The Season of Advent has begun! In this beautiful season of waiting for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, may God fill our hearts and anoint our souls with hope, peace, joy, and love. As we prepare ourselves in this season, I’d like to invite you to explore with me the lives of the people we see in the nativity scene. These people usually huddle around the manger and play their supporting roles in the drama of Jesus’s birth. They are Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds. I think it is meaningful to look into their stories that are easily overlooked. Why? Because there’s something similar between their lives and our own. Of course, their lives were quite different from ours. Unlike us, they met the angels who delivered messages from God. And they lived their lives as the firsthand witnesses of Jesus. But, beyond these differences, I believe, we still are very similar to these people because we are also taking part in the grand narrative of God’s salvation history.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds…are not the main characters in this narrative; nonetheless, their lives, like our own, ultimately point to the one character whose birth changed the whole world. Yes, Jesus. If they waited for the advent of Jesus at his birth, we wait for the advent of Jesus on the day of the Lord that all God’s promises are finally fulfilled. In this way, Jesus’s light illuminates all of us through centuries. And Jesus’s life weaves all our lives into the common thread of faith. So, the things that Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds did as they were waiting for Jesus two thousand years ago are still very meaningful to us who are waiting for him today. We have so much to learn from them by reflecting on their stories and the messages of the angels they delivered to them. Keeping this in our minds, today, I would like to take you to the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
The Gospel tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going through a hard time. They almost lost their faith and hope. Zechariah is a priest, but it is so difficult for him to remain faithful. It’s not just him. His people, the people of Israel, are also hopeless and helpless. God has been silent to them for more than four hundred years. There has been no sign. No angels. No prophets. No messages. The last prophet they had was the Prophet Malachi who delivered prophecies over four centuries ago. Look at today’s Hebrew Bible reading, Malachi, Chapter 4. This passage is the very last chapter of the entire Hebrew Bible; the Old Testament ends with this passage, and this passage is followed by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, in the New Testament. So in our Bible, the prophecies of Malachi and the stories of Jesus in the Gospels are side by side. But chronologically speaking, there’s a gap of about four hundred years’ time between them.
Making matters worse, during God’s silence, Israel had continued down a path of suffering and persecution, failed revolution and lost war. Most people scattered in all directions of the conquering nations. Some had come back to the land with Nehemiah. But other powerful nations came and savaged the land and the people one after another. And now, the people of Israel are under the rule of the Roman Empire. So every day Zechariah walks in the temple, built by Herod, the ruthless king of Israel, he sees the Roman flag waving in the wind, high above his homeland. Looking at this situation, Zechariah is losing his faith and hope for God’s deliverance. How long, oh, Lord!
His despair is getting bigger and deeper at home with his wife Elizabeth. She has been unable to bear a child. It was especially difficult in the first century, when the fertility was seen as a direct sign of God’s blessing. At this point in their lives, they completely lose their hope. They expects little from God. On the outside, Zechariah may appear to be a holy priest. But on the inside, it’s a different story. His faith has gradually withered away and he just keeps and performs rituals as mere religious habits. This old man and his wife dream no more dreams. They are losing their faith and hope in their private anguish.
But to this broken-hearted couple, into the midst of their despair and sadness, God’s message of hope suddenly comes. One day, as Zechariah enters the sanctuary of the Lord and offers incense, there appears to him the angel Gabriel. And he says, “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…. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With 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” (Luke 1:13-17).
For Zechariah and Elizabeth, this is the moment when their days of suffering and doubt are gone. They will have a son. And their son, John the Baptist, will be a forerunner, a prophet who reflects the light of Jesus. God is faithful indeed, they realized. God never forgets them. In fact, the meaning of the name Zechariah is, “God has remembered.” Truly, God has remembered Zechariah and Elizabeth.
And this moment is meaningful not just to this couple but to all God’s people. The angel’s message means that the promise of God delivered through the prophecy of Malachi is going to be fulfilled. In fact, Gabriel’s word to Zechariah clearly repeats the prophecy of Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). The angel says to Zechariah that this promise of God is going to be fulfilled by his son, John the Baptist. After four hundred years of silence, God’s plan of redemption now begins to unfold. The day of the Lord, the day of new life, is coming with the Messiah. Finally, the light shines through the darkness. Amidst a downtrodden people, a new day is dawning. Truly, the God of Jacob neither sleeps nor slumbers. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the faithful believers of God praise God for this.
Faithful friends in Christ, from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I hope we may remember this one thing today. God is faithful to us and God remembers us. Although we are living our lives in this broken world full of troubles and suffering, God never forgets us. God never overlooks the righteous people’s struggles and their silent sighs and anguishes. Even when we feel like God is silent all the time to us, even when our prayers seem never heard, even when it looks like our lives always go down a path of hardships, we should not give up on God. As God made a way for Zechariah and Elizabeth, and for all God’s people, God is with us today and unfolds history in our lives following God’s own timeline and plan. In this Season of Advent, as we await the coming of Jesus Christ, let us hold onto this truth that our God is always faithful to us and remembers us. May God be with all of us who want to learn how to be patient and yet confident and look for Jesus, the light of the world, the prince of peace. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim