Hold Your Peace

Rev. Sarah Buteux
December 16, 2012
Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:5-25, 57-67, 68-79

You can watch the sermon here or on Youtube

In Silence there is eloquence.
Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves
. - Rumi  

To preach or not to preach, that is the question. I am as deeply shaken as anyone by what happened on Friday down in CT. I don’t have words because the truth is there are no words. And yet I have still been wondering since Friday what to say and what to do.  

I have reached out to my colleagues, to family and friends. I have wondered if the proper response was to scrap everything we had planned for today, file the sermon that was already written, and simply sit here with you in silence after the kids had gone down to Sunday school. I wondered if we could still sing last night. I wonder at how we can sing today. But the truth is that we need to keep singing and we need to keep speaking. At least that is the collective wisdom I gleaned from of those I trust. We need to keep congregating and sending our kids to school and living in the face of our fears and our grief. 

So I’m going to preach the sermon I have prepared and we’re going to continue on with the service we have planned knowing that the meaning of the words has changed because we have all been changed, and yet trusting that these words and the meditations of our hearts will still somehow be pleasing in God’s sight if for no other reason than the sheer fact that we refuse to let evil have the last word.

Let us pray: Holy One, you who are our guide and ultimate assurance, open us to your promises, guide us in your way, comfort us in our grief, and draw near to us now as we seek to draw near to you. Help me to bring the word you have prepared for us this morning, and if these are not the words, then may your Holy Spirit intercede and weave from my voice the truths we all need to hear. Amen.

We all have stories we love and we all have stories we live.

The stories we love are all around us, especially at this time of year.  As Christmas draws near we might pull Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens, or O. Henry down from the shelves. We all rush to see classics like The Hobbit or Les Mis at the theater.  

We check our local listings, and maybe even let the kids eat dinner in front of the TV, so we can watch Rudolph and Charlie Brown together as a family.  

And in just a few short weeks we’ll gather here, in “the close and holy darkness” that is Christmas Eve, to hear what is perhaps the greatest story of all; the story of our God made flesh: a story of shepherds keeping watch, angels singing “glory,” and the virgin mother who cradled her newborn son as she pondered all these things in her heart.  

We all have stories we love… and we all have stories we live, by which I mean that we all have stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the world we live in. I don’t know all of your story and you, even after all this time certainly do not know all of mine, because as we say in the business some of that just won’t preach, but we all have a story.  

Your story began the day you were born. It was complicated by the people with whom you grew up, it has changed thanks to the people you have met, it has been shaped by your choices and the actions of others.  

But it is your story, for better or for worse, the story that helps you explain – to yourself if no one else - just why you are the way that you are, why it is that you do all those things that you do, why you’re here and not there, with him instead of her, doing this instead of that.  

The trouble is that sometimes…sometimes we can get a little stuck in our stories. We can get so good at understanding why everything around us and within us is exactly the way it is that we miss the opportunities God sends to change our stories, transform our stories; broaden, deepen, alter, perhaps even redeem our stories.  

I think that is how it was for Zechariah, at least how it was before the angel appeared to him that fateful day in the sanctuary of the Lord.   

Let me tell you a little bit about Zechariah, because we don’t talk about him all that much here in the church. Zechariah was a priest; a good priest, a good priest who had grown up and married Elizabeth, a nice girl from another priestly family.  

Zechariah and Elizabeth had lived a good long life together, a holy life, a righteous life; the sort of life one could be proud of, save for the fact that they had never been able to have children.  

I have no doubt that this was a source of great sadness for them both and it would seem that in spite of their advanced years, Zechariah had never stopped praying for a child to come.  

And yet, at the same time, given their advanced age, I think it is safe to say that Zechariah had finally settled into the reality that a child was probably never going to be a part of their story. He wasn’t happy about it, but what can you do?  

Likewise, as a priest in the temple, Zechariah did all the things priests do. He offered sacrifices, he lifted up prayers, he studied the prophecies and probably taught others about their God: a God who would keep his promises to their Father Abraham, a God who would one day redeem his people Israel, a God who was faithful and true.  

But somewhere along the line, I think Zechariah stopped believing in that God as wholeheartedly as he once had and stopped believing that any of those promises had a snowball’s chance in the desert of ever being fulfilled.  

Zechariah’s name literally means “Yahweh remembers,” but by the time we catch up with him, I’m not so sure that Zechariah thought God really did.  

Now admittedly this is mostly conjecture on my part, but on that day when he was chosen to go into the inner sanctum and offer incense, I don’t think Zechariah was expecting anything extra holy to happen. You should know that such a task was considered to be a really big deal. As a priest you might only be granted that privilege once in a lifetime. But in spite of all that, I think Zechariah went back there much more concerned with what he had to do then with anything God might do. Truth be told, thanks to a lifetime of disappointment, I don’t think Zechariah expected God to do anything at all.  

And then who should appear but an angel of the Lord with glorious news about a miraculous baby; a baby that would be born to him. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” said the angel:  

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.”  

