Sunday, December 21, 2014

Candlelight Meditation

Light. What we have gathered together this night to celebrate - the light of Christ breaking into our lives. The light of Christ that transforms us, that will not leave us alone. The light that shines through us after it sinks into our hearts.
The scriptures read this evening don’t necessarily tell the traditional Christmas story, but they do speak of light. The light that Christ asks us to boldly shine, like a city on a hill. The light that Christ asks us not to keep a secret. 
Here’s the thing - all baptized Christians are children of the light - sent forth to enlighten or illuminate the world. When we put on Christ at our baptisms - we shine forth his light. We seek to share that light with others. And perhaps there is no better time to share that light with this world than the season of Christmas. During a time of hustle and bustle, when folks are frantically trying to get one more thing crossed off their to-do list, we are invited to simply be and shine forth the light of Christ. To stand as a reminder that Christmas is about more than plastic smiles, and trees, and presents - its about Lord Jesus Christ, light in our darkness. And that is a message the world is deserpately in need of. 
But shining forth the light of Christ also requires a stance of patience. Patience and hope in the One whom our soul waits for. We are not necessarily the most patient culture - we often want God’s light to appear now, God’s promises to come true now, we may even pray “Lord give me patience, and give it to me now”. But according to Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, patience isn’t what we think it is. It isn’t just waiting to see what will happen. It is “a willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself.” In other words, being patient, allows us to stay in one place, shining forth the light of Christ, even if we do not fully realize in this day an time, how we are doing so. In the words of 1 Peter, to be attentive as a lamp shining in a dark place. 
One of the things I love about celebrating the season of Advent, the season of light and waiting, here at Roseville is the deep, dark blue, we have the fills the alter area during this season. The color of the night sky dotted with stars. The color bursting with possibility. The color of darkness wanting to spill over into light. According to devotional author Patricia Farris, this type of blue represents “the light we perceive before we see it, because we have longed for it and yearned for it to come into our darkness.”
I love this color blue because it is at the intersection of patience and light. The threshold of the Reign of God. It invites proclamation of the message of the light. The message I hope that we leave this place shining forth this evening. As Christ’s disciples, we are called forth to go, filled with light, to proclaim hope - the hope that can only be born through the light of Christ’s love.For in the words of poet Ann Weems, 
“When the Holy Child is born in our hearts 
there is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God bursts into our lives.
Love is running through the streets.”

Brothers and sisters, this is the light and love that is in you. This is the light and love we have gathered together to celebrate. May it not be contained to this place - but burst out into the streets, as we shine it forth, wherever we may find ourselves - burning the blaze of hope. 

