Mysterious Preparation – Luke 1:5-25
November 29, 2015 – First Sunday in Advent
A little girl skips along a sidewalk singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” As she passes an overgrown empty lot, something catches her eye. She stops, bends down and parts the long grass to discover a large silver fish lying there. In the next scene a stubbly fellow in a wrinkled shirt is talking on the phone while chewing on an unlit cigar hanging from a corner of his mouth. “Yes, Miss Patterson, yes, we’ll be out as soon as we can. And I’m sure Sparky will show up any minute now.”
The rest of the show unfolds how these two scenes are linked together in a little town on the coast of Maine. The fish in the grass is connected with the mysterious disappearance of an old lady’s cocker spaniel. We watch with anticipation how these events come together.
Like a good script writer, following his salutation to Theophilus in the first four verses, Luke has us wondering how the story of an older, childless priest and his wife is going to tie in and connect with the bigger story he has to tell. How are these scenes, these pieces of what starts out as a mystery, going to fit together?
In this season of preparation for Christmas we are often ready to jump to the second chapter of Luke. Our Advent devotionals booklets and the candle readings take their theme from there, “Unto us a child is born.” That’s the big story we can’t get enough of, the inn with no vacancies, the Baby in the manger, the shepherds on the hill, and the angels in they sky. Yet Luke didn’t start there. He wove a story that’s more mysterious, more complex, that started further back in God’s plan of preparation.
This Advent let us spend some time in the first chapter of Luke. We will come by Christmas to chapter 2. Then we will sing “round yon Virgin Mother and Child,” and “glory to the newborn King,” and “Away in a manger.” But for right now, let’s start where Luke started and consider how God prepared for Jesus’ birth, wonder at the mystery of it all, and ask ourselves how we are prepared to welcome that birth.
Luke begins in verse 5 by introducing us to Zechariah and Elizabeth, a couple old enough to have quit expecting children. Zechariah was a priest and his wife was also a descendant of the priestly line from Aaron. Verse 6 tells us they were righteous people, living according to all God’s commandments. They probably wondered why God had not blessed them with children, why their faithfulness to God was unnoticed and unrewarded. In their culture, childlessness was regarded as a curse for sin of some kind. Down in verse 25, Elizabeth calls it her “disgrace.” They could not understand it.
Zechariah served in the Temple being magnificently reconstructed by Herod in Jerusalem. It was a building project that had been going for 15 years and would still be in process 30 years later. One of the mysterious connections in Luke’s Gospel is that it opens with a scene in the Temple and ends with a scene in the Temple. The sanctuary in which God promised His presence is a key part of the story.
There were 24 divisions of priests rotating through the Temple, and maybe 18,000 priests in all. So we see God mysteriously at work in verses 8 and 9. Zechariah’s section was on duty and he, out of over 700 possible priests, was chosen by lot to go into the main sanctuary and offer incense. This was not something he did all the time. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to offer up the holy, pleasing aroma to heaven, representing the prayers of God’s people. That’s why in verse 10 all the people outside were praying.
Then in verse 11 another element of Luke’s story appears, the angel of the Lord. These mysterious messengers of God weave in and through Jesus’ story, both at the beginning and the end. This angel has come with some good news for Zechariah. He starts out in verse 13 with what angels almost always say, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” Part of the mystery of angels is what about them makes people afraid, but God did not mean for Zechariah to be frightened.
Their childlessness was not a curse at all, but part of a carefully woven plan. God had waited until then to give them a son named John, in order to bless not only that couple but many people, as it says in verse 14. Their son would become a remarkable man, filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth and living an ascetic life. He would have the spirit and power of one of the great prophets, Elijah, and he would get people prepared for the coming of the Lord, says the angel in verse 17.
Zechariah was a good man, but he was way out of his depth here. The angel told him in verse 13 that this was the answer to his prayer, but like you and I may do, he kept praying for a child without really believing his prayer would be answered. So verse 18 shows us Zechariah failing to believe it even when an angel says it. “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
It was all too mysterious. Zechariah could not see the whole plan, could not grasp how it would all come together, just like we can’t see how the opening scenes of a movie are going to connect in the end. And even more like Zechariah, we often cannot see how the struggles and disappointments of our lives fit into any good story or divine plan. The mystery of life is just beyond us. So how should we respond?
Perhaps the most famous philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, ended his first and best known book with these words, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
It is not quite what Wittgenstein meant, but not speaking too quickly about what we do not understand is good advice, especially in regard to the mysterious work of God. Respectful silence and contemplation are better than ill-considered questions or explanations.
So in verse 20, Gabriel declared that Zechariah would be silent, mute, because he did not believe what God said to him, because he wondered aloud how it was going to happen, even though an angel had come to deliver the news.
Questioning God is not always wrong. As we will hear in a couple of weeks, Mary asked almost the same question when Gabriel told her she would have a baby. The difference was that Mary believed. She genuinely wondered how God would do it, without any question whether He would do it. She bowed her head and said, “May it be to me as you have said.” She trusted God.
On the other hand, Zechariah needed a quiet space to think things over. So the angel gave him that quiet by taking away his speech. Now he had time to listen to what God was saying. You and I may also need some quiet like that, may need to let go or give up some of the noise of ordinary life or the sound of our own voices in order to discern what God is doing.
