In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.
Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 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.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “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. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.
”Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
57Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”
62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
This week has been a stark reminder that the world is broken. There’s nothing I can say that will explain the tragedy in Connecticut. It’s hard to make sense of a world where children are massacred at school. Nothing can make that OK.
I can’t tell you why tragedy happens. I do not believe it is God’s will. I can’t tell you why God lets things like that happen. What I know is that the world is broken and God weeps over that brokenness. I’ve got an opinion on gun policy like you probably do. Inadequate access to mental health care is part of the problem, as is our culture’s fascination with violence and our decreased ability to get along with people with whom we disagree. The pieces of this puzzle are complex and there is not an easy solution.
A tragedy like this one in a place that seems so normal and safe shakes our assumptions about what normal and safe means. But the truth is that innocent kids die every day in staggering numbers. As some of the most vulnerable members of society, kids are often the ones who suffer for our sin and our mistakes. Daily, about 20,000 kids under 5 die worldwide from preventable causes like malnutrition, malaria and other diseases you and I never have to think about, mostly in the so-called third world.
Part of the problem is that those of us in wealthy and powerful countries feel far away from third world poverty, so we put a higher priority on our dinner reservation or Christmas shopping than on the lives of the children who will die tomorrow or next week. Some of those closer to the problem see opportunity for themselves in aid money rather than a responsibility to make sure it gets where it should go. Other issues of responsibility, dependency, economics, psychology, race and politics also get between resources and those in need. The common theme across the world is that those with the least power suffer first and most.
With so much trouble in the world it almost seems silly to open an old story like the Bible today. The truth is, we need to light candles most when it’s dark, and we need to sing songs of hope most when the world doesn’t make sense. The truth is the story of God’s love and promise in the Bible, is closely connected with children in Connecticut and children in Africa. God created this beautiful world. God weeps over violence and misery, and God sent his son Jesus to bring new hope and a clearer vision of love into our troubled world. Through Christ’s life, God knows the pain of losing a child to a violent death. God sees the terror and heartbreak on the faces of children and teachers in a suburban school and in a rural village where clean water seems like an impossible dream.
In a world where power speaks loudly and violence is assumed, God’s story began a new chapter in a conquered piece of desert. Zechariah was a priest. He and his wife Elizabeth were probably respected in their town, but Elizabeth was also shamed for not having kids. Mary and Joseph were regular folks from a small town in the middle of nowhere.
God stepped into these ordinary lives to keep the promise of redemption. The Angel Gabriel came to Zechariah to tell him the hope he’d given up on, the hope of being a father was coming true. Not only would Zechariah have a son, he’d have a son who would get people ready for the Lord, a son with an important role to play in God’s story of grace. While Zechariah is doubtful at first, when his son is born he praises God aloud with strong and grateful faith.
Elizabeth has a powerful faith too. Not only does she rejoice about what God is doing for her, she knows right away what God is doing with her cousin, Mary. I love the scene of the two women together. They take their incredible part in this story in stride, while praising God for the opportunity. Mary must know that her path will be hard. As an unmarried, pregnant woman she faces shame, ridicule, even execution. Somehow she trusts God to be with her, and even praises God for the part she will play.
Both women look forward to God’s promise of new life. They look forward to God’s peaceful kingdom taking a step forward with John’s ministry of repentance and Jesus’ ministry of welcome to the outcast and love for everyone. They also look forward to playing a part in God’s amazing story of redeeming love.
Even in the middle of the horror of the Sandy Hook shooting there were glimpses of God’s loving kingdom and of people playing their role bravely. Dawn Hochsprung, the school principal and Mary Sherlack, the school psychiatrist were shot trying to protect the kids by tackling the gunman. Victoria Soto, hid her students in cupboards and met the gunman at the door to tell him the kids were in the gym. She died, but saved the lives of her students through her courage. Other teachers hid children in bathrooms and somehow kept their calm so they could keep their kids safe and quiet. God’s story of courageous love and a peaceful kingdom thriving in a broken world continues in the most unexpected situations.
We are part of that story today too. We won’t get a chapter in the Bible like Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and Joseph. Hopefully, we’ll never have to put our lives between a child and a rifle. But every day we have the chance to be voices for love, for peace, for compassion. Every day we can reach out to people who are hurting, support those in need, and share hope with people who are discouraged.
Yesterday we did that through sharing Christmas baskets and presents with families in need. We also did it by serving breakfast and sharing community with our Saturday Café. Today in worship we proclaim our hope in the God who chose to be part of this messed up world rather than ruling from a distance. We proclaim that we belong to Christ’s kingdom of love, and we encourage each other in faith. We proclaim that Jesus is Lord, a king who rules with love and compassion. Today we proclaim that good news in story and song and prayer; tomorrow we proclaim the good news with lives of love and service, and one day God’s peaceful kingdom will be complete on earth as it is in heaven.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.