The Community Trusts the Word Luke 1: 39-80

How do you trust God on the hard days? The days when nothing seems to be going right? When you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, burn your toast, and the car won’t start? When you step in a mud puddle, get yelled at by your boss, and miss an important phone call? How do you trust God in the midst of uncertainty and things are spiraling out of control? When you get the news you didn’t want to hear from the doctor or their just isn’t enough money in the bank to pay the bills.
For many of us, we find it easier to trust God when things are going well. When we don’t really need to think about it. But according to Enuma Okoro, “Trusting God is a daily discipline that cannot be dependent upon how we feel”. Sometimes we need those trying times to remind us that disciplines require work and practice. We need to commit ourselves to claiming God’s trustworthiness, even when everything else seems to be falling apart. And it is in those times when we most need the community of Christ to point us beyond ourselves and our circumstances, back to God.
The truth is, scripture is filled with stories of people who are very similar to us - people who take matters into their own hands when they feel that God is moving too slowly or they don’t like how things are going. But if we learned anything this Advent season it is that we need people who will be in the trenches of waiting with us. A community of folks who will help us discern the will of God, wait for God’s timing, and pray for us.
Who are the community of the faithful in your life? Who are the people who will wait it out with you, even when things are at their darkest? Who are the people who will hold you when you cry? Who you can share the longings of your soul with?
I read two very sad statistics this week - the first was that fifty percent of Americans have two or less people that they can confide in. That includes friends and family. It would seem if you have anyone at all who is invested in you, you are above fifty percent of the population. But the other sad statistic was from a Christian leadership book, that reframed the question about having someone to confide in through the lens of Hebrews 3 - a community of people who you meet with regularly, who admonish each other so our hearts are not hardened by sinful deceit. Very few Christian leaders have even one person like this in your life. Because this type of community is not one that you can just have worshipping beside other people on Sunday morning, it has to come by investing in each others lives.
Do you have people like this who you are invested in and who are invested in you? Community doesn’t just happen, it must be nurtured. And as Christians we need at least some people in our community to help us trust God and wait on God’s timing. A word of caution, however. The people in our closest community should not be exactly like us. As the family of God we need to embrace and celebrate our differences and different perspectives. 
In my community I have men and women. People of different ages and races. People of different occupations and education levels. People of many different socioeconomic levels and who live in different places. I have liberals and conservatives, both theologically and politically. I need a community of such diversity so I don’t just get sucked into believing what I want to believe. I need people who know me and are different from me, but above all who will be present with me in the waiting and will seek God with me. 
If anyone knows about the need for a community that waits together, its Mary and Joseph. They know all about not being in control and God’s seemingly inconvenient timing. Upon finding out that she was pregnant, Mary immediately left to seek out community with Elizabeth. And after she returned she had community with Joseph, after God spoke to him in a dream. Mary and Joseph also understand that just because you live in a certain place or worship with a certain group of people, that does not make you a true community. For surely there were people who talked behind their backs. People who tried to talk Joseph out of marrying Mary. People who didn’t wait with them, but instead sought what they believed to be truth instead of God’s Truth.
That’s why true community is so important, because it is seemingly so rare. We all need people who stick it out with us, and who remind us to seek after God’s timing. People who don’t tell us to believe the lie that we are in charge of our own lives or that we can plan everything out.  We need people to remind us to rely on the character of God, God’s order, and God’s sense of timing, even when it is uncomfortable and unpopular. We need people, who remind us, in the words of Enuma, “God’s unpredictability does not stem from a lack of order; we are simply not privy to God’s order”.
We need people who will sit with us in the midst of the uncertainty and encourage us to face our fears. For fear and uncertainty don’t only show up in danger, but also when we are invited to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Do you think Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph had fears? Most certainly! Do you think there were unknowns? Probably every moment of every day! But in their waiting they made a choice to seek after God instead of running the other direction. To be part of the Kingdom plan, even if they didn’t understand it instead of going about their own way. 
These characters in the Advent story have invited us to ask questions about what we believe about God and God’s plan for our lives. If we have a clear sense of who God is? If we know God’s word and keep it in our hearts and on our lips, in both the easy and the trying times? If we can cling to God in the midst of the unknown and if we have a community, steeped in the Word, who will prayerfully wait with us. 
Here’s the truth, brothers and sisters. We cannot, should not, and do not journey through life alone. Don’t buy into the lie that we are in charge of our own lives or that we don’t need other people. We all need community. People who will sit with us in the silence. People who will leap with joy at our good news. People who will slowly go with us, step by step, on the path before us. 
As you examine your life, if you find that you cannot think of anyone who offers this type of authentic community, do not be dismayed. Pray to God to open your eyes and heart to who would be a good spiritual companion for you. Pray for a small group or soul friend of enter your life who will walk this path with you. 
If you did think of a group of people, ask God to help you examine your group of companions. See if they are people who speak God’s truth in your life or people who simply tell you what you want to hear. Ask if you have Christ at the center of your lives together or if the communal story is about someone or something else.
And if after praying you find that you are blessed with a community of authentic Christian companions - praise God. Praise God for this gift and lean on one another, in the good times and the trying times. Wait on the Lord together. Encourage one another. And keep each other from stumbling into sin.

