First Advent: Two Men –  Two Responses to the Miraculous  

Luke 1:5-25 and Matthew 1:18-25

November 29, 2021

We spend so much of our time in Advent rushing to get to Christmas that we don’t often spend time considering what was going on in the lives of those people mentioned in the set up leading to Jesus’ birth.

Yet, as in so many other scriptural texts, if we take our time, we can see ourselves in the lives of those who have gone before us and learn a bit more about them – and us.

So, to begin:

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus 

Zechariah was a ‘righteous man of God,’ a member of the family of Abijah, the eighth division of 24 priestly castes established centuries before by King David himself. You would think Zechariah would have felt blessed…..but not so much…..

He and his wife, Elizabeth were beyond the age of childbearing so there would be no heir to carry his name; no heir to carry the family’s priestly duties into the next generation. 

Yet, Zechariah knew his scripture. He knew about the ancient patriarch, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah. According to scripture, that couple had been old and childless, too, but if God blessed them with a son, Isaac, why not Zechariah and Elizabeth?  

So Zechariah prayed – for years he prayed. Yet, Abraham and Sarah lived so long ago – maybe God no longer responded to such prayers anymore. What if prayer was just something people did – nothing more than the desperation of self-talk. It may have looked that way to Zechariah; but he kept it up…after all, couldn’t hurt…..

Put yourself in Zechariah’s sandals:  

  • What would be your mindset as you went into serve at the Holy of Holies that day?  
    • Just doing a job-going through the motions- or something else?
    • Do you miss the blessing of this sacred privilege because the desires of your earthly heart are on other things – an heir!
  • Would you really believe the God of Abraham has the same plans for your future – a legacy for your life?  What proof would you need?
  • You know the scriptures, but do you know the power of God in your own life? 

Amid this apparent life of disappointment, Zechariah received an unexpected blessing.  

It was time for his priestly group’s rotation to serve in the Holy of Holies and offer incense on behalf of the people – a once in a lifetime opportunity – the pinnacle of a priest’s religious life!  And Zechariah was selected to serve. A privilege and blessing in and of itself.

But as the scripture recounts the event, while Zechariah was serving within the inner sanctum, an angel appeared to affirm that the old man’s prayers have been heard.  

Zechariah doubted. Zechariah rationalized.

God apparently hadn’t stepped into history for 400 years, yet now, God has stepped into Zechariah’s life in a humanly incomprehensible way.  

How does a person wrap his head around such a thing…..?

Could you? 

Do you attempt to explain away the miracle, or perhaps argue against God’s active presence in your life and any such encounter is nothing more than wishful thinking or an overactive imagination…maybe just the voices ‘in your head.’

Because of the man’s pushback, the angel rendered the old priest silent…

And then comes the irony:

Zechariah’s service in the temple that day was to conclude with his emergence from the Holy of Holies to pronounce a blessing on the people gathered outside.

But Zechariah could no longer speak.

He could neither bless the people, nor share the angel’s promise of his personal blessing with his wife, Elizabeth.  

How can you bless people in the name of God when you refuse to receive God’s blessings for yourself?

Of course, Zechariah has to do ‘his part’ in order for the blessing to be fulfilled, this is not an immaculate conception, after all, but his assumptions of God’s ability to bless him only within the context of human rationality and his need for proof (assurance) are things he will silently process through over the next 9 months or so.

So process as Zechariah: 

  • How would it feel to still be an instrument in the hands of God after expressing such doubt in divine power?
  • How would it feel to be rendered voiceless, unable to share what God is doing in and through you as part of God’s plan for the future all because you tried to deny that such divine power was possible in your own life?
  • How would you feel if, for nine months, you were silent…..then the baby – your legacy -comes. He won’t carry on your name but the name the Lord decided on…. this is a big deal.   
    • If God names the child, the child belongs to God!
    • Can you continue a life of submission to the Divine decision of naming and claiming after you regain your voice or reassert your own control?  
  • How is your voice to be used now, Zechariah?  
    • Do you go back to the old ways? 
    • Or do you respond in praise and a changed life for God’s glory?
  • Does the birth of your son give you the wisdom to believe in the coming of the Messiah you have long studied?
  • Or will you find a way to explain these events away and continue to limit God even as the child of witness grows up before you?

Now think about all of this in the context of your life.

  • How do we choose to limit God’s power to what we can understand within our own human context?  
  • When we pray, how seriously do we take our communications with God?  
  • Do we pray with hope or just mumble words because ‘it’s what we are supposed to do?’
  • Do we attempt to explain away the miraculous as impossible or rest in the knowledge of the limitless, all-powerful God? 
  • How many blessings have we not been able to share with others because our doubts have silenced us?

As you reflect on Zechariah, consider that perhaps the first life changed by the birth of Christ was that of one of God’s priestly members.

