A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 6, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I don’t think I’ve every preached on Zechariah before. If I have, it must not have been a memorable sermon, because I don’t remember it. He is almost a throwaway character, appearing only in the Luke’s gospel and only here in the first chapter. And the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are pretty much just about setting the stage for the real story.

Prelude and foreshadowing, is seems to me, is what Luke is doing in these two chapters. We love the stories he tells in these chapters. We love the story of the birth of the baptizer and, of course, Jesus. We love the story of the adolescent Jesus (the only canonical gospel to include one). But these stories just set the stage. It’s in chapter 3 that we get to the meaty stuff, to the important stuff. In chapter 3, we get to the ministry of Jesus.

Prelude and foreshadowing. “Let me tell you how it started,” Luke seems to say. John and Jesus – those two were special (and Jesus was more special). Heck, even their births were special. You remember Abraham and Sarah, the parents of Judaism, right? They were old and childless and still God said they would parent a great nation. And despite their advanced years, God gave them Isaac. You remember Samuel, the great prophet who anointed our first king? His mother was barren until, through a miracle from God, she gave birth to her son.

It’s like that with John and Jesus. Elizabeth and Zechariah were faithful, but they had no children. Then, despite their advance years, God gave them a child whom they named John. And Jesus, his mother was a virgin – you can’t get more special than that!

Even though it’s just prelude and foreshadowing, Luke gives the story of these births dimension and complexity. Zechariah was a priest in the Temple. This means, when it was his turn, he got to literally get close to God. From time to time, he would go further into the Temple than ordinary folk were allowed to go. “Further in” meant “closer to God,” quite literally, because the inner sanctum of the Temple was where God resided. And if that’s not enough to convince you how special Zechariah was, Luke flat out tells us: Zechariah and Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

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Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio

One day it was Zechariah’s turn to offer incense within “the sanctuary of the Lord.” When he got there, he was met by an angel. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. Your prayers have been heard. You’re going to have a son. Name him John.”

Zechariah said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

The angel, Gabriel, said, “You call that dumb. I’ll show you dumb.” And Zechariah was suddenly dumb, unable to speak. Yeah my paraphrase pun only works in English, but that’s what Luke tells us happened. Zechariah couldn’t speak, and Elizabeth became pregnant.

Zechariah’s journey to silence happens because of his doubts. Gabriel tells Zechariah that God is acting in his life. God has heard your prayers and is giving you a son. God is giving you a special son. Your son will help people turn – metanoia, repent. People will turn to God. Zechariah doubts that is possible, and he is struck mute.

Nine months. For nine months, Zechariah could not speak. That’s long enough for Gabriel to visit a girl named Mary. That’s long enough for a pregnant Mary to visit a pregnant Elizabeth. That’s long enough for Elizabeth to move from pregnancy to birth, for their son to be born.

The child is born. It’s time for the circumcision and for their son to be named. But Zechariah can’t speak. He can’t tell people what his son’s name will be. So Elizabeth speaks up. “He will be called John,” she says.

It is only when Zechariah confirms this choice (in writing), it is only when he carries out his instructions from Gabriel, that he journeys from silence and can speak again. And when his mouth opens again, Zechariah sings. The Benedictus, his song has been called. It is a song of praise. It thanks God for God’s faithfulness. And it tells of the baby’s calling. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

His song ends with these lines: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like our feet are walking the way of peace lately. Just in the past month, I have felt inundated by the news of mass shootings. First in Paris, then at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and then just days ago, the shootings in San Bernardino and Redlands. And I know that all the while there are wars raging in Syria and Iraq, and there is no peace in Israel/Palestine.

Today, we lit the Advent Candle of Peace, proclaiming our hope for peace, but it sure feels like we are walking in the opposite direction.

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A first responder attends to a victim of the San Bernardino shootings.

Was it cold-hearted of me that, when the news of the San Bernardino shootings broke, I metaphorically plugged by ears and started saying, “la-la-la-la-la-la”? Maybe. Probably. I didn’t want to hear about it. I didn’t want to know about more carnage. I didn’t want to have to engage the heartache and my own anger over the shooting and what seems to me to be our unwillingness to do something to stop it. To be honest, I didn’t even want to pray about it.

In my denial and avoidance, I journeyed to a useless silence. If I were to pray, what would I say?

God, I can’t imagine the fear and pain and anguish these people are experiencing tonight. I can’t imagine. And I don’t want to imagine, because if I imagine, I’m afraid that my heart will break.
Comfort them God, because I can’t. Let them know that they are not alone.
And comfort me, God. Comfort me because I am angry. Comfort me because I am sick and tired of the carnage we perpetrate on each other. I’m sick and tired of the warring madness.

But when I pray prayers like that, I know how God responds. “I’m glad you’re sick and tired of the warring madness, Jeff. Maybe when you’re sick and tired of it enough you’ll do something about it.” And I don’t want to hear God tell me that. So I journey into silence.

