Fourth Sunday of Advent: Waiting Like Zechariah

Perhaps the question most characteristic of Advent is, "How long, O Lord?" It isn't a question that only comes up in a verse or two of scripture, but it gets asked in various forms more than thirty times in the Bible. Take these examples, just from the Psalms:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? (Psalm 74:10)

Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! (Psalm 90:13)

How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me? (Psalm 119:84)

We are certainly in good company when we ask the question of God, whether during Advent or any other time. Yet there is an accompanying version of the question that we should pose not to God, but to ourselves: How long are we willing to wait? How long will we remain faithful if it seems that God continually remains silent?

One reason that I'm pretty weak when it comes to waiting on God is that, while I think it's a good thing to wait through the kinds of practices we explored in the first week, I seem to have an unstated time limit on how long I'm willing to do so before I place my demands on God that he take notice and respond. That kind of limited waiting isn't really what it means to wait on God, because we still have things according to our own terms. On the other hand, when I think of the lives of those I've known who have had the kind of life with God I desire, they seemed to have developed an ability to wait on God without any limits, whether it meant months, years, decades, or even an entire lifetime.

Luke introduces us to a person like this in the beginning of his gospel:

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. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. (1:5-7)

Being described as "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" is high praise from Luke for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They had lived good, faithful lives before God, and they had done so for a very long time. Yet through decades of waiting on God through their prayers, their service, and their obedience, God had been silent. Elizabeth was barren in a culture in which that was considered a disgrace. God was not only quiet in regard to their personal struggles, but God's old promises to their ancestors continued to be unfulfilled. How could God bless all of the nations of the world through the family of Abraham when they were continually oppressed, generation after generation, by one brutal empire after another? Would the real heir to David's throne ever appear and deliver them?

In spite of their faithful waiting on God, God had left Zechariah, his family, and his people in a painful place for a very long time. Yet Zechariah continued to offer his prayers and wait, year after year, with no apparent reward.

How long are we willing to wait? How long will we remain faithful if it seems that God continually remains silent?

If we read through the remainder of the first chapter of Luke, we see how Zechariah's normal routine of serving and waiting on God was burst into by the angel Gabriel one day while he was giving the incense offering in the Temple. Zechariah was told that God had heard his prayer, and that he and Elizabeth would have a son whom they were to name John. Zechariah may have been devoted and faithful, but he still didn't find difficult things easy to believe, and thus he was unable to speak from that day until the promised son was born, when contrary to what his friends and neighbors assumed, Zechariah insisted, "His name is John."

N.T. Wright points out the parallel between Zechariah's silence while waiting for John's birth and what was happening in Israel at the time: God and his prophets had seemingly been silent––not just for the term of a pregnancy, but for centuries. But now, at the birth of a baby, God's word was about to come again in unprecedented and unforeseen ways.(1)

Upon the baby's birth and naming, Zechariah regained his ability to speak and gave a prophecy of his own which Christians through the ages have found worth repetitive reflection for increasing our understanding of who both John and Jesus were and what they did. It's found in Luke 1:67-79, and is worth stopping to read now if you're able.

It's a remarkable vision of what God was about to do through these two baby boys, and it reflects how Israel's long period of yearning for their King was about to be met. It says that the old promises of God to his people were about to be fulfilled, that they would be delivered by a descendant of David, and it also points to ways in which the deliverance will extend beyond political freedom, even reaching into the shadow of death itself:

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel... He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David... that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. ...[He has remembered] the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days. ...By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

For our Advent waiting, it's also helpful to consider what Zechariah's words reveal, not only about John and Jesus, but also about Zechariah himself and how he became the kind of person who could wait on God with such faithfulness throughout his life. Along with what Luke had already mentioned about Zechariah's consistency in the face of God's silence, the words of this prophecy also reveal the depth to which Zechariah had studied and pondered the Hebrew scriptures. He knew the story in which these two boys were going to play major roles, and it's a safe assumption for us to think that the depth to which he had reflected on the scriptures formed the substance of his ability to continue to hope in the midst of God's silence in his own life, plus the centuries of agony of his own people.

So, we can wait like Zechariah by doing the kinds of things he did: praying, soaking our minds in the scripture's story of how God has worked throughout history, and letting that story shape our hope regardless of how long God seems to be silent. Wright describes Zechariah's example well: "God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind."(2)


A Prayer for the Day:

O God, you make us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of your Son our Lord: Give us this day such blessing through our worship of you, that the week to come may be spent in your favor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) See N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, 19. (2) Ibid., 8.