In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” – Luke 1:5-25
I recently sought to console a sister in Christ who had just had her hopes crushed. She had them so high, but the rug was pulled out from under her feat, and the great family reunion she had long hoped for evaporated in the exhaust of her families’ cars’ tailpipes, as each went his or her own way.
I recently learned of another young man who confided that he was a Lutheran, but that he wasn’t sure where he would go to church now…his fiancé had broken up with him.
Then there is the inevitable hopes for retirement travel, fun, and time together that is eaten up all too quickly by a trip to the emergency room, a diagnosis of pneumonia, a sudden turn for the worse, and the grimly-sad look on the doctor’s face when she announces that those dreams will not be realized. The pneumonia had claimed another life.
Hopes dashed. Disappointment takes up residence in the hearts of those once hopeful. Anticipation and dreams melt in the uninvited heat of a late fall day.
Is there anything worse than dashed hopes? Perhaps. It could be hope that has been put on the back burner, barely simmering, not really a factor in any plans, not thought of or reached for in the dark of the too-early morning.
Zechariah and Elizabeth seem a likely couple to have such a back-burner hope. I know I would. I no longer hope to be the next Martin Luther. I have given up the dream of attaining anything approaching a good golf game. I know a bit about a simmering and forgotten hope. Maybe you do too.
But listen to this! To one who is likely to have hope on the back burner (again we don’t know this, I surmise here), comes an angel. Gabriel. The messenger of God. Not like the satin-dressed angel atop our Christmas tree. A force to be reckoned with. One who elicits fear. Zechariah is an old and experienced priest. I suspect that he’s seen a thing or two. I imagine him to be wise to the tricks of the trade, the scams, the slight-of-hand schemes.
But old Zechariah hears a message that must have made him want to hope. It certainly must have been a fearful hope. But it was hope. He and Elizabeth – both old, and past the age of child-bearing – will have a child; and not just a child, but a son. And not just a son, but a very special son would come from them.
Can you see the smoldering flax just now starting to glow more brightly? Can you see the glow of a coming fire? Can you see hope spring to life again? It’s happening here. And we’ve only scratched the surface of this hope, and all its implications.
Permit me to get an early start on the Advent theme of hope. It’s a powerful message. We’ll take a measured pace at opening this gift. But it will be worth it. Hold fast to your hope: so says the writer to the Hebrews. It may be simmering today, but don’t let the flame go out. Who knows what messenger God will bring your way? Who knows what new wind of the Spirit will flow into your heart?
One thing for certain, though: Hope is an absurdly dangerous adventure. And we’re on!