This is the first of three sermons on the theme of an alternative Advent. The introduction to this sermon explains the reason this is an alternative Advent series rather than simply an Advent series. I delivered this sermon in person in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The next two sermons were recorded there for the congregation to watch. The other readings that I selected for this message were Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7.
An Alternative Advent (Sermon Audio Link)
You may have heard of an Alternative Christmas where instead of giving someone a gift you make a donation in their honor. Think of these next three Sundays as an Alternative Advent. The passage that I’m preaching today and the first part of the reading for the third Sunday aren’t even in the Lectionary—let alone in the Lectionary during Advent. So it’s possible that you’re acquainted with this story but never heard a sermon on it. Everyone here is familiar with John the Baptist. Not all of the Gospels tell us about the birth of Jesus but they do all begin with something about John the Baptist. That’s because the people of God in those days awaited an alternative advent. They were looking for the advent of a prophet who would prepare the way for their Messiah. In other words, they expected someone to come to help them get ready before the Messiah arrived. They anticipated a prophet in the mold of Moses and Elijah. Indeed, if they heard our passage today they’d think of Moses. I preached here earlier this year on Exodus 2 saying, “Yes, Moses was on an ark.” Exodus 2 tells us a Levite married a Levite and she conceived and bore a son and after she couldn’t hide him any longer she put him in an ark and placed that ark in the water among the reeds where Pharaoh’s daughter found him and adopted him as her own and she explains the meaning of Moses’ name, saying, “I drew him out of the water.” Indeed, Moses is known for the great baptismal Exodus Event where the waters of the Sea of Reeds parted and Israel walked through that sea on dry ground. So a Levite man and a Levite woman have a son known for baptisms who prepares the people for the Exodus Event at the Sea of Reeds. Yes, those who first heard today’s passage about John the Baptist thought of Moses but they also thought of Elijah. Elijah was one of the most important of the prophets in Scripture and the message of the Prophets, the second part of the Hebrew Scriptures, can be best summed up with the idea that there would be a new Exodus Event. Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11) and his cloak fell to the prophet Elisha who then struck the water of the Jordan River with it and the waters parted and Elisha walked through on dry ground (2 Kings 2:14). But the Prophets ends, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of YHWH comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter desolation” (Malachi 4:5-6). Thus before the arrival of God Himself, the people expected the advent of a prophet like Moses and Elijah who would prepare the way. Luke says:
You can endure anything and everything with a hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord.
An elderly Elizabeth may have never imagined she would bear a great prophet, indeed one the Lord would call more than a prophet (Luke 7:26), but she endured her reproach of childlessness with a hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord. Her childlessness comes as a surprise to the reader. When we hear a Levite married a Levite we expect it to say she conceived and bore a son as happened in Exodus 2. Furthermore, Luke tells us Elizabeth and Zechariah were both righteous before God and walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord. So we are even more ready to read that she conceived and bore a son. Instead, Luke says they had no child because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. In other words, (1) she was unable to have any children and (2) she has passed what doctors now call menopause and is therefore physically incapable of having children. But I’m sure you’re all familiar enough with the Scriptures and familiar enough with the God of the Scriptures to know how a story might end when it begins with a barren woman who is a righteous woman and a worthy wife and a fatherless man who walks blamelessly with the Lord like Sarah and Abraham and other such couples. And thankfully this alternative advent passage ends as you’d hope saying Elizabeth conceived. But, of course, she wouldn’t show right away. So she hid herself for five months until her pregnancy would be undeniable. God had already taken away her reproach among people when she conceived so she took herself away for those five months and waited. Thus no one would mistake her for barren and she would not have to unfairly endure further reproach before she showed. Expectant elderly Elizabeth’s hopes were not dashed—her hopes for an alternative advent were fulfilled beyond her wildest dreams. But first she had endured her reproach for decades upon decades with a hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord. (And, no doubt, when her husband Zechariah was called up for duty in the Holy of Holies she had offered hopeful prayers for that reproach to be removed).
