Hespeler, 4 November, 2018 © Scott McAndless – Baptism
Luke 1:8-20, Daniel 9:20-23, Psalm 91:1-16
echariah was a priest – not an important one, not one of those wealthy priests who lived in the big houses in the prosperous Upper City. They had money and political connections and were famously corrupt. They were in so deep with the enemy – with the Romans – that the people had nothing but scorn for them anymore. But big important priests like that; they wouldn’t have had anything to do with Zechariah or his wife Elizabeth.
      Zechariah was just a low-level priest who would never be rich or powerful but he took his position seriously. It was his job, when his turn came around, to stand in the temple, to stand in a place where he was uniquely in the presence of God, and to carry all of the hopes and the dreams and the burdens of the people to the very throne of God. That is an awesome responsibility especially in times of great trouble, and Zechariah certainly lived in times of great trouble.
      We are told that one day when Zechariah was in the temple and making an offering of incense – a burning of sweet smoke that went straight up into heaven as an image of the prayers of all the people rising up to the very presence of God – that the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.” Can you imagine that? This is just a low-level nobody priest offering a bit of incense and yet for this everyone seems to be there. The people have gathered, I suspect, because they know that Zechariah is a man of integrity and honour unlike most of the priestly leadership in the city. And so the people seem to have recognized that this is a unique opportunity to have the concerns that weigh on their hearts lifted up to God through this man that they can trust.
      What were they praying for? I can only imagine that they were praying for religious and spiritual renewal, for political change that would allow the people some breathing room in their own land. I’m sure they were praying for hope in a time when there seemed to be a lot of hopelessness.
      Now all of that – all of the hopes and expectations of a people – was a lot for one man like Zechariah to bear. But that was only the half of it. As is often the case with those that God calls upon to minister to his people, Zechariah was dealing with his own issues. He carried his own personal sorrow that, even after years of trying, he and his wife Elizabeth had been unable to have a child. This was a personal sorrow that no words could express and that was made even worse by the insensitive comments of people who just didn’t understand.
      Now, of course, Zechariah did not go into the temple with the intention of praying about that personal crisis. That was not what he was called to do in his position. But that sorrow was so much a part of him that there was no way he could leave it outside of the room when he offered up his prayers.
      That is the situation that we find ourselves in at the beginning of our reading this morning from the Gospel of Luke. And into that extraordinary situation comes an extraordinary presence. He appears right beside the altar of incense with these words, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”
      Now, I will leave it to you to figure out why my mind first turned to a passage of scripture in which Gabriel appears in the Gospel of Luke on a day when we have the privilege of baptizing an infant by the name of Gabriel Lucas. But, having made that connection, I must say that I find the situation that is set up in this passage a rather compelling one for our time.
      My friends, we are living in a time when “the whole assembly of the people is praying outside the sanctuary.” We are living in a time when people are losing confidence in the religious institutions of our society, and not without some good reason. Just like in the days of Zechariah, we have seen religious leadership that has not inspired a great deal of confidence. The scandals are too many to mention. The Roman Catholic Church seems to be practically drowning in the sexual abuse scandals lately. Evangelical leaders have also seemed to be ready to sell their souls for political gain. (Take the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network who recently said that an arms deal is more important than the death of a journalist. Can you imagine that: a Christian teacher saying but the death of one man matters less than thirty pieces of silver? That goes against the very foundation of our faith!)
      Those are just a couple of examples, but the overall trend regarding the attitude towards religion is quite clear in our time. Yet, remarkably, even while people are turning their backs on religious institutions, interest in spiritual matters is only growing, as is belief in God and in the afterlife. People, in other words, are still praying in their own way, but they are praying outside the sanctuary because they are unsure whether they can trust those who are inside the sanctuary. It is at times such as this, that what we need most are people of integrity like Zechariah and Elizabeth to come forward to offer the incense of prayer and service before the Lord. It is when we need people like their son, John, who will be known as John the Baptist.
