Zechariah’s Hope

Homily, Zechariah’s Hope
Second Sunday of Advent, Year C, 2021
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

“You my child shall be called the prophet of the most high.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week at the dinner table my family has been talking about hope. What is hope? What are some things for which we hope? Why is the season of Advent associated with hope? Hope.

In our conversation we realized that hope is really a combination of two things. Wanting and waiting. Hope is wanting because we hope for things that we desire. Things that we want but don’t have. We hope we don’t get caught behind the train crossing. We hope the test results come back healthy. We hope our children will be successful. These are things we want. 

Hope is waiting because these things that we want are somewhat out of our control. Our hope points to something we want but not something we can simply go out and get. The things for which we hope are things which force us to recognize that we are not always in control. We can contribute, encourage, participate, plan, prepare, but ultimately the things for which we hope are bigger than us. And after doing our small part, the only thing left to do, is to wait. We want and we wait. We hope. 

At the dinner table we have also found that for our family these days most of our hope is wrapped up in preparing our home for the birth of a new child. A little brother. A little son. And I can tell you, and many of you will know, that there are not many things that involve wanting and waiting more than expecting and raising a child. We do everything we can—we can do research, go shopping, eat the right diet, pray, meditate—but we are not fully in control. 

When my wife was pregnant with our first son, Bear, we set out to have the most positive, peace-centered, natural pregnancy and birth possible. We practiced breathing techniques and meditation, we filled our home with mantras of affirmation, LauraAnn received prenatal care at a beautiful birthing center with highly skilled and wholly present midwives. We were ready. And the pregnancy went beautifully. Finally it came time to go into labor and again it went beautifully. LauraAnn did everything perfectly and with confidence and grace like you’ve never seen before. But despite all of our preparation, our son Bear decided he just wasn’t ready to leave his cozy little home. And so after a 30 hour labor, Bear was delivered by emergency c-section. Which was not what we had planned. 

There beside the operating table I stood by my wife as the doctors delivered our baby. They lifted him from her womb and placed him in a small crib across the room. And in that moment I felt this incredible tension between staying by my wife’s side and leaving her to attend to our son. I’ll never forget that feeling. But I finally pulled myself away and went over and looked down into that crib and locked eyes with my newborn son. And I can tell you I have never felt more desire or less in control than in that beautiful moment. I have never felt hope more than in that single moment. 

I like to think that is what Zechariah was feeling when he spoke the words of the canticle we read this morning. The Song of Zechariah, Canticle 16 in our Book of Common Prayer. Today on the second Sunday of Advent we read in the place of the psalm this song. It comes not from the Old Testament, but from the first chapter of Luke and takes place just eight days after the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist. 

Wrapped up in this song are all Zechariah’s hopes—all his desires and feelings of helplessness—not only for his newborn son, but for his entire community. See, he belonged to the people of first century Judaism living under the oppression and foreign occupation of the Roman Empire in Israel. His entire community knew well the feeling of being out of control. Of wanting. Of waiting. Of longing. Of hoping. But nine months earlier an angel came to him with a proclamation and a promise: “your prayer has been heard” (Luke 1:13).

And so looking down into the eyes of his newborn son, Zechariah sang:

“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, 
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, 
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

How many of you are looking for peace this morning? How many of you feel like you’re dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death? How many of you are caught up in wanting and waiting—in desire and helplessness? 

This is what Advent is all about. This is what the season of Advent is for. 

In Advent we take stock of all the things for which we desire but cannot control. We gather all our desires and concerns and fears and vulnerabilities—our worries about the world, our worries about our children, about our health, our future, our finances, and we allow them to be transformed into hope. In Advent we recognize that all is not as it should be in the world, and yet God is coming. Healing is coming. Liberation is coming. Hope is here. 

Interestingly this is the last we hear of Zechariah in the whole of Scripture. Luke’s story moves on, and we never hear of Zechariah again. But what we do hear, less than two chapters later, is an answer to Zechariah’s prayer. If you look carefully at our gospel reading for today, Luke chapter 3, you’ll see it. In our canticle Zechariah prays over his son, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the most high.” A prophet is someone who speaks the word of God. Now look at the end of the first sentence of our gospel passage in Luke 3, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

We don’t always know how or when our prayers will be answered. We don’t always see the results of our prayer. And when we see them they don’t always look the way we expect. But the promise of Advent is that God does hear our prayer, and God is coming. 

So may your wanting and waiting, like Zechariah, be transformed into hope this Advent season. May you hear, like Zechariah, that “your prayer has been heard.” And may your voice sing, like Zechariah, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel who has come to his people and set them free.” Amen.