This week our waiting will be over. We will celebrate the birth of Christ through candlelight and carols. With family and friends. But even though our waiting for Christmas is over, many of us are still waiting for other things in our lives. Remember, we do not wait alone. We seek God’s surprises in the silence and uncertainty together. Amen. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Longest Night Meditation

For the past several years, the communities of the Mainesburg and Roseville and New Vision Parishes have been offering this service - the service of the Longest Night - as a reminder that Christmas is not the easiest time for those who are struggling. Struggling with grieving a loved one. Struggling with depression. Struggling with not feeling up to all of the clamor and hustle and bustle of the holiday season. It is even harder to respect our grief when everyone around us seems joyful. People surround us with smiles, laughter, and hymns of promise, while our hearts are heavy. This is a space where we can share those feelings together.
It seems so hard to hold out for hope in the midst of dark days. The people of Israel knew all to well about darkness. They had been in captivity for years upon years - with the original generation taken away from their holy city, now in ruins, long since dead. They too felt as if the light had left their lives. 
I think its hard for many in this day and age to appreciate what total darkness feels like. When the sun set during Biblical times, folks headed to bed, and rose with the light of the sun. For during the darkness of night, light could only be provided by a single lamp or candle - leaving much of the darkness un-illuminated. In our world of light switches and street lamps, we rarely know this type of darkness. And if we do not know true darkness, it is even harder to grasp the joy of light. The light of Christ coming into the world. 
So it is true with our spiritual lives as well. Many of us try to conceal the dark places in our lives as well - those places where we are hurting - because we think that is what the world wants us to do - to pretend to be illuminated, especially during this season. But brothers and sisters, I stand before you this evening, telling you that even though it may not feel like it, darkness is a special time - a time that when we emerge allows us to actually embrace the light of day. 
Advent, and especially this evening as we celebrate the Longest Night, is a time of reflection - a time to visit the darkness of our hearts, the place of deep sorrows and hurts that we’ve hid for too long. Its a time to be honest with God about what we are feeling - honest with ourselves. For if we do not acknowledge the darkness, we will never know to long for the light. Yearn for the One who can turn our darkness into light.
Advent is the time to stand in the darkness, but never alone. For we stand there with our brothers and sisters, those who have gathered together this evening, to have the courage to seek the light together. 
The people of Israel, even in their time of despair, still gathered together to seek the light. They still gathered around the camp fire and shared stories of old - stories of the God who rescued them once from the hand of Egypt and would rescue them again from captivity. We too gather together, to seek the light. To seek the light of God that can shine in our hearts. 
Why? Because in the words of devotional author Patricia Farris, “The truth of our faith, the oft-hidden treasure of darkness, is that the birth of the Christ Child happens in the darkest dark of night. In that night, God’s love triumphs over the power of hopelessness and fear; and a special star shines so brightly that the whole of the night sky is brilliant with light. The world beings anew. That is our faith.”

Brothers and sisters, we come together tonight, not for false promises or glossy cheer - but to seek the Light. And maybe even to celebrate the gift of darkness.For in the words of poet Ann Weems, it is just when our path seems the darkest, “when angels rush in, their hands full of stars” to shine forth the light of the one who shined into the darkness. The only one who can turn our darkness into light anew. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Preparation and Laboring: Elizabeth, Mary, and John Luke 1: 39-45, 53, 56