      Who are those people that God will use? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that some of them are here today. Perhaps God will use Gabriel’s parents. I do know, for one thing, that God has put a calling on his father’s life. I don’t think that he has quite figured out how and in what kind of ministry, but there is a lot of evidence that God has something for Matt to do in the church. But it is not just those who are specifically called to the ministry of the church that God needs to use at such times. All of us must ask the question: Does God have something for me to do in the work of renewal in these times of great change?
      But there is something that seems to happen as soon as someone asks that question. Everyone agrees that something needs to be done. Everyone agrees that the system is not working and that we need some real change, but they also immediately begin to think of all the reasons why they cannot be the one to bring about that change. Why? Because they’ve got their own problems – they’ve got their own stuff that they’re dealing with. Everybody can say that because everybody does. And that is an excellent explanation for why the real change that is needed often never materializes: people are just too busy dealing with their own problems.
      But here is what I see going on in our passage from the Gospel of Luke: Zechariah could have said that too. Zechariah was dealing with a terrible personal tragedy and he could very well have said, “Because I am busy carrying this terrible weight of my and my wife’s infertility, there is absolutely no way that I could possibly carry all of the hopes of the people before God. But Zechariah didn’t say that. Zechariah took all of his personal pain with him and he went and he offered up the incense before God on behalf of all the people.
      And here is the really beautiful part: Zechariah didn’t go into that temple to pray to God for his own personal pain. Though he could never hide the pain that he bore in his heart, he did not say a word about infertility as he offered the incense. He took the prayers of all the people and not his own need. But where does God meet Zechariah? Right in his personal pain. Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard,” Gabriel says. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” God ministers to the minister in need.
      But here is where we discover how amazing our God is. Yes, God ministers to Zechariah in his need. Yes God answers the prayer of his heart, but in the answer to Zechariah’s prayer, we also see the seed of the answer to the prayers of the people. “You will have joy and gladness,” Gabriel begins, confirming that this is absolutely a gift for Zechariah and Elizabeth. But the blessings do not end there: “and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… 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.”
      I find an incredible comfort in this part of the story. If you have ever felt that you cannot be part of what it is that God is doing in this world because you have your own problems that you are dealing with, remember the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Remember that you have a God who would love to minister to you in order that the whole world might be blessed.
      I have been blessed to know a little bit of the story and the journey of Gabriel’s parents and what brought them to this point in their life. I won’t go into it here, but I know that they have had their struggles as many of us do. And God has ministered to them in those struggles. God has brought them through all of that and then brought them together to be a blessing to each other and has now given them this extraordinary blessing in their beautiful son.
      That is their blessing and their gift from God and we wish them so much joy in it. But looking at the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I cannot help but think that God has a plan to multiply those blessings from there. I am no Angel Gabriel; I do not stand in the presence of God and so I don’t know exactly how those blessings may come. I do suspect that God might do with them as he often does and that the very things that they have struggled with may become the seeds of their ministry. I cannot forget the calling that Matt has testified that God has put on his life and I cannot stop thinking that the very things that he has struggled with in his life may give him a unique ministry in the lives of others who struggle with similar things. I don’t know the particulars but I do know that God has an uncanny ability to find a way to make that kind of thing happen.
      We live in interesting times – times when “the whole assembly of the people” is praying outside the sanctuary. The hunger and the thirst for new life and new hope – the hope that can be found in the gospel – is there in the people, but they are also not inclined to trust the institutions of religion to help them find that hope. That might seem discouraging, but it is not. Yes, if we just continue on in the churches with business as usual and we resist all change, chances are that the whole assembly of the people will remain praying outside.

      But I don’t think God will allow that, God will call people from among us – maybe you, maybe Matt, maybe me – and God will use those people to enable us to take some bold steps. It will come. It may have already started, after all hasn’t Gabriel come to us today from standing in the presence of God. So offer up the incense of your prayers. God is alive and God ministers to all who struggle among us. In God’s ministry to each of us are the true seeds of the renewal we need.