The news cycled quickly. Did you notice how the layers of stories kept getting added? First there was the story about what was happening. Then there was the story about how people were responding. And then there was the story about how people were responding to the responses.

Maura Judkis of The Washington Post covered this third layer on Thursday like this:

“It used to be that ‘thoughts and prayers’ was the least controversial thing a politician could tweet – the bereavement equivalent of a baby-kissing photo-op. But on Wednesday, two shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., attacked a social services center, killing 14. And then a mob of frustrated Twitter users attacked that phrase.

“You would think that ‘thoughts and prayers’ would be impossible to misconstrue. Its sentiment covers a broad base, reaching the religious and agnostics alike. It’s perfectly beige.

“Except.

“‘Your “thoughts” should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your “prayers” should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again,’ tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who represents another town on America’s map of tragedies: Newtown, Conn. ‘God isn’t fixing this,’ blared the front-page headline of the New York Daily News. ThinkProgress’s Igor Volsky tweeted out the amount that thoughts-and-prayers-bearing politicians have received in donations from the National Rifle Association. Some pointed out the difference between tweets by Democratic presidential candidates, which were oriented toward gun control, vs. those of Republican candidates, which expressed prayerful sympathy for the victims. Conservatives accused liberals of mocking their faith. The Atlantic called it ‘prayer-shaming.’”[1]

As much as I object to the shaming of anyone who prays, I have some sympathy for the people angered by the “thoughts and prayers” tweets coming from politicians. I have sympathy for them because I don’t understand how anyone who honestly come to God in prayer about something like this and not be moved to act. But, as columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “We’re not even trying.”

Kristof lists a numbers of approaches and policies that we should consider to reduce the number of gun deaths in our nation (estimated to be about 30,000 this year[2]). And then he acknowledges, “It’s not clear what policy, if any, could have prevented the killings in San Bernardino. Not every shooting is preventable. But we’re not even trying.”[3]

I find myself wondering what happened to Zechariah during those nine months of silence. I know that Luke is telling a story, that these things didn’t happen. I also know that the story is true. I know that when we journey to silence, we can hear in a way that we can’t when we’re talking. I also know that there is a time for silence and a time to speak.

So I wonder what Zechariah heard in his nine months of silence. What did he hear? What did he learn? All Luke tells us is that when Zechariah journeyed from his silence, he broke out into a prophetic song of hope and peace.

Theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”[4]

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This is a time to speak. This is a time to act. It is time for us to sing songs of hope and peace. It is time for us to move the mountain that is our government and to demand change. There are policies that need to be implemented. There are laws that need to be changed. And, unfortunately, there is a Constitution that needs to be amended.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment does give an individual right to own firearms. So it needs to be amended, and retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens has the five words that would do the trick: “when serving in the Militia.” Add these words so the Second Amendment reads (as originally intended), “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”[5]

There’s always a danger in getting specific like that in a sermon. There are, no doubt, people here who think that we shouldn’t amend the Constitution, so if you find yourself starting to form an argument against that specific strategy, consider this option, for tonight. Come join me on the Niles Town Plaza at 5:30 with a candle. Maybe we can find the common ground. Surely we can agree that it is time to stand up.

No community of any political or religious persuasion can endure if that madness is allowed to continue. The time to be counted has come. Now, let us journey to silence so that we might hear more clearly what we should say when we journey from silence.

Amen.

[1] Maura Judkis, “They send thought and prayers. Why was that considered a bad thing?” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/they-sent-thoughts-and-prayers-why-was-that-considered-a-bad-thing/2015/12/03/e096fb94-99e5-11e5-8917-653b65c809eb_story.html (posted 3 December 2015; accessed 4 December 2015).

[2] Jim Wallis, “Pray. Yes. But Then Act.” In an email from Sojourners (sojo.net), dated 3 December 2015.

[3] Nicolas Kristof, “On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/03/opinion/on-guns-were-not-even-trying.html (posted 2 December 2015; accessed 5 December 2015).

[4] See http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/12-essential-bonhoeffer-quotes and many other places.

[5] John Paul Stevens, “The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-five-extra-words-that-can-fix-the-second-amendment/2014/04/11/f8a19578-b8fa-11e3-96ae-f2c36d2b1245_story.html (posted 11 April 2014; accessed 3 December 2015).
It is important to note two things about this suggestion:
(1) Ending every individual’s right to bear arms would not make it illegal to own a gun; it would make gun ownership a privilege rather than a right (like driving a car), and therefore subject to regulation (like driving a car).
(2) The term “Militia” has a specific historic meaning. The Militia was a state army, typically drawn from the citizenry. Just because a group of people pull call themselves a “militia” does not make them “the Militia.” For more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_defense_force

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