First Sunday of Advent
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Luke 1: 5-25, 57-80
Message: Share Hope - Zechariah’s Story
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time that’s known more colloquially as “the Christmas season,” as we prepare for the birth of Jesus. For us Northern Californians, a lot of the Christmas season imagery of snow and frosty windows, lights twinkling through thin cold air doesn’t exactly replicate. Sure, it can be cold, but we better not tell any of our friends and family from the Midwest or East that when we say cold we mean that the high might be barely above 60!
So I’d like to invite you to travel back in time with me, to a Chicago winter, with lots of blowing and deep snow, about 30 years ago. It was January and I was in seminary, doing my clinical pastoral training at a hospital on the west side of the city. Sunset was at about 4:30pm. Our group of pastoral interns had just begun our rotation and were gathered with our supervisor to recieve our clinical assignments. This would be the unit and floor, with particular kinds of persons and needs, that we would spend the next several months with. It would be the focus of our training, and for those who wanted to continue as professional chaplains, would be the beginning of an area of specialization.
Each of us was asked to communicate our preferences. I was stuck. The unit that I was most drawn to was the Obstetrics and Gynecology floor. I loved the idea of working with women in an arena where the particularity of women’s experience was central. BUT I was also very nervous about being on a labor and delivery unit. It wasn’t that I was squeamish about the messiness of birth. Just about a year before this point, I had acknowledged that I was gay. And with all the joy that came with this realization and self-affirmation, it threw into question for me something that I had taken for granted before. Would pregnancy, birth and parenthood be part of my own story? I didn’t know. My feelings about being a chaplain intern in a place of new babies and new moms were complicated. I was afraid I might need to grieve what had long been a hope—to be a parent, and I didn’t want my own stuff getting in the way of others who needed a chaplain to be present to them.
I imagine there were similar moments for Zechariah and Elizabeth who we meet in our scripture today. Elizabeth is a relatively ordinary Judean woman, living in the Galilean countryside. Zechariah was her husband. At the point we meet them in today’s scripture, we learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up on having a child, but we can only guess there had been times many years before this point when they had been expected to become parents that they too, had begun to wonder if this would be part of their story. But years passed, and they had concluded that no, that was not going to be it. But then, surprise and miracle, a pregnancy. An idea that had been tightly held to, then released, comes back around. If this sounds familiar, it’s because there are other stories like this in the Bible—Abraham and Sarah, and Hannah the mother of Samuel, all longed for a child and once each had released their hold on a particular future, what they had once longed for showed up.
In those days, bearing a child was a sign of status and worth, and bearing many children, especially male children, meant financial security for the family. At first when I think of the mores and stratifications of this patriarchal society millenia ago, I feel the distance of the years and fall into thinking that their situations were so different from today. But societal expectations of women and “normative” ideas of what constitutes a family continue to create pressure and even judgment on choices and situations relating to childbirth even today.
It's so easy to get caught up in the literalness of these birth stories, just like it is so easy to be lost in the eyes and warmth of a new born baby. But I submit to you today that Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story is not so much a story about a baby as it is fundamentally a story… about hope. When I say this is story about hope, I don’t mean “hope” that they would have a baby. In fact, when I imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth as younger persons I think their longing might be more accurately termed “desire” or “expectation”. I think my own first ideas of childbearing and creating a family had much to do with desire, as in I wanted this picture, this experience, and I expected it would be available to me.
Zechariah and Elizabeth as we meet them in today’s scripture represent an orientation toward hope, of trusting in God’s presence throughout history, and the necessity of our offering our best to the future without control over it. The hope I’m talking about is what shows up when we let go of our wants and expectations. It is into this void that God can enter. The orientation of the heart that trusts that God WILL come into that void is hope.
The womb is a kind of dark void. In narratives through the ages, both darkness and emptiness have been used as metaphors for something to be feared. But the narratives of Advent, of dark and chaos and void and birth, call us to a different understanding. Cole Arthur Riley, the creator of Black Liturgies writes, “Advent, in Christian traditions, is a season that coincides with the time of year when the days get shorter and the darkness of night stretches on for longer and longer. It's a time where we make space to name our deepest sadness and fears as we wait for the belonging, justice, and liberation that is coming with Christ. We practice waiting together through the uncertainty of the dark for a promise to be fulfilled―for the light of the world to be born.
“Yet it's also a time when we hold memory for a God who dwelled in the sacred Blackness of a womb. The dark is a place of life and formation and sacred mutuality as God depends on God’s creation, Mary, to keep hope in the flesh alive. It is in the holy dark of a womb that we place all our dreams. And perhaps that's why fear can so often be found in the dark; it knows and has always known that the dark is a strategic place to colonize because of its unique capacity to bear the divine.”
Thinking back to that time almost 30 years ago in a hospital in Chicago, in January, my days began in the dark of a late dawn and ended in the dark of an early sunset. There is a reason why hospitals employ chaplains. In hospitals, we often have to face that the stories we had envisioned for ourselves may not be. Diagnoses for ourselves or loved ones create an unknown. Plans, timelines and agendas go out the window. A disorientation sets in. These are moments of crisis. As painful as these moments are, it is often at these moments that we are most able to hear God. And often we need help hearing God. Sometimes we need a bearer of this Good News who is there, ready with a word of hope. These are Kairos moments, moments where our plans, timelines and agendas give way to God’s time, to God’s hope. Hope is the exquisite emptying of ourselves to lean with joyful expectancy into a future that is not of our own making. Advent hope is the belief that the God sized hole in each of us will be filled.
The message from Zechariah and Elizabeth is that it is the letting go of our wants and expectations that allows us to hear the voices of angels among us. The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah and says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.” I have always felt like Zechariah’s story was my story—my wife is Elizabeth and the child that came to us when I released a narrative that was not ours, is named John—though the story doesn’t map perfectly—I was the one who gave birth to John not Elizabeth and we’re both two women, so maybe ours is the 21st century version California version. But I do know I am a person who had a story for myself that had to be released to enter into God’s story for me.
What story do you need to release? What of your timelines, plans and agendas are getting in the way of God’s own Kairos moments? Are you listening for the angels among you?
This is the Good News of Advent: God transforms our longing into hope, and in hope a child is born to each of us, in a story that at times makes no sense and that we could not have predicted. We cannot control this hope, we can only listen to the Good News it speaks and respond to its call. This call is the call of hope to trust in a future that is not of our own making but to which we can contribute our faithful response. In this way, we, too, can become bearers of Good News. May you hear the voice of the angels saying Do Not Be Afraid, and may you also be the bearers of Good News holding hope, leaning into hope, and sharing hope. Amen.