So here we are! It’s so wonderful to be here with you, after these months of discernment and preparation, and, as Tom so beautifully preached last week, waiting in uncertainty for this new beginning. I have to thank you first for the welcome you’ve all given us so far- it’s been moving and kind and beautiful, and I am very grateful.
When my family and I were preparing to arrive, I had toyed with the idea of volunteering to start early and come last Sunday, so that I’d be here for all of Advent. But last Sunday I was glad I hadn’t- it was our first day on our own in the house without any help from our extended family, and I still didn’t know where most of my clothes were, and we hadn’t been to a grocery store yet, and we were still just generally overwhelmed.
I don’t know that I’m much less overwhelmed this week, though I do have clothes and food, so that’s a really good start. But I don’t know where my Advent wreath is, and I don’t think I have any candles to put in it anyway, and I don’t have an orderly, well-thought-out spiritual practice to commend to anyone.
I would be surprised if I’m the only one here who is a little overwhelmed. This is an overwhelming time to be a human. There is a lot that’s unknown in the world, about our future. The present is full of news that dwells in the shadow of death- violence and death in our schools, a new variant of the virus that challenges the protections we’ve been able to build around ourselves, climate change that seems to threaten us in new ways every day. And even the joy of this new moment here at St. Clare’s, I imagine, carries with it some fear and difficult memories and at the very least, wondering about the future and about me, this new person who has come to live and serve among you- a big change, and an overwhelming one, even if it is joyful too.
So one thing we do have, together, in this moment of overwhelm are today’s readings, about preparation for change- they surround the figure of John the Baptist, and his message of preparation for what God was about to do through Jesus.
John’s story has another layer of preparation behind it- the stories of his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah, we hear, is a priest, an old one who is married but has no children. He’s important enough to be on the list of people who could be chosen to do one of the most sacred duties of the year- to enter the sanctuary of the Lord alone. And when he goes in, he finds an angel there, who tells him that he and his wife will have a child. When Zechariah questions the angel about this, given how old Zechariah and Elizabeth are, the angel says “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’”
There’s more to the story that will unfold in the next couple weeks, but it happens just as the angel says: Zechariah does not speak again until all that this messenger said has come to pass, and after he can speak again, he affirms the truth of the Good News from this angel, and his understanding of some of what it means, in the prayer we read today in place of the psalm.
I wondered, this week, about Zechariah’s silence. As we will hear next week, Mary questions the angel who appears to her, for pretty much the same reason- this isn’t how things work for humans. They aren’t wrong, these two faithful servants, Mary and Zechariah- what the angel says is going to happen doesn’t seem to be a possible outcome, not in this human realm. They aren’t rude about it- you can almost imagine either of them saying, “Sorry, angel, maybe things work differently for you, but that’s now how new life works here on earth- maybe you should double check the message from God?”
And yet, Zechariah is given this time of silence. The angel isn’t rude about it either- just matter of fact- “you will be unable to speak until this all comes to pass.”
Luke’s Gospel wants us to know all this about John the Baptist’s origins- that his father waited in silence, limited to gestures and writing, for God to act in impossible ways. And I wonder if one of the connections this story invites us to is that Zechariah, who was important and powerful, respected and faithful, needed a limit, so that he wouldn’t miss the miracle, the new and impossible thing that God was doing. Zechariah was probably well-trained, and smart, and probably considered himself wise and experienced in the ways that God tends to work in the lives of humans. He could have explained away everything that happened, and made it all make sense, and seem controlled and controllable. But instead, in the silence, Zechariah watched as God acted, just as God had said, disrupting the way things had always worked, bringing new life in this surprising new way. And it was through this limit, it seems, that Zechariah was able to witness and believe the truth of God’s action.
And if you look at who John the Baptist became, I think perhaps the author of this story is inviting us to consider that that time of silence, of waiting, was necessary for Zechariah. John, coming from a respectable, important, well-educated, religious family, became a person who lived both wildly and in the wilderness, who called people to turn from their usual ways and return, radically, to God. And in so doing, he helped them to be ready to encounter Jesus, this miracle of God coming among us as a human, to show us the way of the kingdom, the way to new life. Perhaps John’s disruptive and prophetic capacity has its roots in Zechariah’s frustrating and limiting time of silence and waiting.
