What Then Will This Child Become? 

Sunday, December 22, 2019
Pastor Megan Torgerson

Luke 1:5-13, 57-66

So, by now you might all have heard that it’s my fortieth birthday.  I love hearing my mom’s stories around the day of my birth.  She says that she bowled the best game of her life the night before I was born.  She recalls the frost on the trees on the drive to the hospital – so pretty, but a reminder of the very slippery roads through backcountry.  She tells me that I was screaming before I was even fully, physically in this world.  My sisters would argue that I haven’t been able to keep my mouth shut since.

I’m feeling introspective today, but I’m sure I’ll get over it.  After all, I’ve had forty years of my birthday getting eclipsed by Jesus.  But I suppose John could say the same thing.  John’s cousin Jesus was born just six months after him.  We celebrate the story of Jesus’ birth, but we so rarely get to hear about John.  John, the prophet who would turn the people to their Lord, the one crying out in the wilderness, the one whose story leads us to Jesus’ own – we don’t get to hear about him as much.

The entire first chapter of Luke parallels John’s story with Jesus, and the story builds with each miraculous message and dramatic declaration.  The story of the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that God chose her to bring the Savior into the world, that story is bracketed by the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah and Gabriel and John that we hear today.  The miracle of Mary and the Magnificat that she sings only grows because of the story we hear today, even if we get to hear it so rarely.

I wonder how Zechariah told the story to his son, John.  After all, Gabriel spoke directly to Mary, but in this case, the angel told Zechariah about what would happen to his wife Elizabeth.  I wonder if he had to act out what had happened in the temple, since he emerged from just doing his job with no voice.  Zechariah was a priest, and therefore likely to have been able to read and write – but in an age when women were rarely educated, could Elizabeth have read the news should Zechariah have written it?  I wonder how Elizabeth told the story to her son John – after years of knowing she couldn’t have children, how must it have felt to learn that God chose her for this holy work?

I wonder, when John got older and heard about the song his aunt Mary sang, about how “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts… brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” I wonder how it affected the way John preached.  I wonder, when he heard about his own father’s song after John’s birth, singing “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins,” I wonder how it shaped John’s understanding of what God had called him to be?  I wonder, as he heard the stories surrounding his birth, how he came to understand God’s work in his life?

Because when I read the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, I read a lot about fear.  Zechariah was “terrified; and fear overwhelmed him” when he met the angel in the temple.  “Fear came over all [of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s] neighbors” when Zechariah’s silence was broken by his praise of God after John’s birth.  In these holy and miraculous birth stories, even here in God’s most life-giving and powerful work, people are afraid.

But that’s what makes these stories even more true for me.  When God breaks in, when things change, when a new thing happens among us, we want to believe that we’d rejoice and give thanks, be accepting and joyful, but I don’t think that’s true.  I think we get scared.  I think we say we want God to be revealed among us, that we want to know God’s plan for our lives, that we want God to do a new thing in this place – but I think we ought to be honest with ourselves that maybe we don’t want those things.  Because when God’s work is done, our plans are disrupted.  Our vision of fairness gets upended.  The powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. What we think we deserve doesn’t come to pass.  We expect that God will act in ways we can understand and control, but rather, God’s unexpected work might unsettle us.  It might even scare us.

Maybe that’s why we try not to look.  We let ourselves get busy and distracted and consumed by all the exciting and wonderful and terrible and stressful stuff happening around us.  And then, when we’re so wrapped up in the chaos of everything around us, we get frustrated that God hasn’t been there.  How are we supposed to know what God wants, we claim, when God won’t even show up?  Never mind that God’s been there all along – we just haven’t been paying attention.  Never mind that if we’d paid attention we might just see something so amazing it might be scary.

When Zechariah gets God’s message via the angel Gabriel, he’s not doing anything out of the ordinary.  He’s in the middle of his job responsibilities.  He’s just showing up at work, making the offering like he’s supposed to do.  It would have been easy for him to put his head down, pretend like nothing was happening, and instead listen to his fear instead of God’s messenger.  We do the same thing.  We let ourselves go about our days with blinders on, so focused on our to-do list and shopping list and the news and our anger about it that maybe we aren’t even seeing the unexpected, quiet, terrifying ways God’s trying to interrupt us.  It’s easier to be busy and hopeless than aware and surprised – or even scared.

So John’s birth story isn’t just for him – it’s for us.  It doesn’t just give meaning to his life as one who will declare Jesus’ arrival – it does the same for us.  We are meant to prepare the way of the Lord, to point other people to the love and salvation that arrive through Jesus, to be like John the Baptist in making sure everyone pays attention.

But even more than that, the story around his birth, the story of John’s mother and father and their joy and fear and disrupted lives reminds us: listen.  Be willing to be interrupted.  Don’t be scared of being scared.  Slow down and hear these stories, hear what God is up to, and join in the work of the Spirit among us, because our Savior is arriving soon.  Do not be afraid.  Watch, and listen, and wonder: what will God do next?  And wonder still more: how will you be a part of it?  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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