praise and offerings to God in this sacred place. And yet, Zechariah is surprised to experience God in this place. He does not expect to encounter God in God’s house!
Think about that for a moment.
And think about this: What is your expectation for worship this morning? Did you come here to this community of God’s people, to our shared worship of God, expecting to experience God?
Rev. Denise Mason Bullitt, the lead pastor of Community of Reconciliation Church in Pittsburgh, led a workshop this summer called “Revitalizing Worship on Small Budgets”. She asked those gathered, “What is the spiritual temperature of your worship?” “When was the last time you heard God’s word in such a way that it moved you, moved you even to tears?”
Another way to put Rev. Mason Bullitt’s questions are “Are you expecting God’s presence in your worship?”
As we praise God and ask God to hear our prayers, are we expecting a response? Do we believe that God is truly here with us? Do we believe that God is still speaking, speaking to you, speaking to me, speaking to our community?
What is your expectation for worship this morning? Did you come here to this community of God’s people, to our shared worship of God, expecting to experience God?
Or did you come out of tradition, out of rote habit, to offer the prayers, sing the songs, hear great music, and fulfill the role and regulations of a faithful person?
That’s what Zechariah was doing. He was a faithful man. He had been called to be a temple priest, probably like his father and grandfather before him, and like the good man he was, he faithfully fulfilled his role, doing whatever he was asked and expected to do. He was going through the motions of this sacred ceremony of worship, but he had no real expectation that his offering to God, that his prayers, would actually get an answer. God had not spoken or appeared to the people of Israel in hundreds of years. Why would this day be any different?
Clearly the people did not expect God’s presence in God’s house either because they were wondering what was taking Zechariah so long. He was supposed to go, offer the incense, bow, and come out.
But that is not what happened. After having been chosen by essentially a drawing of straws for this once in a lifetime experience, Zechariah goes in to perform this sacred offering to God and is absolutely stunned to discover an angel right there, standing there at the right side of the altar. An angel standing there as clearly as can be.
Zechariah is understandably terrified and absolutely overwhelmed. I can picture him trying to process – What do I do now? Am I still supposed to offer the incense, bow, and leave? No one covered this in my training.
Can you picture it? Zechariah standing paralyzed in the presence of God’s angel, trying to figure out what to “do” about this interruption of God into the ordered worship of God.
The angel does not give Zechariah any time to figure it out. The angel speaks and says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” (Luke 1:13-14)
Sure, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been asking God to bless them with a child for a long time, but this was still so unexpected. They had been praying but at this point, they did not expect their prayers to be answered. Zechariah says to the angel, “I am an old man.” To which, the angel responds, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.”
Scripture says that because Zechariah did not believe, Zechariah became mute, unable to speak until God’s promise was fulfilled. It’s easy to see Zechariah’s muteness as punishment for disbelief; however Zechariah’s question “How will I know that this is so?” is the exact one Abraham spoke to God’s angel hundreds of years before. And Abraham was not made mute for his doubt.
So maybe Zechariah’s muteness is not a punishment, maybe his muteness is actually another blessing from God. Maybe it is a blessing he does not have to decide whether he will try to explain what has happened or offer the priestly blessing as if it is business as usual. Better to be blessedly mute, and let his muteness shout the fact that something amazing has happened, that he has encountered the presence of God.
In these Advent days, we have been preparing our hearts, minds, and souls for God’s presence in our world and in our lives. Each week, we have lit the Advent candles and waited for God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s love, God’s joy to be incarnate, to be embodied in our world. We have been preparing, but are we actually expecting God’s presence? Are we expecting God’s holy interruption into our mundane, business as usual, lives?
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth shows us that we should. Their story shows us that even if you think God has been silent for years, even if you think you are the last one to be chosen, even if you think life is one set of chores and responsibilities after another- Expect God’s good news. Expect God’s presence. Expect God’s amazing blessings.