Waiting. A word that may of us don’t want to hear. “You have to wait your turn”. “Not now, you have to wait.” I think we don’t like to hear the word ‘wait’ because somehow we have come to associate it with the word ‘no’. If we can’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, then we think we are being denied something. Yet, Advent is the liturgical season of waiting. We are preparing to wait for the birth of the Christ Child and we remember that we are waiting on the return of Christ the King. We are waiting for God to come to us again, for the full reign of Christ, and to be in holy communion with the Lover of Our Souls. 
Perhaps another reason we don’t like the word ‘wait’ is because we think it is passive - a time when we do nothing other than sit down and twiddle our thumbs, as if we are a toddler on time out. But really, Biblical waiting isn’t passive at all - it is anticipatory - as it actively seeks out God’s growth and guidance. In the words of devotional author Enuma Okoro, “When God is calling us to a season of waiting, we rarely put all other aspects of our lives on hold”. Instead it is a time to be attentive to what God is doing in our lives, individually and corporately, in order to grow closer to God.
But most notably, waiting can be painful. Waiting for news from test results. Waiting for the birth of a child. Waiting to hear the court decision. During those periods of waiting it can feel like something is tugging at our hearts, encouraging us to shed our old selves. If anyone knows about inviting people into a painful period of waiting, it was John the Baptist. John told those who would listen to him to use this time of waiting for the One who was to come to repent, to change their thoughts and practices in order to be prepared to live a fuller life. However, this wasn’t something anyone could do by their own efforts - it had to come from seeking God and God meeting them in their deepest need. 
John offered the invitation to allow periods of waiting to act as a refining fire - removing the impurities from one’s life in order to get to the most pure, most holy, part of who you are - your soul. Of course there was a catch, even after the period of waiting and refining was over, each person still needed to choose to be holy and repent of any thoughts or actions that would block them from being so - for holiness was an ongoing process, not a one time event. 
However, I find it humorous that John is one of the Biblical figures of urgent, expectant, waiting - when he could not even wait to express his joy for the Christ child in the womb. God used the pregnancy period for both Elizabeth and Mary to be a holy time of provision. In only the perfect way that God can orchestrate, Mary and Elizabeth, cousins years apart in age, became pregnant six months apart. Both women knew the potential shame that could come with their pregnancies - Mary, engaged to Joseph, but pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and Elizabeth, well beyond the age of being able to conceive, but God met them in their need by giving them each other. They intentionally sought each other out in order to be in community together. They were the voice to each other reminding each other, in the midst of their waiting, that they were blessed. 
We are told in this morning scripture lesson that Mary went with haste to see her cousin Elizabeth. By now, Elizabeth would have emerged from her time of seclusion and the family probably had started to hear rumblings about what was happening. Elizabeth, the barren one, pregnant. Zechariah, unable to speak a word. Something stirred in Mary’s heart and she knew that Elizabeth was the person she needed to seek out, as if Elizabeth would know something about God ordained pregnancies. When Mary finished her journey and arrived at Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house, upon calling out her greeting, John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. Not just a kick. But leapt with uncontainable joy. John was so moved, even in the womb, by the presence of Jesus, as if he could not wait to meet him. Could not wait to proclaim that this is the one he would be born to announce the coming of. 
But even if John was impatient in this moment, the women had to wait. Wait out the duration of their pregnancies. Even though Mary and Elizabeth are both noted in scripture as women of profound faith, they probably still had hard days - days filled with periods of restlessness, worry, and anticipation. But God had provided them with each other during this period of waiting, as holy companions to strengthen one another’s heart. We are told that Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months, probably until the birth of John, before returning home to resume waiting.
Fast forward about thirty years to John embracing his call. We find John in the wilderness, we don’t know why. We aren’t told what happened to Elizabeth or Zechariah, or what John’s life was like up to that point. Because he was selected by God for this special task we can assume that he lived a disciplined life since childhood. But now we find him in the wilderness - a good image for periods of waiting, especially during Advent, that seem rough and dry and uninhabitable. 
John had been waiting - waiting for the time to be upon him to announce the coming of the one who would redeem Israel. John knew that his call wasn’t about him - it was about his relationship to Jesus. He knew that he could resist the call or let it move through him for the sake of his people. So he began to cry out in the wilderness for people to repent. And some people listened! They started to turn away from themselves and their sin in order to move towards the Kingdom of God! The time was upon them.
Waiting is hard. Facing the unknown, the barren, the rough, the dry, the uninhabitable part of our lives. We all have them. And we have a choice whether to let such times consume us or to allow God to use them to refine us. Like John, we can be refined or resist. 
One possible way during seasons of waiting to allow ourselves to be refined can be found in the example of Mary and Elizabeth, to enter into holy friendships. Friendships that encourage us to look towards God and to be patient, even when it is the last thing that we want to do. For God will never call or invite us into a period of waiting without giving us both human support and holy strength, as he gave Elizabeth and Mary. 

