The story of the birth of John the Baptist is the story of the ordinary turned upside down, and made extraordinary. Every common assumption is reversed, through the power of God. Everyone in the story is wrong about what they expect to happen. God is in the reversal business all through Advent and Christmas, changing our vision into something much greater than we see.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary by Elisabeth Johnson here.
By now, surely Elizabeth and Zechariah have given up hope of having a child of their own. They are old enough to assume that this will never happen in their lives. Their routines are settled, and we can imagine that they’re not expecting much to change. Wrong! Zechariah is serving in the temple, no doubt expecting an ordinary day, fulfilling the temple rituals. Wrong! Instead, he encounters Gabriel, fresh from the presence of God, with a message. I have some sympathy for his questions, reasonable as they are, but the angel Gabriel enforces a long period of silence so the message can sink in.
Apparently, Zechariah communicates enough to Elizabeth so that she understands the miraculous nature of her pregnancy, and the name the baby will have. When the baby arrives, since Zechariah is still speechless, the helpful neighbors come to stand in for him and name the baby. They’re expecting to name him after his father. Wrong!
Once he can speak, Zechariah has his own song of praise to God, setting his new baby son within the history of God’s mercy to the nation, and proclaiming the future that God has for John. Luke goes to the trouble of telling us that both Elizabeth and Zechariah are from priestly families. They might have assumed that their child will follow in his father’s footsteps, and serve in the temple. Wrong! Instead, John ends up as a gadfly prophet, poking at the religious and political establishment. Looking at this tiny new baby, Zechariah sees that future, and announces that John will be God’s prophet. His speech shifts from divine praise to addressing the baby himself, and there’s already a sense of letting John go, into the work God has for him to do.
The sermon might look at all the things we expect to happen, and where we’re wrong. We expect to stay employed, stay generally healthy, have our kids turn out reasonably well, and then accidents, fires, layoffs, illness and other unexpected events change our lives in an instant. How do we listen for God in that kind of upheaval? What do we have to learn from Zechariah and Elizabeth?
Or the sermon might look at the way we all have to relinquish the young people in our lives into who God calls them to be and what God calls them to do. How do we prepare nieces and nephews, our own children, and the children of the church to live into their calling from God?
Or the sermon might look at the partnership between Elizabeth and Zechariah. They are connected by similar backgrounds, in the sorrow of their life without children, and then joined in their understanding that God is at work in this miraculous birth. How do we share our challenges with each other, so we can listen for God in the company of friends, family or partners?
Or the sermon might look at Zechariah’s song of praise. What praises are we singing to God this Advent season, and beyond? Where do we find God turning the ordinary into the extraordinary right now?
Where are your thoughts taking you this fourth Sunday of Advent? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Senior Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where the members come from over 30 countries. She is a contributor to The Road to Hallelujah and is the author of Meeting God at the Mall. Image via Golfweek. This is golfer John Huh’s bag, making fun of people’s confusion about his name.
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