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    Dec 05, 2021

    Curse or Gift?

    Curse or Gift?

    Speaker: Rob McClellan

    Series: December 2021

    Today's Scripture: Luke 1:1-20

    Today's Sermon


    "Curse or Gift?"


    Luke 1:1-20

                1Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

                5 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. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

                8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13But 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. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for 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. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With 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.’ 18Zechariah 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.’ 19The 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. 20But 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.’  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

    Curse or Gift?

                What do you need?  Such a simple question.  I have learned one of the most important questions you can ask someone is, “What do you need?”  There’s always a need, though it may not be on the surface, readily apparent.  That’s why when you ask it, there is often a pause and a letting down.  It’s almost as if the person is dropping their armor and going inside to find the answer.  Many times, when they do, I have found what they want is something they can have.  “I need courage.”  “I need to know I’m not alone.”  “I guess I just needed to tell someone?”  People accept unchangeable circumstances and need things to help them get through them.  If not asked, we can tend to move around the world chasing what we think we want, without going deep enough to reach the place where real need resides. 

                There’s an art to interacting with people in a way that honors what they need, just as there is to remaining in touch with what you need.  Do you remember coaches who knew which kids they could push—who responded to that—and which ones that would shut down and thus needed encouragement and assurance? You may better remember those who didn’t.  Teachers who knew just how to work with a student?   Draw to your mind’s eye for a moment someone in your life who got you, who met you where you were and had just what you needed, angels they were.

                When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah the priest and tells him Elizabeth, his wife of priestly line, will conceive despite their advanced age, Zechariah cannot believe it.  “How will I know that this is so?” he asks (Lk. 1:18).  This moment that foretells John the Baptizer’s birth is often paired with a similar one that occurs just a few verses later, when Jesus’ birth is foretold.  When Gabriel comes to Mary, mother of Jesus, she too responds with a question, “How can this be…?” (v. 34). 

                I had a professor who made a great distinction between the two responses.  “How will I know” verses “How can this be?”  To her, the former was skeptical, “How will I know,” and the latter more curious about how this was going to come to pass, but not necessarily doubting the possibility, “Howcan this be?”  Do you hear the difference?  I like the interpretation, the notion that young Mary had a greater degree of trust than the aged priest.  I’m glad for a generous reading of Mary, this bearer of God, who is faithfully at Jesus’ beginning and end.  Frankly, though frankly I’m not sure I detect such a difference between Mary’s response and Zechariah’s. 

                Presumably my professor’s interpretation is an attempt to explain the very different reactions from Gabriel.  Gabriel mutes Zechariah for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (might be welcome in some families).  To Mary, on the other hand, Gabriel offers an explanation and assurance of what is possible with God, her curious faithfulness rewarded.  At least that’s one reading of it. 

                What if, however, Zechariah’s muting is not a curse, but instead a gift?  What if he is given what he needed?  We rush to punishment because that’s our bias.  Gabriel simply says, “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” (v. 20).  Now, maybe Zechariah is being sent to his room for being bad.  Actually, that’s an interesting example, because there is value in sending a child to their room.  It’s not to make them suffer or deny them joy.  When properly done, it’s done so the child can calm down, get out of their reptile brain as we like to say, and sink back down into their fuller self. You can send a child into their room without malice.  In fact, it can be a gift to that child, keeping them out of further trouble, teaching them tools for self-regulation, and giving them a chance to reassess, while you do the same.  Could this be what’s going on with Zechariah? 

                Maybe Zechariah needs to be quiet.  Here’s a priest, in charge of ritual sacrifice, of maintaining the law, of carrying wisdom, presumably of speaking.  We all know people who talk too much and could use some time listening.  We might be those people unaware.  Maybe the muting isn’t too shame Zechariah as much as it is to give him the gift of having to listen for a while, watching, noticing, hearing, and attending.  Why does it have to be punitive?  Why do we seem to “need” that?  Maybe Zechariah is given what he needs, and Mary is given what she needs for each of them to play their part in this divine drama.

                Before I go any further, I should make clear what I’m not saying.  I have seen a lot of damage in the “God only gives us what we can handle” mentality.  Almost by definition, those who say that don’t have more than they can handle, and it’s not very helpful to say that to someone who clearly does.  It’s too short a bridge to victim-blaming and the converse, the notion that those who have it good must be good.  Our tradition is not rooted in getting what we deserve; it’s rooted in grace and dressing the wounds of others, not in judging them.  I think we can draw lessons, we can grow, we can evolve and mature from difficult circumstances, but that’s not saying that’s why we experience them in the first place. 

                What I am saying, is there is something beautiful about learning to learn what someone needs and attending to them accordingly.  There is something beautiful, similarly, to learning to know what you need and navigating your life accordingly.  Our inability to do this may be part of why we are in such a moment of talking past each other, assuming and bringing out the worst in one another, because we haven’t done the work of really knowing what is driving the other’s behavior or our own.  It may not mean an entirely different rulebook for every person, but it may mean a tailored and intentional way of engaging one another within a set of shared expectations.

                This is part of the blessed mystery we embody when we come to this communion table.  Everyone eats from the same table.  It’s the same elements—well usually—and yet it can feed us in very different ways.  Here God meets you here with what you need—not what you want—what you need.  What do you need?  That’s not a rhetorical question.  Touch in with it.  Forgiveness? You will find it here where the cup is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  Encouragement, nourishment, a boost?  You will find it here with the bread of life.  Companionship?  You will find it here with the one who is with us forever and with all those from every time and place who mystically meet here.  What do you need?  It’s here. 

                Advent is about learning to receive gifts.  Let us come and receive ours.