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Years of anguished longing and fervent prayers with no result: God remained silent. And in his silence, He marked them with a sign of public humiliation: barrenness. The time for birthing children came and went, Elizabeth’s womb dried up and her cries had no avail. Zechariah and Elizabeth took their shame, their disappointment, their loss, their hopelessness and found hope in God alone. Their anguish became devotion to the God of Israel. Born into a priestly family, Zechariah’s life would be defined by serving and worshipping God every day in the Temple. The God who failed him. The God who turned His back to him. The God who abandoned him. Every day, Zechariah stood in the Temple and faithfully worshipped and served the Holy One of Israel. One evening as Zechariah went to serve in the Temple, something happened that only happened a once in a lifetime. This priest humiliated by God was selected to an act of highest honor, offering incense in the Presence of the Most High. With trepidation, Zechariah approached the Holy Place. Even though it was just a few steps, he was walking between worlds, stepping into the very place of heaven on earth where God’s glory shined and could overwhelm anyone. Long ago, Aaron’s sons approached the holy place irreverently and were instantly killed. And since that time, a certain holy fear surrounded this terrible, wondrous place. Standing in the Presence of the Unnamable, the terrible glorious Creator, Zechariah obediently carried out his service of offering the incense. Suddenly Gabriel stepped out from the Presence and spoke. The moment the glory touched him, Zechariah fell to the ground in terror. “Do not be afraid Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son and you shall call his name
John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (from the Message) As Gabriel spoke, Zechariah’s trembling turned to tears. The anguish of carrying the years of shame swept over him, and he lay there moaning before the throne. His tears came from a deep wellspring, deeper even then his own grief. Suddenly, he was grieving with Abraham and Sarah in their barrenness. The pain of their dying world turned within him. Abraham and Sarah seemed to carry the barrenness of their generation as signs in their own bodies. Their world was dying around them, and in some impossible way God had chosen to recreate the world through them. God’s promise filled their emptiness with hope of a world restored. Through them God would bless all creation. And through them, came Izaak. And through Izaak came Jacob. And through Jacob, came twelve sons who formed twelve tribes. Jacob’s clan would form a nation of people chosen to bear the blessing of God for all creation: Israel the chosen people, chosen to bless, restore, and break the curse. Unfortunately, story wisted in upon itself. Instead of blessing the world, they fell under a curse. Prophet after prophet after prophet called them back to the Law, back to the covenant, back to their commission to be the light of the world. Instead it seemed that darkness really did overcome the light. Eventually Israel fell to surrounding empires. Her brightest and best were carried away, taken captive. Daniel, one of those captives, cried out day and night for the God to restore his people and to renew to covenant. Just as Zechariah and Elizabeth and had cried out day after day after day for God’s favor. One night as Daniel prayed, Gabriel suddenly appeared. He promised the curse wouldn’t last forever. 70 weeks or 490 years
would pass before God’s judgment would be complete. But then something new. God’s promises would be fulfilled. And then Gabriel left. No words for many, many years. In fact, some suggested it had been close to 490 years and they were waiting expectantly for the end of the curse. So Zechariah’s grieving took him through the whole history of Israel. He experienced the curse, the shame of God’s people from within. Now he realized, that he and Elizabeth bore the shame of Israel’s barrenness. For God’s people, in spite of their outward rituals, were a barren people, crushed under the curse of sin. No one could redeem, save God alone. As Zechariah came to his senses, he began to grasp the impact of Gabriel’s words. He and Elizabeth would bear a son? But how could this be? They were too old? And how could this signal the end of exile? The end of the curse? As he turned to Gabriel, he stuttered searching for a sign, “But how shall I know?” Gabriel gave him a sign. He took away his words. Man shall live by the Word of Lord alone. And if he can’t do that, he will have no words. So Zechariah stumbled out from the Temple, just beginning to realize the power of words and the weight of God’s Word. He could not tell the people what happened. He could give the priestly blessing. Even in this he was a living sign. For the priestly blessing would now be handed over to another. One day soon, the real Priest would stand and bless his people before He departed to be with His Father. Zechariah held onto Gabriel’s last words, “My words which will be fulfilled in their own time.” The words were not dependent on man’s planning, man’s praying, man’s wrestling. The words carried the force of God’s blessing and would be fulfilled in God’s time by God’s hand. Zechariah stumbled home to his wife. Silently, he embraced her unable to express the glory of what was happening. And yet, the
