Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Zechariah and Mary - God's holy contrast


Malachi 3.1–4, 4.5–end

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Luke 1.5766

(This is part of the story of the nativity of John the Baptiser.  In an earlier section of the story, John’s father, Zechariah, had been visited by an angel, told that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, and instructed to call him John.  Zechariah was doubtful, and as a punishment he was struck dumb.  Now we pick up the story…)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’  They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’  Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.  He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.  Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.


Here we are, on the day before Christmas Eve.  But the Lectionary stubbornly refuses to let us launch prematurely into the Christmas story.  Instead, we are given some more of the background to the story of John the Baptiser.  Doubtless, you will recall that we also thought about him last week, on Thursday, too!

Today, the Lectionary presents us with some words of the prophet Micah, which Christians have always read as predicting the arrival of John, the messenger who clears the way for the Lord.  Micah predicts the coming of the Lord, in terms which have some resonance with the story of Jesus as we know it.  Micah refers to the Lord ‘coming to his temple’ – which Jewish readers would certainly have interpreted as the Lord visibly taking up residence in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.  Jesus, in fact, didn’t arrive like that at all.  He didn’t ‘come to his temple’, he came to a stable, and to a manger.  Of course, he did subsequently visit the Temple, both as a boy and as a man – but the Temple held rather less attraction for Jesus than the Hebrew prophets thought it would.  This is, of course, a salutary warning for anyone who reads Scripture literally.  Even when Scripture predicts future events, it is rarely accurate on the details!

The same is true for predictions about John.  Micah clearly calls the messenger of the Lord ‘Elijah’, saying that the prophet Elijah himself will be the one to prepare the way of the Lord.  But, in actual fact, an Angel tells Zechariah (John’s dad) that the child’s name will be John.  Names always have meaning in Scripture.  Elijah means ‘My God is Yahweh’.  And John’s name translates as ‘God is gracious’.  This is a signal to us that the coming of the Messiah would be an act of grace on the part of God.  Nevertheless, in the New Testament, Jesus affirms that John is the spiritual successor to Elijah.  So, we can, if we wish, combine the meaning of both Elijah and John together.  If we do, we can suggest a meaning which goes something like ‘My God is Yahweh, who is gracious’.

This might be a good moment to remind ourselves of what ‘grace’ is.  Grace is when God give us what we don’t deserve.  That, as I’ve said before, stands in contrast to ‘mercy’, which is when God withholds from us the punishment which we DO deserve.  God’s act of sending first John, then Jesus, is an act of grace.  We human beings, with all our incompetent failures, don’t deserve that God should care for us.  We ignore him, we ignore his wisdom, we ignore his simple rules for life.  We build our empires, destroy the world he has given, fail to care for each other, fail to give God the worship he deserves as our creator, our very life.  But still God loves us.  Still he sends his messenger to us.  Still he sends his son.  Oh what amazing grace this is!

There’s another aspect of this story that we should not overlook – namely the way that Zechariah, John’s dad, is struck dumb for his unbelief in what the Angel tells him is going to happen.  It seems a bit severe, doesn’t it?  But I think this story is given to us to mark the contrast between Zechariah’s attitude and that of Mary.  When Zechariah is told his news, he replies “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  He basically demands proof – from an Angel, standing right in front of him! 

You can imagine the Angel’s reaction, can’t you?  And Luke does a good job of revealing the Angel’s reaction:  “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”  Gabriel is understandably rather peeved, to say the least!

Then we contrast Zechariah’s reaction with that of Mary, who says: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”  Simple, trusting faith.  A faith on which the Kingdom of God will be built.  Mary, the simple peasant woman is contrasted with Zechariah, the ‘know-it-all’ religious leader.  Under normal circumstances, you’d expect the religious leader to be the one who gets what God is up to.  But, it is through the simple, humble and trusting Mary that God’s act of grace will come into the world.

This is, of course, a warning to all of us religious leaders!  I know that I can be guilty of sometimes thinking that my learning and my religious ordination makes me more qualified than my congregation to be able to interpret what God is up to!  But, God has a way of working around such arrogance on the part of church leaders.  Over the centuries, he has pulled down many of the edifices of doctrine and rules which we leaders have a habit of erecting.  Slavery was abolished, despite the protestations of religious leaders who owned slaves.  Women were emancipated, over the objection of religious leaders who sought to keep them in their place.  Women entered the priesthood, and then the House of Bishops, over the protestations of those who were (and some who still are) quite sure that God will be very very cross if a women should celebrate the Eucharist.  And right now, I think God is doing something quite profound about the church’s attitude towards people whose gender identities and sexual preferences are different from what many religious leaders would consider ‘correct’.

The process begun in the striking dumb of John the Baptiser’s dad, and the raising up of simple, humble Mary, continues today.  God’s grace is still being poured out over his church, despite the legalistic barriers which some religious leaders try to erect.  The gentle, loving, yet persistent force of God’s grace continues to flow.  And may it ever do so!  Amen.





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