Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 1:5-25

3rd Sunday of Advent

St Barbara’s; 12.12.2021

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Last week we began a series looking at some of the characters from the story of Jesus’ birth. And we looked at Joseph. It was striking that Joseph did not have much to make him stand out, to make him an obvious choice as someone to hold the responsibility of being the protector and father-figure to God’s son. This week, we are looking at Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist.

It would be fair to say that they have a little more going for them in terms of being candidates in God’s service. Zechariah was a priest, and came from a generation of priests. Elizabeth too came from a family of priests. The nature of being a priest would have meant that Zechariah was literate, able to read and write, a skill that would immediately have placed him as a leader in his community. Indeed, he would most likely to have been what the gospels regularly referred to as a “scribe”. But that label may ring some alarm bells for us, as we know the trouble Jesus and his disciples regularly encountered from the scribes and pharisees. Just being a scribe, just being a religious type, wasn’t any guarantee of love and understanding of God. And so its why Luke is careful to stress that both Zechariah and Elizabeth “were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” – not just the letter of the law, but its spirit too. And that is the key. God uses all types, including religious types, but it is the heart that matters, not the outward acts.

A second thing that strikes me about this story is the location where the angel meets Zechariah – the temple in Jerusalem. For two weeks a year, it was Zechariah’s job to attend the Temple along with many other priests from his division, making sure the sacrifices were offered properly, reading prayers, maintaining order and decorum in the Temple courtyards. The greatest privilege by far was to enter into the inner Temple and stand on the threshold of the Holy of Holies to light the incense. Only the High Priest could actually go into the Holy of Holies and only then once a year. One could not come any closer to where God’s glory was believed to dwell. So great a privilege was it, that the task was assigned by lot, to make sure it was fair, and the privilege was usually a once in a life-time experience. Zechariah would have been entering into the Temple with a heightened sense of expectancy – he knew that this was a place of encounter with the living God.

I wonder whether there are such places for us, and if so, where they are. Celtic spirituality describes them as “thin” places, places where the  distance between us and God seems so much less, where the presence of God feels almost tangible. It may be in nature, walking in the countryside. I know for myself, being up in the hills and mountains gives me a sense of inner peace that I rarely find elsewhere. Or maybe its in a building, here in this church perhaps, or in an ancient cathedral, or building of modern design and beauty. It may not be even a physical place, but a spiritual space, listening to or participating in an act of music, or reading and reflecting, or indeed caring for someone in need. A space where you touch on the closeness of God.

It is worth reflecting on how often we return to those places. Unlike with Zechariah, we probably don’t rely on the drawing of lots, to go there, but sometimes we can allow busyness or distractions to prevent us. Advent offers us a good opportunity to make space for those thin places in our lives.

A third thing that I am struck by in this story is the mercy and love God shows. He chooses Elizabeth to be the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was childless and in the culture of the ancient middle-east that was regarded as a terrible thing to be, even arousing suspicions that God was punishing you. In the stories of the Old Testament we see what the pain of having no children could cause. Rachel cries out to Jacob: “Give me children or I will die.” Hannah is so distraught with grief at her childlessness that the priest Eli thinks she must be drunk. And yet into this sadness, God brings his mercy and compassion. Indeed the very name “John” means “God has shown favour”.

God does not jump in to provide every childless couple with a child, just as Jesus did not heal the whole world of illness and disease, but just a few that he encountered. But what he does for Elizabeth and Zechariah, as he did for Jacob and Rachel, and for Hannah and Elkanah before her, is to provide signposts of hope, to show what God’s kingdom when it fully comes will be like, a kingdom of love and mercy, of life and joy, where those who have been excluded are welcomed. It is the kingdom of God that John the Baptist will be born into the world to proclaim and get people ready for.

And finally, in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I am struck by the way that joy and praise keep bubbling up to the surface. When Elizabeth meets Mary, the baby in her womb leaps with joy and she is filled with the Holy Spirit. She bursts into praise – “blessed are you among women… but why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And then when John is born, we are told that her neighbours and relatives shared her joy; in fact, that people were filled with awe and wonder, and that the news spread throughout the hill country of Judea. And that Zechariah, on recovering his power of speech, also erupts in joy and celebration: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people.”

There is something wonderful about the infectiousness of their joy. They can’t help sharing their wonder, their awe, their happiness with others. I wonder, can we do the same? Can we share our joy with others, the joy of a God who calls us, the joy of a God who meets us in thin places, the joy of a God who has shown us favour and gives us glimpses of the goodness of his kingdom? Like Elizabeth and Zechariah, let us marvel and wonder at the goodness of God, and let us share our joy with others.