++++

Now on to Joseph– not as long a reflection – not as many questions – but perhaps much more accountability for our own lives as we consider this man’s life in light of our own. 

,Joseph was a working man – a carpenter.  Unlike Zechariah, Joseph was not a ‘religious professional.’ 

Yet, Joseph was known to be a righteous man, descended from the house of David; the line through whom the expected Messiah would come. 

Things were particularly oppressive for the Jews at that time.

They were oppressed by a far off pagan emperor in Rome; ruled locally by Herod, a cruel, highly political Idumean-Jew  (not a real Jew by devout Jewish standards). Consequently, uprisings were frequent as self-proclaimed messiahs and revolutionary leaders were not hard to come by. The people wanted relief – they wanted freedom – they wanted to rule the land of God’s promise unimpeded by non-believers!  They wanted a strongman messiah to make things right.

In the midst of it all, Joseph kept his head down and looked forward to his upcoming wedding to a young girl named Mary. 

Though he was of the royal house of David, Joseph had no delusions of grandeur and didn’t seem to have a messianic bone in his body. His life was planned out: worship God and follow the teachings of his religious leaders to the best of his ability, get married, raise a family, and work hard to provide for his family. 

But, these well-ordered plans hit a snag.

Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant. 

Betrothal back then was more than the engagement understandings of our 21th century world with the whole bended knee and offering of a ring thing frequently playing out on social media. Joseph’s parents had contracted with Mary’s parents to arrange the marriage; betrothal was the equivalent to being married, but without sexual union.

Mary’s unexpected pregnancy and the fact that Joseph wasn’t the father, was devastating.

But, still, Joseph was a righteous man.

He would ‘do the right thing’ for Mary even though she obviously hadn’t done the right thing herself! Mary had shamed him. Joseph would be a laughingstock in the community. Mary had shamed her own family; they obviously hadn’t raised her well or this wouldn’t have happened!  

No one would ever look at Joseph, Mary, or her family with respect again. Mary deserved to be shamed herself, after what she had done!

But Joseph was a righteous man.  

He wouldn’t publicly humiliate her.  He wouldn’t have her banished from the synagogue and the village.  He wouldn’t have her stoned to death; he would divorce her quietly.

Perhaps she and her child could begin again somewhere else – doubtful, but at least Joseph would leave the door open for that possibility.

Try to live in Joseph’s heart and soul for a minute:

  • How would it feel to know that even though you have lived a righteous life, a well-thought out and planned out life, you have been betrayed and now your life was a mess?
    • What is your heart telling you to do – punishment is the law, even though the law is sometimes just thinly veiled revenge – are you going to be lawfully vengeful?
  • How would it feel to know that you are going to follow the law but temper it with mercy?
    • Will such a decision cause you to become self-righteous and priggishly prideful?
    • Will such action prove you are ‘truly righteous’ – truly law-abiding, but a ‘cut above the rest’ because you seek to control your hurt and anger?

Remember, Joseph was a righteous man.

But sometimes righteousness is not enough. 

God was calling Joseph beyond the law of righteousness.  

God was calling Joseph to a greater law – the law of merciful love and compassion.

God wanted Joseph to see beyond the worldly obvious and into the divinely miraculous, to see beyond human assumptions of what should be in order to perceive the holy expansiveness of what could be.

Marry the girl, Joseph!  Name the child, Joseph!  Claim this baby for your own by naming Him and bringing Him into the human lineage of the house of David.  The Child is Mine, but I am entrusting Him to your care!

So process Joseph:

  • How would it feel to realize that even though you have chosen to do more than was expected under the law, your choices are still not enough?
  • How would you judge yourself – yes, yourself – by realizing that you had misjudged someone – that the obvious is not always the reality?
    • What would it feel like to see another through the eyes of God?
    • To see others as vessels of the divine light of God?
  • How would it feel to realize that God is calling you deeper into the divine life?  Deeper into holy and merciful love?
  • Would you ever be able to ‘name and claim’ the rejected as your own?  As part of your family? As part of your life?

In the Matthean passage, Joseph never speaks a word.  He only dreams a dream, hears the compassionate voice of God, and responds in obedience.  

Joseph is indeed a righteous man!  

Joseph participated in the miraculous in ways beyond human comprehension, but well within the mind of God!  And his life was forever changed!

We may have ‘been in church’ all our lives – worked in church – followed all the rules and participated in all the rituals, like Zechariah. 

We may have tried to ‘go above and beyond’ in our journey of life, like Joseph. 

But have we been open to the miracles and the workings of God in the lives around us?  In our own lives?  Two Men – Two Responses to the Miraculous – Which would you choose?

In this season of Advent, what if we chose to be open to the possibility of becoming yet another life changed by the coming of Christ?  

Here’s hoping you find some time to reflect with me this Advent season – would love to get your thoughts on one or both of these men!

And to God be the glory! AMEN.

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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