Mary, who was young and powerless, who did not have Zechariah’s status or education or assumption of experience, did not seem to need quite as much time to prepare to receive the news of what God was doing, to understand it, to rejoice in it. Her song, her prayer, comes just after the angel announces God’s action, God’s bringing of new life to her, and inviting her to be a part of it. It’s tempting to think that Zechariah, with all his knowledge of God’s ways, would be the one who was up to understanding and assenting to the angel’s message quickly and readily, and that Mary would be overwhelmed, would need more time to get up to speed. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case, not when it comes to the disruptive good news, God’s Word among us.
So where does that leave us, today, in this overwhelming world? Well, for those of us who have status, and power, or whom the world reminds often that we are smart and capable and know how things work- perhaps it invites us to remember that, for us, especially, to be able to witness the unfolding of God’s unexpected, disruptive new life, and to welcome it, we need to listen first. We need those times of silence and preparation- not just as a pious and holy-seeming thing to do, but as a practical, necessary preparation to participate in what God is about to do. And we need to remember that when it comes to God’s realm and God’s action, we probably would do well to listen to those with less status, to those who more readily welcome a disruptive truth that points to God’s justice, to God’s inbreaking in the world’s order.
I can tell you what all this means for me- I know that the more overwhelming the world around me gets, the more I try to grasp at something to make me feel quickly secure. I want to blame someone else for a problem, or buy something, or try to control the circumstances.
And those are understandable responses, but I don’t think they’re the fullness of what God is calling me, or any of us, to in this season. The world was overwhelming in Zechariah and Mary’s day too- full of violence and oppression and things falling apart. And yet when God shows up, God doesn’t shame us for our humanity, or try to turn us into less-limited superhumans who are smarter or better or more able to get things under control.
No, God comes to join us. God takes on all the beautiful limitedness of our humanity, to the point of becoming a baby who can’t control anything, who needs a lot of sleep and food from other people, who can’t speak either.
And to the people gathered around this miracle of the incarnation, God largely tells them to watch and listen. To observe the miracle. Mary, in her wisdom, made sure to remember everything she saw and heard, in order to ponder it later. Even Mary, ready as she was to enter into this mystery, knows that she, a human too, will need time to ponder all of these miraculous things.
So I think it’s fair to say that God calls us just as we are, in all our humanness, all our limitedness, in our need for rest and help and our inability to know the future or to even understand what’s going on right in front of us. God loved us humans enough to join us, and loves us enough to dwell with us still. God’s work here isn’t over; we can see that clearly around us well enough. But perhaps the scripture today invites us to remember that it’s not in our earthly qualifications or education or status or respectability that we find our place in the work of God’s kingdom, most often. I think more often it’s in the place where we meet our limit, where we acknowledge that we cannot control things, that we are not enough to fix the world, that we need rest and food and care- it’s in those places that God can begin to work.
And so I can promise you this- as I embark on this sacred time of a new beginning with you all- I’m going to do my best to be a human, and to not try to be God. There is no brilliant idea or perfect method or magical balance that will save us or this world- but there is a God who has done that, who is doing that, who will come again to complete that salvation. I think, at our best as a community, all we can do is point each other to that truth, and participate in that truth as best as we can, knowing that we are humans, and God is God.
That’s a lot, actually. You’ve brought me here to play a particular part in the life of this community, and I can promise to walk as faithfully as I can with you through the times that are ahead, when they are overwhelming, when they are sad and when they are joyful, to apologize when I make mistakes, and to listen first and most, to God’s voice as God speaks through and among us. I think what we’re called to do together is to trust, to remind each other, to be humble enough to believe that God is speaking and working among us, and that what God does probably won’t look like what we expect, but that it will bring new life in the strangest and most wonderful of ways.
To rewrite Paul’s words to the church in Philippi that we heard today: This is my prayer, that at St. Clare’s in Ann Arbor, our love may overflow more and more as we embark on this journey together, as beautifully limited humans, pointing our way to the unlimited God of love and life. Amen.