Like the angel quieting Zechariah, God invites you and I to quiet down at times when we cannot perceive any sense in what is happening around us. Spend some moments in silence in order to remember and appreciate the truth that God is God and that He is at work preparing us for blessings we cannot imagine from our limited perspective.
Several years ago I put together the furniture in my office. It all came in big boxes filled with dozens of veneered pieces of wood and plastic bags full of screws and hinges and rubber feet. When I get a new computer or some other gadget I frequently ignore the directions, say “I know how this goes,” and just dive in. But I’ve learned the hard way—take a good look at a couple of our kitchen chairs—that it is wise to slow down and quietly read the directions sometimes.
There is an order to the assembly which must be followed if it is all to come together at the end. On page 1 of the instructions, I cannot see any reason why I should start by inserting little turn bolts into shelves A and B. Why can’t I jump right to fitting the shelves together? Only as I work do I realize that it’s absolutely necessary to follow the steps and insert the hardware in the proper order. If I get out of sequence, then the holes for those turn bolts will be covered and I won’t be able to fit them in later. I need to silence all my questions why and just follow the plan.
Zechariah reminds us that silence is sometimes necessary in our response to God’s plans. We cannot see all that God sees. He is fitting the pieces together in wonderful and mysterious ways that will unfold as He works. He is preparing us in ways we cannot always appreciate when it is happening.
Beth and I seldom mention it, but we lost a baby in a miscarriage between our two daughters. That’s one of the reasons they are six years apart. We don’t speak much about it, because that’s one of the pieces of our lives we still don’t really understand, don’t fully know why it happened, just like Zechariah and Elizabeth could not understand their childlessness. And as we get older, we only add to the list of happenings in our lives which we regard as mysteries of God calling for silence rather than questions and explanations.
We can speak about God. I’m standing up here preaching a sermon, for Pete’s sake. Silence is not the end of the story. As we will hear next week, Zechariah got his speech back and had something beautiful to say about what God had done. Yet Scripture teaches us to remember that we are dealing with the awesome, infinite, holy Creator of the universe. The Bible itself is inspired human beings speaking about God. But we never completely capture with our words who He is and what He has done. At some point, in loving adoration, we must back off into wondering appreciation of the mystery which remains, and be silent.
Psalm 131 says, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul.” There is much to learn and to say about God. We should never be afraid to continue growing in our knowledge and our expression of His glorious truth. Yet because He is God, He possesses glory and wonder which can sometimes best be appreciated with quiet silence.
Our Advent emphasis for today asks us to spend less this season. Part of the noise surrounding us is all the advertising, for countless electronic devices, for closets of clothing, and for all the rich and sweet food we can possibly eat. Verizon told us to turn Thanksgiving into “thanks-getting” and get a new phone. Yet just like Zechariah needed to lose his speech for awhile in order to hear God, perhaps we need to lose and block out the noise and distraction of buying and talking so much. Spend less and let the energy and attention given to making purchases become energy and attention given to God. Maybe then we will be able to hear better how God is mysteriously preparing us for His presence.
You may be trying to fit together pieces of your life, wondering how they possibly go together. If you are like me, it feels unspeakably complicated. You may find it difficult to discern any divine pattern in it. You cannot say what God could possibly be preparing you for by all that is happening to you. The only honest thing to say is that I cannot tell you either. I cannot provide an explanation for all the mystery of God’s work in your life. Wittgenstein got that right, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
What I can say is that, though it is a mystery, it is real. So, in case you’re wondering, in the story I invented at the beginning, I imagine that little girl who found a fish and that police detective investigating a missing dog discovered that some strange creature from the depths of the ocean had invaded that little New England village, and stalked their streets in human form. The girl and the man are both part of a larger, more mysterious story.
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is part of something much larger and more mysterious than his own miraculous birth. He grew into an amazing man, the greatest prophet the world had seen in seven hundred years. John the Baptist drew even the attention of the king. His message will always be remembered. God prepared great things for the child of a humble priest. But as we will see this Advent, John story weaves into the incredible but absolutely true story that God Himself came from the depths of heaven to invade our world as one of us, to walk among us as a human being.
The mysteries of our Christian faith are not totally ineffable. Our faith is not materialistic empiricism or an eastern philosophy which regards silence as the only possible answer to anything which really matters. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. He came to us as a Man full of grace and truth, speaking good news. We only want to be quiet enough to hear that good news so that we can speak it truly and completely to everyone who also needs to hear it.
John was part of something greater. His life was part of God’s preparation for a greater mystery. John prepared the way for Jesus. In the coming of Jesus Christ, God proved that everyone who trusts Him will be vindicated. In the love and grace of Jesus is the hope that when you wait in humble silence, God’s plan for you is quietly working out. Jesus gave His life and rose again so that it could work out in you and in anyone who believes in Him.
Would you join me today in quietly appreciating the mysteries of God? Let part of your Advent preparation be to set aside at least a few times when you silence the television, turn off your phone, close the door, and forget about the gift list, so that you can remember and give thanks for the greatest Gift. Be silent for awhile and adore the mystery.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 74.