prophets of a different story
a short Advent sermon for inside the women's prison
… there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was descended from the daughters 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.
Once when he was serving as priest before God during his section’s turn of duty . . . there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. But 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. … even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…
…..Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know that this will happen? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The 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. But 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.” - Luke 1
In our Gospel for today Zechariah – who’s this old priest dude – a was just sort of going about his business in the temple when he is visited by an angel. Which sounds nice - having angels visit you. But just to be clear, we aren’t talking the little chubby baby angels of bad Hallmark cards. . . or the kind faced angles in paintings who all look like they just took a couple doses of Xanax. No man, angels in the Bible are terrifying. They scare the bejesus out of people. I mean, why else would the very first thing out the mouths of every single angel in the Bible be “don’t be scared!”, like their heavenly employee manual says, never attempt to deliver your message from God until you have completely calmed the human down first.
So anyway, the arch angel Gabriel visits this old guy Zechariah – and he told him this totally bonkers thing: he said that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth would conceive a son named John (spoiler alert: it’s John the Baptist). As in, Zechariah’s very old, very barren, wife Elizabeth.
And instead of just shutting up and nodding his head deferentially when a terrifying angel delivered a message from God, Zechariah did what I’m pretty sure I would do…Zechariah thinks he knows better and so he questions the angel’s authority. He’s like, Um, are you sure because seriously…my wife is old….like, OLD old.
To which the angel says “human, please!” and - don’t miss this part because it’s amazing – the angel then proceeds to made Zechariah completely mute until all these things had taken place like the angel said they would. It was like a nine month talking time-out for Zechariah - which is actually kinda awesome, because imagine if every time a man questioned what was possible for a woman to do, their mouths were shut for nine months. Think how much would get done and in such a quiet setting!
But this week when I stopped thinking such snarky thoughts about him, I started to wonder why exactly Zechariah didn’t believe an angel who came to him saying that God was giving him and his wife a child - the one thing they had prayed so long to get.
And here’s the thing: I wonder if Zechariah was reluctant to believe this good news that Elizabeth would bear a son not because he thought he knew more than both God and angels – I wonder if Zechariah was reluctant to believe this good news that Elizabeth would bear a son because he thought he already knew his own story. I mean not that I blame him, I can’t imagine I’d be any more faithful than he was, I mean I’ve said it before - I know I suffer from the disease of alcoholism but what I feel I really suffer from is a disease called First Thought Wrong. So, you know, I feel for Zechariah.
But the point is that I wonder if Zechariah also had First Thought Wrong because maybe he had become so comfortable with the story he told himself and that others had told him about what his life looks like and what it will always look like and so he couldn’t believe another story was even possible.
Maybe he was so used to him and Elizabeth being the “childless old couple” that, even as he prayed for children, he had actually foreclosed on any other story ever really being possible for them. So, I wonder if maybe his enforced period of silence was actually what allowed him to receive a new story.
Because as his elderly wife’s belly grew large with a miracle child - he couldn’t say a word, he just had to receive it. As Elizabeth’s kinswoman Mary visited and told of the child she herself carried and as Zechariah’s child leapt in Elizabeth’s womb - he could not say a word, he just had to receive it. As the transgressive fecundity of God that would change the entire world grew in the unlikely wombs of an old lady and a virgin teenager - he could not say a word, he could only receive it. It was as though God said “you want to see what I am about? Well then…Shut the hell up about your old story and receive this new one”
Maybe that is an invitation for us as well, that we too could take opportunities to just be quiet and listen for a new story or maybe just a whole new way of understanding the old one.
I know there are stories about who I am and what I’ve done and who has hurt me and what I deserve – there are those stories of mine that are so totally worn smooth by my re-telling of them that I no longer think to ask myself – are they the most true thing? Or could the facts – like the actual facts of my life be reassembled to tell a different story that is equally true and maybe makes me less of a victim or at the very least makes me less miserable.
And is that also true for you? Because maybe that old story of who you are and what you’ve done and who has hurt you and what you deserve is simply not the final edition. Maybe your old story is one destructive relationship after another and maybe the only reason that’s your story is because that’s what your mom or dad did and it’s all you know. Or maybe you are so much older than people normally are when they realize they are gay and for decades you’ve tried unsuccessfully to be straight not knowing that anything else was possible. Or maybe your old story that you think is fixed in stone is that you aren’t someone who has real faith, or who has anything to give or that you are someone who is so strong you can’t show any vulnerability. Or maybe your story is that you don’t really deserve to be well-loved.
But maybe when our opinions and neurosis and pride and expectations about who we are and what we’ve done and who has hurt us and what we deserve die down…maybe when we just shut the hell up and sit in this quiet of Advent we might begin to see where something else is possible. Something holy and waiting to be born in an unlikely time and place much like the birth of Jesus itself.
What was the Christ event if not God telling this faithless and heart breaking world that a different story is possible. Telling us that God was, God is and God will continue redeeming all of creation through means that we would never come up with …though means like pregnant old ladies, and messiahs born amongst sheep and straw and loving the enemy and forgiveness of sins and self-giving love and resurrection of wounded bodies.
These are things we just can’t perceive when we are too busy telling worn-ass old stories about ourselves and others and the world itself.
It was a gift really…this muteness of Zechariah’s. Because in his silence he got to see a story unfold around him that he never could have come up with himself.
So maybe when we silence the narratives about ourselves and others and the world itself that run on repeat in our heads, that we have believed were the truth for so long, we get to embrace the terrifying beauty of what’s possible without what’s possible being imprisoned to what’s come before.
Which means that even though I did all that explaining at the beginning of the service about what Advent is – at its core, Advent is an invitation to be prophets of a different story.
So may you, every single one of you, be prophets to each other - prophets of a different story – a better story, a more hopeful story, a subversively beautiful story about what is possible this Advent season – a story worthy of you all as daughters of a king. Amen.
Get in on this.
If you’re curious how it is I have the gall to not preach from the Revised Common Lectionary as I have faithfully done for my entire career - click here.
In the film "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" the Judi Dench character says one of my favorite things ever: "All we know about the future is that it will be different. But, perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same." This sermon reminds me of that. Thank you.
My husband is going through transformations. I bring up stuff he has done in the past waaay too much. Silence is what I need and he needs!