What is God wanting to do in your heart during this Advent season? Where are those rough edges that being in the wilderness can refine? And who is God providing as accompaniment during this journey of holy, precious, waiting? Amen. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

“Elizabeth and Zechariah” Luke 1: 5-7, 20-25

Barren. A word that sounds cold and final as it echoes through the mind of Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah. Elizabeth is barren. She and Zechariah have tried for years - years to have a child. Years met only with the ache of barrenness. Elizabeth found herself wondering from time to time unspeakable questions - what her husband thought of her. This isn’t what he signed up for. People get married for security of lineage. To carry on the family name. Women are deemed worthy by the hardiness of the children they bore. And her womb couldn’t even carry one child. He never said so - but did Zechariah regret marrying her? Did he wish that he would have taken someone else as his bride?
And what does God think of her? Elizabeth remembers the stories from on old - how God chose to curse women by sealing up their womb. But she has repented time and time again and knows that she has not stumbled into sin. What could God be punishing her for? Did she even believe that God uses barrenness as a punishment? Surly God did not evaluate her like this culture she lives in - based on her offspring.
Have you ever found yourself like Elizabeth wondering in your heart those questions that you cannot bring yourself to voice? Have you ever had unmet longings? Or faced a stronghold that seemed to be unbreakable? 
We all experience times of barrenness in our lives. Enuma Okoro writes, “The ultimate form of barrenness is being devoid of God because no life exists without God”. Even the most devout follower will wonder from time to time if God is absent or ignoring them. If they are being punished. There are seasons in our lives when God seems to be silent. Or distant. Yet, God is capable of redeeming even these bleak and weary moments. 
Elizabeth surely knew times of bleakness. Time after time when her hopes were dashed until she perhaps stopped hoping. But we are told that she is considered righteous - she didn’t forsake her faith, even when she heard the murmuring of the community doubting her relationship with God. Elizabeth can be an example of faith to us in our times of deep loneliness - reminding us to depend on God even when we feel forsaken or forgotten. For sometimes God meets us in our time of need - and other times we find that our barrenness is not transformed in this life - but that God is still dependable. The truth is we need stories like Elizabeth’s to help us remember that God is able, present, and yet coming. 
Zechariah entered the temple expecting to just do his job that day - to atone for the sins of the people. But in the midst of his work, the task of the day, the expected turned into the unimaginable, as the angel Gabrielle turned up to announce that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a child - and not just any child, but a child who would bring a word of hope to the nation. And he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. He didn’t laugh like his ancestor Sarah, but he surely doubted. How could this be? He was old. Elizabeth was past the age of being able to bare children. That ship has sailed. The angel met his doubt with the statement that he would be mute until the birth of the child - nine months later. 
What I love about Zechariah is that he voiced the doubts that Elizabeth surely carried in her heart. He voiced the doubts he had - even as a devout man of faith. And his doubts are met with a time of silence. Notice what doubt doesn’t mean - it didn’t result in the miracle not taking place. Elizabeth still came to bear a son - John the Baptist. 