Zechariah, who was praying inside the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and the people, who were praying outside the Temple, also endured hardships with a hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord. First and foremost, Zechariah was fatherless. And God could have sent the angel Gabriel to let Zechariah in on the plan for him to become a father at any time, but it was fitting that God chose to do so when Zechariah was offering incense within the Holy of Holies at the pinnacle of his priestly career. Moreover, verse 10 adds, “And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” That whole multitude, each person with their own hardships, were praying with hopeful expectation for the coming of the Lord. And then verse 11, “And there appeared to him [that is, to Zechariah] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” And this angel told him the standard, “do not fear” and then said that Zechariah’s prayer for an alternative advent had been heard. It was “your [singular] prayer has been heard.” Now Luke wants us to connect Zechariah’s prayer and the prayers of the people outside, but he also wants to be clear that the proclamation of the coming conception of John was an answer to Zechariah’s prayer for an alternative advent. And, furthermore, the angel tells Zechariah that “many will rejoice at his birth.” (Thus Elizabeth and Zechariah, and, no doubt, the faithful praying outside as Zechariah was serving were enduring their reproach with a hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord.)
The whole point of the Advent season is to help us to endure our own trials and tribulations with a hopeful expectation of the return of Jesus Christ just as the faithful saints of old endured their trials and tribulations with a hopeful expectation of His coming. This alternative Advent story teaches us to do so. We see an elderly childless couple who lived to see that alternative advent as well as the first advent of Christ. A Levite man married a Levite woman and their son of their old age is known for baptisms—indeed, he is the prophet who prepares the way for the coming of the Lord Himself. Zechariah and Elizabeth, in their old age, became the parents of a new Moses, a new Elijah, a prophet who will actually be greater than all those who have gone before him. And just as Moses prepared the people for Joshua who went into the Promised Land, and Elijah prepared the people for Elisha who received a double-portion of the Spirit that was on Elijah (2 Kings 2:9), so too John the Baptist, in the spirit and power of Elijah, would prepare the people for Jesus the Christ. It is not an accident that both Joshua and Elisha, types of Christ, parted the waters of the Jordan River and went into the Promised Land. And just as the people of old lived in hopeful expectation of the return of Elijah and the coming of the Lord God Himself, we too live in hopeful expectation of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. (It is because we have a hopeful expectation of His return that we can endure anything and everything.)
And until Christ’s second advent the people of God point one another and the world to Him.
The main reason that we want to jump straight to the conception and birth of Christ Jesus during Advent is that John did not come to promote himself but to point to Jesus. Truly, the conception and birth of John the Baptist is not some ancient historical event that is irrelevant to our lives today. But rather, the reason many rejoiced at his birth was as the angel told Zechariah, “he will be great before the Lord…and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” The reason this alternative advent matters to you and me is that John, even from the womb, pointed people to Jesus. To be sure, part of the reason we want to skip straight to Christ is that the miraculous conception and birth story about John is overshadowed by the conception and birth of Christ Jesus to a virgin. In other words, the alternative advent of the prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah is dwarfed by the significance of the advent of the Lord Christ Himself. Likewise, we want to skip to Jesus because in life John the Baptist was overshadowed by Jesus the Christ. But again, John did not come to promote himself but to point to Jesus.
And yet the good news began with the announcement to Zechariah that his elderly wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child who would point people to Christ. Zechariah had a hard time believing even this good news. So much so that he asked the angel for a sign. And the angel gave him one – Zechariah was made mute. Already the people outside had been wondering what was up because Zechariah had been inside for so long, but when he finally came out he could not speak to say the standard blessing on the people. It is a humorous scene because here is Zechariah asking for a sign and the sign that he gets is one where he will have to go outside and make signs to the people because he has no voice. This is not the first time that muteness has been a sign to the people in Scripture, but this time Zechariah has good news and no way to say it.
God does not want you to be silent about the good news that Christ is come and is coming again. He wants you to share this good news. As you enter into the story of Scripture during this Alternative Advent you are among the many who rejoice at the news of John’s birth. You rejoice in anticipation of celebrating Jesus’ birth. You rejoice that He’s coming again. And so like John did, God is pointing people to Jesus through you—to help other people be prepared for Jesus to come again. Thanks be to God. Amen.