God at work in us ordinary people

archangel-gabriel-struck-zechariah-mute-1824The gospel of Luke begins with the of John the Baptist’s birth. You might expect that Jesus’s birth is the first story but Luke intermingles and jumps back and forth between the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus.

John’s parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were elderly and had never had children. In the ancient world not having children was a shameful disgrace. There was a belief that not having children was a punishment from God. Elderly people without children were a burden on the entire community so having children was necessary for survival.

In this story it is Zechariah’s turn to offer the prayers and incense in the temple. He goes into the temple alone while everyone else waits outside. While he is there, an angel appears to him and announces that he and Elizabeth will be parents. Not only will they have a child but this child will be a special child who will announce the coming of God. He’s given the name for this child—John. Zechariah questions all of this…He goes through a range of reactions—beginning with fear. Fear is often a first reaction for people who have an experience of God. And then Zechariah questions even the possibility of child due to the age of himself and Elizabeth. Fear and disbelief are common reactions.

When we have experiences of God we might wonder why God speak would speak to us. Sometimes we not only wonder why God would speak to us but disbelieve even the possibility that God is real and accessible in our lives. I think sometimes that our fear and maybe our insecurity prevent us from experiencing God. Who are we that God should speak to us and work through us. Sure we know that God works through people. We say it regularly. We recite these words as part of a New Creed. But do we really believe that God can be at work through us—even in such ordinary events as having and raising children. Zechariah didn’t believe that God could work through him.

As a sign of the angel’s sincerity, Zechariah was unable to speak for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy.

There’s a little break in the story here and we hear the story of an angel appearing to Mary and announcing her pregnancy. During Mary’s pregnancy she visits her cousin Elizabeth. Mary goes home and the story switches back to Elizabeth and Zechariah and the birth of John.

Elizabeth gives birth and her family wants to name the child Zechariah after his father. Elizabeth wants to name the child John. Zechariah gets the final say and the story implies that, without any consultation ahead of time, Zechariah chooses the name John. At this point in the story, Zechariah regains his speech and offers a prayer of thanks and praise.

In this prayer, Zechariah remembers how God has been at work through ordinary people. Through the fall we heard many stories of God at work in ordinary people. Zechariah reflects on the story of Abraham and Sarah which we heard this fall. This is the story of an elderly couple, without children. God promises to work through them and from them the Jewish people came to be. They also questioned God’s ability to work through them. We are told that when Sarah heard she would have a child she laughed.

Earlier in the fall I wrote about the story of Moses being called to lead the people out of Egypt. He didn’t want to. He didn’t think he had the capability but God called him and he found that he did have the ability to lead God’s people. Then there was the story of Jacob wrestling with God and questioning whether or not reconcile with his brother. There was the story of the prophet Elijah facing the king and the prophets of Baal alone, trusting in God and being the voice that brought the people back to God.

Often, God works through people who are hesitant or even resistant at first. Zechariah connects himself to that history of ordinary people who are hesitant or even afraid that God might work through them. Zechariah reminds us that God made has made covenants and promises to people from the very beginning and that the covenant is renewed through him.

As we come close to Christmas we need to remember and understand—just as Zechariah did—that God not only worked through people in past times. God continues to work through people. God chooses ordinary people—sometimes people who feel unworthy, people who might not feel they have anything to offer—God chooses to work through all of us. Knowing these ancient stories helps us to understand that we don’t need to be perfect. We don’t have to get everything right all the time. Even when we resist, God continues to nudge and give us signs that we are worthy of God’s love and attention. We are worthy of allowing God to work through us.

Sometimes allowing God to work through us can be scary. We don’t know what will happen. We don’t know how others will respond. We don’t know how allowing God to be at work in us will change our lives or the world around us. But allowing God to work through us, through ordinary people changes the world. Zechariah and Elizabeth responded by birthing and raising John. Mary and Joseph responded to by birthing and raising Jesus. These are ordinary people whose response to God changed the world.