I also love the fact that Zechariah’s punishment is not so much a punishment as a time of silence. In a day and time when we seemed to need to be entertained at every minute - always having something confront our senses - Zechariah’s punishment could actually be seen as a gift. A much needed time of silent retreat to ponder the unbelievable. To focus himself on what was coming. 
Zechariah was doing what we all do all the time - seeking confirmation by asking the question ‘how can this be’? Are there any among us who haven’t asked why God? Haven’t asked when God? Haven’t had doubts similar to Zechariah’s when God tells us to face the unimaginable. Why do we do this? According to Enuma, “Its almost as if we have conditioned ourselves to expect little or no divine generosity towards us”. We doubt God’s grace and goodness. God’s timing. God’s ability. 
Zechariah’s doubt was really worry about the uncertainty of all the angel is telling him - he would have a son - the very thing he had been trying for years to have with his wife, the very deep unmet need in his heart. But with one statement the angel reversed everything that he knew about his wife, how other people identified her, perhaps how he himself had even come to see her - barren. And now he had questions. Would she be able to carry the child to term? Would they get to see their child grow up? For years, he had been living faithfully in the midst of unmet desires, but now that he is being told that the longing of his heart would be met, he didn’t know what to do. 
Outside of the temple, the crowd is waiting - wondering what is delaying Zechariah. The ritual shouldn’t have taken this long. Then when he came out he couldn’t speak. From his gestures they understood that he had an encounter with the Divine, but they don’t know what to make of it - don’t understand. Things like this don’t happen every day. 
I have to wonder what the crowd thought that day. These are some of the same people that probably talked behind Zechariah and Elizabeth’s backs - wondering about them, their barrenness. I wonder if they were the community that Elizabeth and Zechariah needed during their time of struggle - the time of community we all need in the midst of our struggles - a community of faithful believers to remind us how God has acted in the past; God’s promises for the future.
After the crowd dispersed, Zechariah walked home. How would he explain this to Elizabeth. How could he explain this to Elizabeth. He returned home unable to speak, but somehow Elizabeth still got the message. She would finally come to bear a son. And she went into seclusion for five months. Five months of uninterrupted silent solitude with her mute husband. They both had time to dwell of what God is doing in their lives. 
Here’s the thing - we see very few examples in scripture of God’s timing being the same as our human timing. Or examples of God rushing through things. So during this very slow nine months of gestation, God was not only growing John in the safety of Elizabeth’s womb, but growing something in the hearts of this couple in solitude - for they are both pregnant with a seed of trust, belief, and faith. Seeds nurtured in months of silence and reflection.
Silence can often feel like barrenness. We don’t particularly like it when things are quiet for too long. Even those of us who need silence to function, still need human interaction as well. Yet it is often in the silence that God is trying to speak into our lives. For silence helps us define our meaning. It was in the silence that Elizabeth found that God had looked favorably on her and removed her disgrace. It was in the silence that Elizabeth and Zechariah could grow in faith, and trust, and hope. It was in the silence, that Elizabeth and Zechariah realized they were so much more than the barrenness they had let define them for so long.