Deep in the heart of the temple, out of sight of his congregation, Zechariah learns that Israel is finally going to be redeemed. Not only that, Zechariah learns that this long hoped for redemption is going to be ushered in by none other than his son, a son who will be born –literally born - to him and his beloved Elizabeth, and what does Zechariah say?  

How does he respond; this priest who had been praying his whole life for exactly what the angel has just offered? Well to help you fully understand, I’m going to switch from the NRSV translation to the SLBV, from the New Revised Standard Version to the Sarah Lynn Buteux version, so hold on to your hats.  

Zechariah responds: “What? Seriously? How will I know this is so? I mean come on, I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years. I don’t know if this is really the best time…”  

And the angel replies, “How will you know this is so? HOW WILL YOU KNOW THS IS SO? Dude, I’m Gabriel. Did my bright shining raiment fail to tip you off? I stand in the presence of God…what, do you think? You think I’m just messing with you? You think this is candid camera or something? No, I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news, Mr. buzz kill. But now, jeesh, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you know what’s going to happen? I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna zip it Buddy. Zip it! You’re going to become mute, silent, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. How will you know this is so? Give me a break. I’m out of here”.  

And that, my friends, is exactly what happened... maybe not between the angel and Zechariah, but definitely between Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Our friendly neighborhood priest went home and didn’t tell his lovely wife of many years exactly what the angel had said, because…well… he couldn’t; though I’m pretty sure she put two and two together fairly quickly when he broke open the good bottle Manischewitz and cranked up the Marvin Gaye.  

The two old love birds went into seclusion… they marveled anew at one another even as they marveled at what God can do. But the kicker is that through it all, Zechariah had to be quiet. He couldn’t say a word. In absolute silence, all Zechariah could do was watch as God began to move in his life and change not just his story, but the story of everyone around him.   

The story of a people who had dwelled in deep darkness became the story of a people upon whom the light would shine. The story of his beautiful barren wife became the story of a woman vindicated. And Zechariah’s story, the story of the good priest who did all the right things and still never got what he deserved, the story of the priest who knew all the answers but had perhaps lost his faith in the God behind them, became the story of a man through whom the Lord brought forth none other than John…John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”  

Thanks to the Angel, who forced him to be quiet and pay attention to what God was doing, thanks to the angel who refused to let Zechariah talk himself out of the good gifts God was offering, Zechariah’s whole story changed.  

And it got me wondering, how often do we miss out on the change God is offering us because we think we already know the story - our story - already think we know the way things are going to go, already think we know what everyone will say or how others will respond?  How much good do we miss out on because we are more apt to be the one’s doing the talking and explaining and assuming, rather than the listening and understanding and hoping?  

You see, I think we can get so busy living our lives the way we’ve always lived them, running our families the way we’ve always run them, reacting to our partner the way we’ve always reacted, doing church or work or school the way we’ve always done it, that we keep our stories following the same well worn grooves whether we even like our stories or not.  

Just like Zechariah, we serve a God who is faithful to all God’s creation, a God who is constantly on the move, working in ways both large and small to heal and reconcile all the world to God’s self. But sometimes we miss out on the movement of this God in our lives simply because we’ve ceased to believe God would deign to show up there.  

Friends, life is constantly presenting us with surprises: an unexpected kindness from someone whose always been difficult, a word of genuine encouragement from someone who has always been a critic, a romantic gesture from someone we were sure only took us for granted.  

It can be so easy to throw the good someone is intending back at them simply because it was out of character given their role in our story, when really, as people of faith, we should be looking for signs of God - the author of all creation - at work within us and in those around us all of the time.  

“Every creature is a book about God,” said Meister Eckhart, but it’s good to remember that we don’t know how anyone’s book ends, anymore than we know the limits of who they might yet become.  

Dear ones, I know how hard it can be to let a new narrative break in, how disconcerting it can be to let life happen rather than stick to our well worn scripts, but part of the gospel, part of the good news Jesus came to bring, is the message that change is possible; the message that things don’t have to go on the way they always have anymore than you have to be the person you’ve always been.  

So maybe it’s time to take a cue from Zechariah and just be quiet every once in awhile. If you want to know peace this Christmas than consider holding your peace this advent the better to see what God might do. Don’t be so quick to jump in because you already know how the story goes, but pause… wait…. be still. See what surprises God might yet have in store as you relate to yourself and one another, and who knows? Maybe in spite of all you thought you knew, something miraculous and new might slip into the silence….slip in and be born.  

Let us pray: Lord you know us so much better than we even know ourselves. You know where we have come from and where we are going. In your great wisdom you know how our stories go and in your great compassion you look down upon us with love no matter how tangled and troubled our stories have become. O Lord, as we move toward the beginning of your story here on earth, help us to loosen our grip on our own narratives that your light and love might shape the future that lies before us.  Help us to watch with hope as we see you come alive in the hearts of others.  Help us to receive you wherever we may find you, and make room for you in our lives and in our hearts, in whatever ways you might appear. All this we pray in your name, Amen.