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Elizabeth and Zechariah Speaking

December 2, 2018

Cate Thorn

Advent 1     Luke 1:5-8, 11a, 12-17, 24a, 57-60, 63-66, 80


Today is the advent of Advent. Advent in Christian context is, we say, a season of waiting, with expectation. It’s a religious season of waiting. A season in which we tell tale of God past, when God became in human form and also of future hope, when God will come again and the world will be put to right. We sort of know this, if we’ve been around a church that enacts this tradition. But how much sense have we of Advent’s point, its purpose in enabling us to journey deeper, to faithfully incarnate divine presence in this world. An ever decreasing number of people have any idea of Advent. Those of us who do, are we ever increasingly wondering as to its relevance? We’re often weary at this end of the year, has Advent become simply a forerunner to Christmas. We go through the motions as required, not really pay much attention. Advent’s a season to be got through rather than lived through. 


Advent, tradition reminds us, that we live in an in between time. There’s more to the story of this creation than first appears, and we wait. While we wait what do we do? It’s fair to say our patience for waiting varies, depending on our level of anxiety, our trust in the competency of the one who’s keeping us waiting, our expectation of how long is reasonable, what we’ve got to distract ourselves in the meantime and so on. While waiting I’ve heard people say they are killing time, or wasting time or spending time. In an Advent time we say we wait with expectation for … God, I guess, God to return … from? Waiting … waiting … you know it could become habit forming. Waiting could become an identity, we the God waiting, God expecting people. A people faithfully telling of and reinventing the God who was, for our time, and holding faith for the God who is yet to be, all the while not expecting to be or see God now. I wonder, really, what we’re waiting for. Maybe, as long as we’re waiting, the onus of responsibility for God being made real in time does not fall on us, it falls onto God, who came and hasn’t jolly well bothered to return yet. 


I wonder whether the time in which this story dwells, the one we tell with past and future, is not linear time at all. I wonder whether, just as Jesus declared “the kingdom of God is at hand,” the presence of God, who was and is and is to be, is at hand. Fully with us in every moment of the linear time in which we live, if we took time to notice, if we were to step into that which is.


The story of the past we tell in Advent, that culminates in the birth of Jesus, God in human form, is populated with a cast of characters. For those of us who’ve kicked around the church for a while we’ll have heard these stories many a time. We pretty much know them by rote. We know who to expect to appear, we know the part they play in the Christian narrative which centres on the miracle and marvel of Jesus, God with us, made flesh in real time. We remember who populates the story, perhaps we wonder who they were, how and where they lived, try to imagine the scenes in which they are depicted. Or perhaps we’re suspicious of the actuality of the story, did it really happen or is it a story that may not have happened this way but nevertheless is true. The role the characters assume has more symbolic significance. We have a habit of noticing, being distracted by nouns, those naming words.


When we hear nouns like Zechariah, Elizabeth, angel of the Lord, temple incense offerings, they’re not familiar to us. We have to translate them into our context so we’re distanced from the scripture before us. ”The text,” Anna Carter Florence writes “stays in its own orbit and we get to live in the ‘real world’ at a safe distance. Nouns … look good in a museum but not in our living room … “ [they] are parts of speech that allow us to isolate ourselves, draw boundaries, designate an ‘other’ and even avert our eyes as if we don’t want to look at what happens next.” [1] By contrast verbs are common across time and culture. We know what serving, entering, offering, appearing, seeing, terrifying, hearing, conceiving and giving birth are.


This Advent we decided to look at what the characters in the gospel text did, to pay attention to the verbs. Considering the text before us this way, looking for verbs meant we entered the text. Rather than it being something a sacred and untouchable other over there we had to take care considering, loaded with all the things we thought we already knew. Because we considered it differently it moved from being a set piece of Scripture, to an ‘alive script’ within scripture. Verse by verse we named the verbs and the character to whom the verb belonged. We discovered certain verbs gathered around each character. We also discovered we’d made assumptions about which characters were doing which thing based on our usual, expected reading of a familiar text. 


There was a small cast of characters, or groups, each with a particular collection of verbs. Looking at the collection before us, we found our perception of people and of the story shifted. Elizabeth gained stature and place, there was surprise at the prominence of the crowd presence and participation, it was noticed this is a stand-alone Jewish story that doesn’t need Jesus, ‘baby John to be’ is important in his own right. John was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah but also distanced, as if he was born not for them but for the community.


Elizabeth began without stature, not fruitful according to the religious rubric of her community. Yet she is chosen to bring to birth the one who will restore and rebirth the life of her religious community. Zechariah of priestly stature is silenced, it is Elizabeth who names, not in keeping with tradition, the one who will bring, renew life and hope in the community. After Elizabeth has spoken to name this new thing Zechariah regains his voice.


Elizabeth was known as barren, Zechariah as priest in a world where angel encounters were possible because of a community, the people of which they were a part. The community gave them identity. They were made persons in being part of a people, in this instance a people of God, a Jewish people of God. This story has integrity in that community, in the Jewish narrative of God presence. Zechariah, Elizabeth, John are full part players in that narrative. We make them bit part players with role to serve our story, the one we claim completes, fulfils, perhaps even supplants the Jewish story. John is a prophet sent to turn, recall the people of Israel to the Lord their God, he is not simply a preamble, a forerunner to Jesus. John, Elizabeth and Zechariah have stature without Jesus. 


We paused to look for the verbs in the Gospel passage from scripture we read today. We listened for what caught attention, was noticed on that day and to ponder together. Today I speak, and inevitably interpret, some of what the people gathered heard on that day. The process undid some assumptions, gained space for new understanding and an appreciation not so much of who was present in the drama of the script but how they were present. We listened for the script from scripture for us, as mentioned one of the things that caught attention was the integrity of this as a Jewish story. We’ve taken this story and make it Christian. We use to serve the needs of our story. In so doing have we come to colonize it, dominate it with our story? Such small piece of scripture is readily lost in the bigger narrative we insist it serves. By pausing to listen, paying attention to what was before us, it regained some integrity. We gained from this story life and deeper meaning and learned we could shift to accommodate it with its integrity. 


I wonder how many people, contexts, voices, stories, situations we filter, silence, discount, exclude or perhaps manipulate to fit our unexamined story to serve our end or that of a dominating Christian story. In so doing, do we diminish the integrity of a unique speaking into life of divine presence that may be just what we, our church, our world needs? 


We tell this Advent story with claim of the inherent potential of life that renews and enlivens because of a community who gives us identity. We don’t bestow this identity on ourselves. We need reminding that the One creating, enlivening, sustaining the world, imbues our uniqueness as gift not just for us but for the world. The blessing of fruitfulness, of being God bearers in the world is for the world. 


This Advent, how about we look out for the verbs, notice the verbs we choose to live by. How about we kill, waste, spend some time paying attention to what is before us in each moment. Notice what surprises us, what disturbs us in each encounter. Let’s not switch into automatic Advent mode. Reminisce about a story past and pipe dream hope for divine rescue in some future, all the while refusing our responsibility to notice divine presence with us, to participate in being divine presence born in every moment. Let’s seek in each moment, perhaps with expectation, to discern the potential for burgeoning divine fruitfulness in the unlikely and unexpected, in Wilf’s king of the road character, in those deemed unfruitful, in those silenced. This Advent let us pause to listen and turn, realign ourselves with divine desire for the flourishing of life.



[1] Anna Carter Florence Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ; Grand Rapids 2018, 18

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