According to Enuma, “The more we inhabit silence, the better our hearing becomes”. Maybe that is what we need a little more of this Advent season - intentional, holy silence. A time when we can trust that God is still working in the silence. A time that reminds us who God is and who we are as a child of God. For the next two weeks on Sunday evenings we are going to be offering a time of worship at 6pm at Mainesburg that is just that - a lot of silence. Maybe that isn’t what you need - a time of communal silence. If not, I would challenge you to find another way to reflect on God during this Advent season. Another way to let the seed of faith, hope, and trust grow in you. May God meet you, meet all of us, in the silence. Amen. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Self-Care

   Recently, an article was published on one the blogs I visit about self-care, specifically focusing on how a pastors focus on self-care can impede his or her ability to do her job. While I appreciate what the author was trying to say, and greatly respect him, I also struggled with what was written because I come from the opposite perspective. I believe when pastors fail to focus on their own self-care it can impede their ability to do their job.
    All through seminary and the ordination track, whenever the topic of self-care would come up, I would groan. Not this again. But I've come to realize that there is a reason that it needs to be brought up time and time again - because too many of us are horrible at it. It wasn't until I was 28 years old, working 70-80 hours a week, with a body that was simply burning out, that I realized how precious and necessary self-care is to both the pastor's and the congregation's well being.
    The truth is, self-care is brought up because we need to be reminded of its importance. Especially when ministry seems to consume us. We need to be reminded that we are more than our job titles and calls, we are the beloved of God. We need to work reasonable hours with reasonable expectations, because at least in my particular denomination, when we do not we set the next pastor up for either burnout or failure. We need folks to hold us accountable to self-care. And we need to keep hearing the self-care message even when it makes us groan because it is vital to our use in the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Zechariah Luke 1: 5-19

We are now entering into the season of Advent - the beginning of the Christian year. While the world is winding down the calendar year, we begin anew our Christian journey together by waiting. Not waiting for the ball to drop, as we do on New Years Eve, but waiting for the coming of Christ - both as the babe in the manger and the King who will come in final judgment. 
Waiting is not a word most people want to hear. As a child many of us were told to wait our turn. To be patient. As adults we spend a lot of time waiting - in lines at the grocery store and the bank. Even as we try to make our lives more efficient, we still have to wait - for a reply, for an answer, and for so much more. But even as adults, it doesn’t seem like waiting becomes any easier - so for many of us, an entire season of waiting, Advent, is hard. We would rather fly through the next four weeks so we can sing our favorite Christmas carols and celebrate candle lighting services together. For many its Christmas that holds fond memories, not Advent. 
And yet. And yet, Advent is so important to our Christian walk that it begins our year together, for waiting allows us to become people who seek after God. According to author, Enuma Okoro, Advent is important because it is during this time that, “we are invited to walk alongside faithful men and women who also sought after God and waited upon God to answer their prayers and to keep God’s promises.” In waiting we remember stories that have shaped our faith. In waiting we seek our patient partners in prayer through the people in scripture. As we hear ancient stories anew, we are invited in our waiting to make ourselves available to God in new ways. To come, seeking God, patiently together. 
When you think of the Advent story, who does your mind immediately go to? To Mary? The Angel Gabriel? To Joseph? How about Zechariah. The husband of Elizabeth. Father of John the Baptist. It was he who the angel Gabriel came to first to announce the coming of the one who would prepare the way for the Lord. 
In so many ways, the story of Zechariah is one of waiting and patience. Zechariah was a priest, one who was assigned to holy work in the temple. His wife, Elizabeth, was a decedent of the tribe of Aaron, the priestly line. This morning’s scripture lesson tells us that they were righteous before God and lived blameless lives. But… Elizabeth was barren. In a culture where children carried on both the family legacy and took care of their parents as they aged, barrenness was considered to be a curse from God. Even in a culture where stories were told of barren women who were devoted to God - Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah - barrenness was still seen as a direct result of sin. Barren women were to be avoided, as if the cause of their affliction could rub off on to others.
