Grace Presbyterian Church
December 5, 2021, Advent 2C
What a Father Sees in a Son
There aren’t really any verses in the book of Malachi that are famous. Micah has that passage reminding us that what the Lord requires of us is “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”. Amos, for all his seeming hot-tempered prophecy, finds the moment even in one of his fierier passages to invoke the call to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. But really, there’s no such passage in Malachi, the final book in Hebrew scripture.
If any reading in Malachi is reasonably well-known, it’s probably the one we just heard a few moments ago. You might not recognize it in spoken form, however. But a portion of this passage was lifted by Charles Jennens, an eighteenth-century gentleman of London and sometime creator of librettos for operas or oratorios. He worked these verses into an extended passage featuring baritone solo and chorus, as it would eventually be set by his frequent collaborator George Frideric Handel, in the work that would become the oratorio Messiah. This passage includes most of that first verse and substantial portions of the three remaining verses (in King James Version text, of course).
Naturally, though, the portion of this passage that most fits today’s message is the very first part of the first verse, that Jennens and Handel did *not* use: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…”. While many passages of Hebrew Scripture are read as foretelling a coming Messiah, here is one that seems to point to that Messiah’s Forerunner, the one known as John, the baptizer and wilderness preacher whose first appearance as recorded in the gospel of Luke would be found in the regular gospel reading for today.
We are offered today, though, as a canticle (a reading offered in the place of a psalm reading) that also points to John’s ministry on earth. It is the blessing exclaimed by a priest named Zechariah, John’s father, upon John’s birth. That requires some backstory, from the first chapter of Luke.
Once while preforming his priestly duties in the Temple Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel (this was before that angel would visit a young woman named Mary). The angel had an announcement for old Zechariah: he and his wife Elizabeth, who we are told had no children and “were getting on in years,” were to have a child, a son. Gabriel gave Zechariah quite a lecture about the boy, with perhaps the most key part being that he was to be named John (this becomes important later).
Zechariah, who seems to be mostly knock-kneed scared at all this, does what might seem natural in the face of such a revelation: he wonders out loud how that can possibly happen. Gabriel seems to take personal offense at this, and basically hits the mute button on Zechariah; the old priest is rendered unable to speak “until the day these things occur.” (Evidently Gabriel learned to control his temper by the time he visited Mary, who also responded to Gabriel’s announcement with a question, “How can this be?”) When the people at the Temple see Zechariah gesticulating about wildly but unable to say anything, to say the least they knew something unusual had happened. He went home and, sure enough, his wife Elizabeth conceived.
Fast forward nine months, and sure enough, Elizabeth gives birth to a son, and there was great rejoicing among their friends and neighbors. When it came time for the child to be circumcised and named, though, there was trouble. These neighbors seemed to think they had anything to do with naming the child and were going to name the boy after his father. Elizabeth’s protestations were dismissed because “none of your relatives has this name.” Finally someone handed Zechariah a writing tablet and asked what the boy’s name was to be. Zechariah wrote “His name is John.” Hebrew doesn’t have exclamation points, but if it did I’d imagine Zechariah would have used several of them after that foolishness. Sure enough, as soon as the boy’s name was established, Zechariah was un-muted and able to speak: our reading today is what he said first. Our first hymn today was an adaptation of this blessing.
In form and structure it’s a lot like many traditional blessings with a touch of the prophetic to them in Hebrew tradition, not surprising for an old priest who had likely been studying and praying and teaching such blessings all his priestly career. You’ll also note most of it looks forward to a savior being lifted up for the house of Israel. It’s a passage that would not be out of place in any number of prophetic writings we find in Hebrew Scripture. At least, it wouldn’t be out of place until verse 76, when Zechariah breaks away from being the old priest and lets himself be brand new dad.
You have to imagine his face softens a little, and perhaps he looks down at the boy, maybe is even holding the boy by now. For all his fear at Gabriel’s appearance, Zechariah apparently did remember what he had been told; this child would 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.” That’s a huge expectation for a child barely born. Zechariah, after his months of enforced silence, can say what he has been given in this child.
We can say what Zechariah sees in his son. It’s hard not to wonder, though, what Zechariah can’t see for John. Even in verse 80, the final verse of this very extensive chapter, we are already told that John “was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” With both Zechariah and Elizabeth “getting on in years,” we can’t know just how much of John’s public career they would live to see. What would they possibly have made of their son making trouble in the wilderness, with his camel-hair coat and his diet of locusts and honey? Is this what Zechariah imagined when Gabriel surprised him in the Temple with that great announcement?
There is this strange quality about Advent in that it sets up, in many of its selected scripture readings and prayers and liturgies, grand and glorious expectations. Those expectations, when fulfilled, have this habit of seeming a lot less glorious than previously anticipated. Malachi’s “messenger to prepare the way,” Zechariah’s “prophet of the Most High” to “go before the Lord to prepare his way,” the one the angel said would be “great in the sight of the Lord” and proclaimed that even before his birth would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” turned out to be a crazy guy in the desert with a strange wardrobe and weird diet. Then again, most people probably didn’t expect that Messiah, that mighty Savior, to be born in such a setting that he was settled down in a feed trough in an animal shelter.
Of course, at this point we modern Christians are beyond being shocked by these things. We’ve internalized these stories so much that this is just how the story goes, and we can no longer see how God moves in such unexpected and even subversive ways to accomplish these things. Maybe this little bit of backstory for John might help us to recover the unexpected and rather jolting quality that Advent and Christmas have written all over them, even if we no longer are able to recognize it as such.
And maybe as a result we might be able to see the jolting things, the things that look disappointing, the things that don’t look glorious or grand to us, are in fact the moving and working of the kingdom of God among us. Even something so inglorious-looking as these things (hold up “miracle meal”). As ungainly or even offensive as it might seem to us, God still shows up. God still moves. We might even learn that a church that has gotten small, that streams its services on an iPad when it gets here (or an iPhone when it doesn’t), and has four art studios on its property, is actually part of that moving, coming kingdom of God, no matter how much it might not look like it.
For Zechariah’s song, and what he saw, and maybe what he couldn’t see, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal) #109, Blessed Be the God of Israel; #104, O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?; #106, Prepare the Way