Change is Gonna Come
Bible Text: Luke 1:13-20, 67-80 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Series: Advent 2019 | Today’s scripture is the other pregnancy story of Christmas: the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah. This couple was extremely pious: Zechariah meets the angel as he’s entering the most sacred and restricted spots of the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem, for he was a respected priest. But in their old age, Elizabeth and Zechariah remained childless. Now that’s one thing today. But back then—in an era when children were the only form of retirement plan, no 401Ks or stock options, just babies you hoped would care for you in old age—their lack of children was seen as an ill omen. I’m sure Zechariah and Elizabeth made the best of things and still held some hope. But I suspect it was a faint hope. But now an angel bursts onto the scene to tell Zechariah: “Do not be afraid! 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, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
Yet Zechariah—again, he’s likely come to terms with not having kids after years of trying—is less than sold on the angel’s words. “How can this be? I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Now I’m not a marriage expert. But I imagine the phrase “my wife is getting on in years” has never led to good things. And for Zechariah’s doubting, rather than a silent night, the angel gives him a silent nine months… telling the priest he will be mute throughout his wife’s pregnancy until the day of John’s birth. And honestly? If I were Elizabeth? And my husband told angelic strangers that I was getting on in years? I may not have minded the nine months’ peace and quiet from him during my pregnancy.
I do not have children of my own. But I’m aware of the preparations that precede the birth of a child. Acquiring clothes, toys, and care products. Making room for the newborn to live and sleep. Baby-proofing the house to protect the little one. Yet I imagine for Zechariah the mute priest, those nine months were more than just a time of physically preparing for the birth of baby John the Baptist. The loss of speech likely prevented Zechariah from fulfilling his priestly duties, so I imagine he had lots of time on his hands for those silent nine months. I imagine he repeated his conversation with the angel over and over in his head. “An angel of the Lord appears! He rightly says my sweet Elizabeth will have a baby soon! And my first response to the Almighty’s messenger? Doubt. Disbelief. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Am I a pagan, or am I a priest? Should I not have believed God’s own messenger, in the Holy Temple of all places no less? Where was my faith? Where was my trust in God? What kind of priest am I to doubt so? What kind of father will I be for John, if I apparently cannot even care for my own faith?” Zechariah the priest’s first reaction to the news that not only would he have a son but that his son would be the greatest prophet of the Lord in generations, perhaps ever… Zechariah’s first reaction was to push away this good news. When the boy is eventually born, of course, then Zechariah is full of belief and praise for God. And so I imagine those silent nine months were not only a time of physically preparing for a newborn. I imagine Zechariah filled his empty days with soul-searching, with prayer and repentance, with readying his heart to share in God’s mission, to prepare spiritually for the promised changes for the world contained in the births of John the Baptist and of Jesus.
In his own way, that very not-ready-ness is why John the Baptist was sent ahead of Jesus. It’s not that the Messiah needed help. It’s not like God incarnate was so weak he needed a PR man to go before him. Rather, we are told here by the angel Gabriel—whose words are later echoed by an un-muted Zechariah—that Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son John “will turn many of Israel to the Lord, their God… will go before the Lord, turning the hearts of parents to their children, the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make the people ready and prepared for the coming of the Lord.” Jesus the Messiah will change the world when he launches his ministry. But will the people be ready to hear it? To join it? To believe it? That’s the role of John the Baptist: to prepare we the people of God… for the arrival of God. To remind us what wisdom and righteousness are, to call us to repent and turn from our sins, to reunite and repair broken relationships. John the Baptist isn’t part of the Christmas story or Christ’s adult ministry because Jesus is weak and needs the help. John is part of those events because we are weak, because we need the help, because we are not ready. Just as Zechariah and Elizabeth had those quiet nine months to prepare for the arrival of their newborn baby in today’s scripture… God’s people in John the Baptist receive a warning, a notice, to prepare themselves personally, mentally, morally, and spiritually for the arrival of the messiah at long last.
Christmas is in a few days. The hope of Christmas is a promise of a world transformed. But we’re still not there yet. Advent is a time of waiting and hoping for that change, yes. But it’s also a time to get ready for the changes Christmas promises. And sure, I imagine the next few days will be filled with cleaning, cooking, and decorating in expectation for holiday parties yet to come. But this season is more than just about setting up for house parties. Advent is a time to admit that—like silent Zechariah, like God’s people before the arrival of John the Baptist, like many even in the days of Christ himself—we are not prepared for Christmas. As we wish folks “Merry Christmas” on the streets, what do we do to spread merriness in their actual daily lives? Advent is a time to not only sing “Joy to the World” but to spread such joy to others in acts of love and mercy, big and small. Advent is a time not only to sing “Silent Night” but to silence ourselves and listen for Christ’s presence in our life. For Advent is a season to stop, reflect, and change our ways. Just as Christ at Christmas promises to change the world… we Christians are called to change our lives and to prepare for still more works of God’s grace upon and through us… to prepare ourselves for the Christmas in our hearts as Jesus changes our very beings.
I can think of few better illustrations of this Biblical, Christmastime call to reflect on our lives and change our ways in preparation and expectation of Christmas Day… than Charles Dickins’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. The greedy money-lender Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, who warns Scrooge about three spirits. And these spirits—the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future—all reveal truths to Scrooge that cause him to reevaluate his way of living. But no single ghost does it on his own. At the outset, Scrooge doubts the ghostly call to repent entirely: “Humbug! You, spirit, are likely a stomach disorder tricking my senses. A bit of undigested beef, an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you.” The ghost of Christmas past, however, causes Scrooge to remember lost joy. The ghost of Christmas present causes Scrooge to empathize with his fellow human beings. The ghost of Christmas future causes Scrooge to regret and fear. No single ghost on its own could cause Scrooge to repent. The old miser needed time to prepare, to reflect, to open up to the idea of changing his ways before it’s too late.
In a way, the four weeks of Advent function for our souls like the four ghosts who trouble old Scrooge. Before Christmas comes… we have an Advent opportunity to reflect on our past, present and future. We have four weeks to strive to better ourselves in honor of the coming of Christ in whom we find our perfection. Like silent Zechariah preparing to not only be a father but to parent a mighty prophet… like the people of God hearing the call of John the Baptist to prepare themselves for the coming of God’s kingdom… we who look forward to Christmas next week have this time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Not just the coming of Christ in a manger long ago, not just the coming of Christmas Day 2019… but Christ coming into our own hearts, our own lives, and someday… entering our very world once again in full power and glory. For these final days, however, we have the chance to reflect, to repent, to prepare. For change is gonna come. Will we be found ready for the promised change guaranteed by Christmas? May it be so, this day and always. Amen.