Sermon for Sunday, December 2, 2012

The First Sunday Of Advent

Luke 1:5-23

Divine Encounters: Meeting God In Holy Space & Ritual (Zechariah)”

Today begins a 6-week series entitled “Divine Encounters” looking at the diverse ways the persons of the Christmas Story met God.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

“Just going through the motions.”  That’s how we describe so much of life, isn’t it?  “Pete and Repete went into a bar, Pete came out.  Who was left?” “Repete.”  “Pete and Repete went into a bar, Pete came out.  Who was left?”  “Repete.”  “Pete…”  Or… “Hi, my name is Joe, and I work, in a button factor.  The other day, my boss came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Joe!  Are ya busy?’  I said, ‘No!’  He said, then, turn the button with your right hand!…”  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” so the saying goes.  We have lots of fun in our world with the idea of monotonous repetition.

It’s one thing to say that about our work and places of employment, just a cog in the wheel, right?  But it’s an entirely different thing to say that about other facets of our life, particularly where we have a choice.  Say, in worship.  We have become quite disenchanted with worship that is rote, repetitive, and… well… let’s just say it: BORING!  Much has been said and written about how we post-modern Americans, especially, have more choices now on when, how, and where to worship than ever before.  You’ve even heard me say on occasion as I greet you, “We understand you have a choice in where you worship on Sundays, and we deeply appreciate you choosing Franklin Circle Christian Church as your place of worship!”

This Advent, thanks to the creative work of my dear friend, the Rev. Mary Kay Totty, I will explore a little “mini-sermon series” on ways in which we encounter the Divine in our lives looking at the people of the nativity stories.  Today, we are introduced to one of the lesser-known biblical characters: Zechariah.

Zacharias in the Temple, Jacopo della Quercia, 1428-30.

Zacharias in the Temple, Jacopo della Quercia, 1428-30.

Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah who traced their ancestry back to Aaron, Moses’ brother.  That’s like saying he was Dominican or Jesuit, I think.  He and his wife, Elizabeth, were both “getting on in years,” and had lived very decent lives.  Both of them were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord,” Luke makes a big point of disclosing.

But, as good and faithful as Zechariah and Elizabeth were, they did not have children.  Now, not every couple wants children.  My dear friends Michael and Lisa, at whose wedding I officiated almost 25 years ago, chose not to have children.  They were the subject of a feature story in the Lexington, Kentucky newspaper some years back exploring why this young, vibrant, community-oriented couple would ever choose to not have children.  Some people just don’t want to be parents!  That’s okay folks!  But, as is a bit the tendency of scripture, and as would be understandable because of the forces of society and religion of that time, it appears that Zechariah and Elizabeth had wanted to be parents.  They had simply not been able to have children.

But being faithful and righteous, they kept going through the motions.  Maybe the reason they kept going was due to the fact that Zechariah was a priest and they felt they just had to go.  Ask any “preacher’s kid” or minister’s husband or wife or partner and you can understand the weight of pressure to go to church even when you don’t feel like it or find it meaningful or fulfilling.  Then there’s the joke about the mother and her son:

A mother went to wake her son for church one Sunday morning.  When she knocked on his door, he said, “I’m not going!”  “Why not?” asked his mother.  “I’ll give you two good reasons,” he said. “One, they don’t like me.  Two, I don’t like them.”  His mother replied, “I’ll give you two good reasons why YOU WILL go to church.  One, you’re 47 years old.  Two, you’re the pastor!”

P.K. experiences and jokes aside, Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth as faithful, and part of their faithfulness is simply showing up.  Going through the motions.  Somewhere, somehow, they had the gumption to continue doing the rituals of their faith even though they felt they got the short end of the stick.  And eventually, actually, quite late in their lifetime, something happened seemingly out of the blue.  Zechariah encountered God in the form of an angel.  It was not at home on the couch while reading the Jerusalem Sunday Times sports section (“Gladiators Pounce Christians 9 – 0… Again!  See page C-1”).  Nor was it on the Jerusalem Country Club fairway while seeking that elusive hole-in-one. (“Holy Moses make it this time!!!)  It was in the temple, repeating the rituals he’d done for decades, doing the same-old same-old.  Yada, yada, yada…  Zzzzzzzz….  But then: BaaaZing!!!  God calling!

The angel tells Zechariah that not only are he and Elizabeth going to have a son, but that son will be special, and will help prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  Zechariah and Elizabeth will give birth to none other than John the Baptist!  And thank God for honesty in scripture, because Zechariah doesn’t believe the angel and, in a dramatic moment worthy of Broadway or Hollywood, old Zechariah is struck silent.  We didn’t read the rest of the story this morning, but after his child is born and through some shenanigans regarding the naming of the son, he gets his voice back.

I don’t want to give churches, especially ours, permission to have boring worship and thoughtless rituals, but we need to heed this story carefully.  Sometimes it isn’t about being entertained, or fulfilled, or even meaningfully touched.  Sometimes God encounters us through the day-in, day-out implementation of our daily tasks.  Perhaps one of the ways we come face to face with God is just by showing up.  What if we, you and I, came to church on Sunday’s less worried about how interesting I’m going to be in the sermon, how fun or intriguing or deep or profound my sermons are going to be… what if we came not to evaluate how good Jim played the prelude, how well-chosen Scott’s solo was, how short the Elder’s meditation would be… and simply came to worship wondering if this would be the day we encountered God in a new way just by showing up?

This Advent season I hope you will encounter God.  I hope I will encounter God.  Perhaps again… Perhaps for the first time, really.  But, to rephrase an oft-used Woody Allen quote, what if 90% of encountering God is just being present?  I invite you to go through the rituals of Advent: the daily devotions, the Advent candle lighting, the carols, going to worship, and all the other rituals you have known since you were a child… And maybe, just maybe, you, I, even we might see God anew and be told of new birth in our lives.