Elizabeth and Zechariah remind us in their barrenness that even the most devout have questions for God and unanswered prayers. Here are two individuals whose family line and current call were to serve God, which they did faithfully, and yet, their faithfulness isn’t rewarded. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? That the good guys get good things, and the bad guys get what they deserve? This couple, at the beginning of our Advent narrative, make us come face to face with the uncomfortable reality that sometimes the faithful aren’t rewarded. Enuma writes, “Many of us could probably name someone (if not ourselves) in a similar situation of having led an earnest life of faithfulness and yet living in the reality of unanswered prayers.” Can you identify with Zechariah and Elizabeth, waiting, longing, for a child. In a culture where many families had houses full of children, they couldn’t seem to even bring forth one. Can you connect with what they had to be feeling - the heartache, the sleepless nights, the crying out to God in prayer, asking “Why?” What emotions do you think Zechariah experienced as he prayed for Elizabeth? Did even he begin to doubt her righteousness? Or did he begin to blame God? Did he have doubts? Do we, have doubts? Do we cry out to God when things are not as they should be? Do we bring our pain before a holy God, or do we try to talk ourselves out of it, or avoid pain entirely?
But even in the midst of the despair of not being able to conceive, Zechariah went about his work, his calling in the temple, where we encounter him in this passage from the gospel of Luke. Zechariah attended to his faith by doing his priestly duties, even in the midst of unanswered prayers, longing, and waiting. Zechariah was selected to be the one to enter into the holy of holies, while the offering of incense was brought forward to the alter. He was alone in one sense, just him and the Lord, but he also had the community praying for him outside as he went about this sacred duty. Then in the holy of holies the unexpected happened - if there is any place we would expect God to show up, it would be here, where the tabernacle that went with the people of Israel for centuries to symbolize the very presence of God was held. And yet, as Zechariah was going about his job in this special place, he was overwhelmed when the presence of the angel Gabriel appeared at the right of the alter. 
Zechariah entered the temple to intercede for the people - which was both a duty and a privilege. But in that place, at that moment, the angel of the Lord showed up and told him that God has been hearing Zechariah’s prayers and pleas all of these years, and now was the time they would be answered. Gabriel revealed himself to Zechariah as he was going about the task he was supposed to be doing that day. How would you respond if God sent you a personal messenger to tell you that your prayers have been heard? How would you respond if you were going about your daily job and suddenly found your waiting ended, and your prayers had been answered. Would you too need to be told to “Do not be afraid”. In this moment we see grace and divine kindness - a God who listened to Zechariah’s cries, tenderly caring after his immediate needs in the face of unspeakable fear. 
The angel goes on to tell Zechariah that the child he would be blessed with was more than he could have ever imagined praying for. He would be great in the sight of the Lord. He would turn the people of Israel to the Lord their God. The child, to be named, John would be a blessing to the entire nations of Israel. 
Some time ago Whitney Huston released a Christmas Song that asked the question, “who could and would imagine a King?” as she pondered what the parents of Jesus must have thought about their child and what he would become. A similar question could be asked by Zechariah as he listens to the angel Gabriel - who could or would have imagined that this is what their child would become?
Which is pretty much how Zechariah responded - “How can this be so?” Even in the midst of having his prayer answered - a prayer that he had prayed time and time again - he had doubts. Have you ever had a similar experience where God answers your prayer but you can’t quite bring yourself to believe it? Zechariah couldn’t bring himself to believe the good news God was trying to bring him because it didn’t fall in line with his beliefs, or logic, or circumstances. His wife was beyond the age of bearing a child. It was almost as if he prayed, but didn’t believe at this point in his life that God would actually answer his prayer - and it is in the midst of that unexpectedness and doubt that God showed up. 
How can we hold onto a deep belief in God’s promises in the midst of our doubts? How can we cling to the character of God we know to be true, when the answer to our prayers seem so wildly illogical? Many of us know the story of Zechariah because we have lived it - season after season of unanswered prayer. But we keep praying, keep believing that God will come through. But even as we pray, there are still doubts - for as Zechariah has shown us, even the righteous and devout have doubts. The question is what do we do with our doubts? Do we bring them before God? Do we expect God to answer in unexpected ways? Or do we only want our prayers answered in our way and in our timing? 

Zechariah was a man of patience and waiting - and yet, when the waiting was over, the time had come for his prayer to be answered, he didn’t know how it could be so - he didn’t know how to respond. Brothers and sisters, how will you respond when God answers your prayers of deep longing? Will you doubt that it could be true? Or will you praise the Lord? And how will you handle your season of waiting? Will you cling to the character and promises of God, or will you turn away from the faith? Will you keep on going - praying and doing what God has called you to do - or will you give up in disappear? Brothers and sisters, during this season of waiting, however long it may be, do not lose hope. Do not cease praying. For as Zechariah reminds us, the day when the Lord will answer our prayers may be just be coming. Amen.