After a very long and very boring sermon parishioners filed out of the church, shaking the pastor’s hand, saying nothing more than a few muttered words about having a good week. Toward the end of the line though was a thoughtful person who always commented on the sermons, and said, “Pastor, today your sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God!” The pastor was thrilled. “No one has ever said anything like that about my preaching. Tell me why.” “Well,” said the parishioner, “it reminded me of the Peace of God because it ‘passed all understanding’ and the Love of God because it ‘endured forever!’”
This seemed like an appropriate joke to share when using our text for today because Zechariah was a priest who, because of some unfaithfulness, was rendered a speechless mute. (And now some of you are thinking, “I know a preacher who should be rendered a speechless mute!”)
From our Call to Worship scripture reading we learned Zechariah is a priest who is married to Elizabeth, and they are without children. Both are in their later years of life and Elizabeth is barren.
Luke tells how one day at Temple Zechariah was chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. It was here Zechariah encounters “an angel of the Lord” that understandably filled Zechariah with fear.
The angel said, in Luke 1:13-17, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for 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. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Now you might think Zechariah would have learned the lesson Abraham and Sarah learned when they were in the same situation, and learned the same news—barren and without children, but God was going to still use them to bring forth a child who would do great things. For Abraham and Sarah, it was Isaac. For Zechariah and Elizabeth, it was John the Baptist.
And though a priest well versed in God’s word, Zechariah forgets the Abraham and Sarah lesson, questions the angel (who turns out is the Angel Gabriel himself), stating the same case Abraham did—“I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years”—which doesn’t sit well with Gabriel, who then points the angelic “clicker” at old Zechariah, and hits the “mute” button. (And now some of you are thinking, “I wish I had an angelic ‘mute’ button.”)
In the face of a shocking, unexpected, unsettling moment—an angel appearing— Zechariah responds with fear, and understandably so.
In the face of another shocking, unexpected, unsettling moment, however—learning he and his wife would be parents— Zechariah responds with doubt.
Now maybe this too is understandable. But his faith could have helped him make a different choice in that moment. Fortunately his faith would help him make a different choice in how he moved forward and what he would become.
We live in a world where we are confronted, like Zechariah, with that which is shocking, unexpected, and unsettling, often rendering us filled with fear and doubt—leaving us without peace.
Such then dictates our reactions and responses, and it’s never easy to react or respond with faith. We will, like Zechariah, choose doubt, or even unfaithfulness. We will look to fight or take flight. Cast judgement or self-righteousness. Dismiss or even hate. And it can be understood, albeit for only a moment, because eventually our faith has to take over, because if it doesn’t then we are without the very thing we long for—the hope to find peace, the ability to be peacemakers.
When we read the song of Zechariah, we could read it as him doubting, and then being punished for his doubt—that he lacked peace and paid a price. But instead of reading the silence of Zechariah as God’s judgment for lack of peace, what would happen if we read it as God’s gift of peace to Zechariah?
Perhaps this silence was exactly what Zechariah needed at this point in his life—to be quiet, to be silent, to learn how to ponder and marvel at the strange workings of God and the paradoxes of life.
Perhaps Zechariah needed a chance to not have to react or respond, but simply take in, consider, discern, and… and this is the most crucial… a chance to become—become what God has been calling him to become.
Preacher, theologian, and professor, Alexander Papaderos was born in Crete and lived there during the German occupation. This region had been a center of resistance, in which he himself participated.
After the destruction of his village in 1943, he was put in a Concentration Camp where he was frequently brought face to face with death. It would all contribute to his dedication to struggle for peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and the illumination of human life.
The work and career of Papaderos was the root of an invitation to speak at a seminar where he was asked numerous questions, until one final question was asked of him. “What is the meaning of life?”
Despite his long pedigree, laugher still ensued from the audience. But Dr. Papaderos took the question seriously. He held up his hand and stilled the room. He then took out his wallet and produced a very small mirror, no bigger than a quarter.
He explained that when he was a child, during the war, his family lived in a remote village and they were very poor. One day, on the road, he found the broken pieces of a mirror from a German motorcycle that had wrecked there. He tried to find all the pieces and put it together, but that, of course, was impossible. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone, he smoothed the edges and rounded it off, and he began to play with it as a toy.
He quickly became fascinated with how he could reflect light into dark places where the sun could not otherwise reach— into crevices, and deep holes, and dark closets. It became a game for him to get and reflect light into the most inaccessible places he could find.
Dr. Papaderos continued to explain how as he grew, he realized the game he played with the mirror as a child wasn’t really a game at all, it was a metaphor for what life was calling him to do and become.
He realized he was not the source of light, but that the light of truth and understanding, the light of forgiveness and peace, would only shine into the dim places if he could somehow reflect it.
He said to the audience, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of the world— into the dark places in the hearts of people— and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about.”
In his life, Dr. Papaderos faced the shocking, the unexpected, the unsettling in ways we can only imagine. It left him with fear and doubt. It left him without peace.
But eventually his faith took over. The light of forgiveness and peace shone upon him, and he made a choice—the choice to reflect that light. And in doing so he became what he was about.
And this is what we are about as well, as followers of the Prince of Peace.
Our task, our responsibility, our calling, our choice is to reflect the light of forgiveness and peace into all those dim places where the light could not otherwise reach.
Our task, our responsibility, our calling, our choice is to shine the light of forgiveness and peace into broken relationships torn apart by resentment and bitterness, judgment and self-righteousness, prejudice and hate.
Our task, our responsibility, our calling, our choice is to choose peace even when there are a million reasons to choose fear and doubt.
Zechariah, in his doubt, was blessed.
He was blessed with a son who would proclaim, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
And he was blessed with quiet silence that gave him space to consider, discern, and most of all…become.
We too are blessed.
We are blessed with this season of Advent that is meant to be a time of quiet silence, to learn how to ponder and marvel at the strange workings of God and the paradoxes of life; to not have to react or respond, but simply take in, consider, discern, and become.
And we are blessed to mirror a great light that can change lives and bring forth peace.
We don’t have to be confined to, and entrapped by, our fears and doubts; our personal interests, attachments, and addictions. We can become more.
We can draw upon a greater source of forgiveness and peace, and choose to reflect light into the most inaccessible places.
And we can do this because of the great love that comes to us at Christmas. We can participate in the peace of God, the redemption of the world because the Creator of all creation, the God of Jesus, your God and my God, is able to guide our feet into the way of peace.
May we walk this way of peace. May we become this way of peace. May we choose peace. Amen.