hope of their future, and the hope of Israel’s future brought new life to a dying body and soon the life manifested in Elizabeth’s womb. The old woman cried out with the joy of teenage girl: “the Lord has dealt with me, He has looked on me, He has taken away my reproach among people.” As Elizabeth hid herself away to prepare for the coming child, Mary, her young cousin, was about to experience her own surprise. Mary’s parents knew it was time to prepare their little girl for womanhood. So they found a husband. While much older, Joseph could provide for Mary, and her parents were delighted in such a match. Their marriage was sealed and now Mary need only wait for the time when Joseph would come to welcome her to his home. As Joseph went away to prepare a home for her, Mary waited quietly and patiently, preparing her heart for a new life, a new family and a new world. But nothing she did could prepare her for a visit from Gabriel. Suddenly the angel appeared. “Rejoice young lady! Your beauty is God’s beauty and your joy is God’s joy. For God delights in you and has chosen to bless you!” Puzzled and fearful, Mary bowed beneath the shining glory of this figure. Gabriel took her hand and gently helped her. “Mary, you have nothing to fear! This is good news! God has a special surprise for you: you are going to give birth to a son and you’ll name him Jesus. He will be great, be called 'Son of the Highest.' The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; He will rule Jacob's house forever— no end, ever, to his kingdom." from the Message) Sheepishly, Mary replied, “But, but how can this people. I am young girl. I’ve, I’ve never even been with a man.” The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest hover over you; Therefore, the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, Son of God. (from the Message)
And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God." As Gabriel spoke, a peace overwhelmed Mary. She couldn’t grasp what all he meant, and yet God was moving, working. She thought of her cousin Elizabeth. Years of shame would now disperse, as Elizabeth would bear the mark of God’s favor. Yet, even at the same time, Mary realized her own life would now be marked by shame. For she, not yet alone with Joseph, would be with child. All the questions people would raise. As these thoughts overwhelmed her mind, she rested in God’s promise. In some mysterious way, He was restoring the throne of David. And in some way, the Spirit of God would hover over her womb (still formless and void like a new born earth) and He would breathe life. It was too much too grasp, she simply fell again beneath Gabriel’s words and submitted to the Word of God. “Let it be to me according to your word.” The angel left. The Spirit moved. Mary arose. With the child who would change the world, she traveled to see Elizabeth. Resting in the shade of her courtyard, Elizabeth drifted between waking and sleeping when suddenly a voice burst into her daydreams. Mary’s greeting penetrated her womb and the baby within leapt for joy. Waves and waves and waves of joy rippled through her body. Elizabeth jumped and ran to her young cousin. They hugged and cried and laughed. Their voices lifted up into the Presence of God and the angels joined in a chorus of praise for the wonder, the mystery, the surprise of God’s love revealed in these ladies. For a moment, the whole world seemed to sparkle in the light of this joy. Elizabeth and Mary began to speak, to proclaim, the prophecy the wonder of God’s grace revealed in their midst. Mary exclaimed: I'm bursting with God-news; I'm dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It's exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now. (from the Message) In a world of wickedness and oppression, Mary saw God coming in the midst to set things right. Her baby. Her son. Her gift from heaven would usher in a new kingdom. The kingdom of God, and the poor and downtrodden would be restored. As Mary sang, she sang the future into being. For Mary, like the prophets of old, sang of the world’s future. Our future. And the song she sang and continues to sing is a song of hope. Grace and mercy and justice really will prevail. God’s love really does triumph. And wickedness and evil and pain and death are ultimately crushed by the lovingkindness of God.
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