Imagine how God could change the world by working through all of us ordinary people. Imagine the goodness that could come into the world if each of us allowed God to work through us. At Christmas, when we celebrate God coming among us in very ordinary circumstances, we also have an opportunity to open ourselves to God at work in us. In a world that sometimes feels overwhelmed with violence and various kinds of struggle we need signs of God among us. If we look carefully, we don’t have to look very far to find God among us. I am witnessing God among us on a daily basis as people care for each other, support friends and family in difficult times and as people love neighbours they know well and neighbours they have never met. This is God among us in very ordinary people. This is God among us in you and me. Imagine how God can change the world by working through us ordinary people. Amen.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

The book of Isaiah has three parts, written over a period of time. There appears to have been a prophet named Isaiah who was active in Judah prior to the Babylonian exile. The first 39 chapters in the book of Isaiah are associated with him.

The second part of the book (chapters 40-55) was written during the Babylonian exile by someone following Isaiah’s thought. Chapters 56-66 were written after the exile had ended. As you might imagine there are differences between focus and themes because of the context in which they are written. First Isaiah seems doom all around. This author recognizes that bad thing are about to happen and, following common belief at the time, that are happening as punishment for sin. The way to avoid the violence and destruction that is coming is to return to God and God’s ways. That’s the focus of First Isaiah.

Second Isaiah was written later. War was all around. Israel had fallen and only Judah was left. The Babylonian exile began. All of the wealthy and elite, the people with skills were taken forcibly into Babylon where they were captives for 60 years. During this time there are three groups of people: the ones forcibly removed, the ones who fled and became refugees, and the ones who stayed behind in Judah- in and around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron. Second Isaiah is speaking to people living in the midst of communities that are torn apart, family members who are missing, people on the move—sometimes by force, sometimes out of desperation. We might hear Isaiah speaking to a nation in turmoil but sometimes the turmoil in our own lives can seem overwhelming.

Here, the words of Isaiah speak to the people in the midst of chaos:

Comfort, O Comfort my people
You have been led away from God into a foreign land
Into a place that is new and strange
Into a place where it is hard to worship God.
but it will not always be so.
It may seem that God is punishing you but your fortunes will change.

I am a voice crying in the wilderness

in the places no wants to go
in the places seemingly forsaken by God
in the brokenness and hurt
in the wilderness of your fear and anger
I am the voice that cries out for God.

Make space.
Stop.
Remove the blocks to God’s presence.
Think of a road…through the hills…up and down twist and turn… never seeing far ahead.
Make the road straight and level for God
Cut through the hills, raise the valleys, straighten the turns
When the road is straight, God is visible.

You cannot build a road alone! You can try but you won’t get far. Road building requires a whole crew!

When that road is built, everyone can see the way to God more clearly. The path will be easier and smoother when the crew builds the road.

Don’t sit idly by and wait for God to arrive and rescue you. Get ready!

Cry out! Cry out! Spread the word:
Even though human life is short in the universe
Even though grass withers.
Even though flowers shrivel.
Even though humans are so much like the grass and flowers
The spirit of God’s breath blows through them and they are gone.
Even when the grass, and flowers and humans are gone….God is still here.

In this midst of chaos, uncertainty, terror
Do not fear. Do not be afraid!

These words from Isaiah are reflected in our Gospels. When Jesus is an adult we hear John the Baptist – a voice crying in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

In the Christmas story we hear the angels, “Be not afraid. God is coming here.” We hear it in the dreams, “Be not afraid. Live fully. God is among you!” Always these words are spoken. They are spoken to people in living in the midst of turmoil, chaos and violence. These words are spoken to people with messy and complicated lives. They are spoken as words of hope. They are spoken to strengthen not just individuals but entire families and communities.

When the world becomes overwhelming, repeat the words of the angels again and again: Be not afraid. When the world becomes overwhelming, seek a community to help smooth the way for God in your life—in our lives. When the world becomes overwhelming don’t wait for God to rescue but actively prepare. God is already here. God is still coming among us. Be not afraid. Live in hope.